In Tasmania, the island south of Melbourne off Australia’s southern coast, finding an open log fire isn’t as easy as you’d think. It’s pretty bloody cold in Tasmania this time of the year. Hiking through the rugged beauty of the state lends itself well to sitting by a fire and drinking. The problem is that fires cause pollution, and the greenies in Tassie are getting people to trade their fireplaces in in exchange for 500 dollars. I can’t explain my obsession with trying to sit by a fire or get a room with one. All I know is I wanted one, and part of the reason for my firestarter inklings had to do with the crystalline natural beauty of Tasmania.
The coastline along the Tasman Peninsula is as dramatic as any I’ve ever seen. The ocean has torn it down over time and the face of the cliffs resembles a cut piece of steak. Taking in the cold wind and the salt spray begins to chill your bones after awhile. The best fireplace award goes to the New Sydney Hotel in Hobart. It’s a great pub in the old Irish sense of the word, and they stuff the fireplace to the gills. Fortunately, the Taswegians also make a lot of good wine and the seafood is some of the best around; especially the oysters and mussels. Winter means big fat mussels and firm crisp oysters, and I had more than my share of both. Everywhere we ordered oysters, the waiter would point out the window when I asked where they came from. Places like Norfolk Bay, Bay of Fires, and Moulting Bay were just a few of the standouts. I had three different mussel preparations. Mussels in a dill curry coconut broth with asian greens and rice noodles from The Mussel Boys was perfect. Amulet in N.Hobart also had a superb preparation stewing the bivalves in local apple cider and cream with house cured fish and Thorpe Farm pink eyed potatoes. This one was washed down with a 2006 Chartley Estate pinot gris, one of the prime examples of delicate aromatic whites from the Tamar River region up north. Also a difficult wine to get your hands on, many people were giving their eye teeth for a bottle.
This island is known for making cool climate wines, both finely etched whites and smokey pinot noirs to accompany the fresh fruits of the sea and the wonderful venison and lamb. Cabernet and shiraz don’t fare so well here, it’s too cold, but pinot noir seems to love the long, cool dry summers. We had a beautiful pinot from spacious Three Wishes Vineyard up north in the Tamar, all chocolate mint and cinnamon. I think the best of them, however, came from near the Freycinet Peninsula, home of Wineglass Bay, along the East Coast. Brian Franklin’s Apsley Gorge Pinot Noir was one of the best. He established a winery in an old fish factory at The Gulch in Bicheno. With superb views over the ocean and the fishing boats bringing in fresh harvest of lobster and scallops the winery has to be one of the most spectacular in the world. Franklin is passionate about his pinot and chard, and he spends a few months every year helping Phillipe Charlopin harvest and vinify in Burgundy. His wines reflected his zeal, the pinot soft and sensuous, the chardonnay all lemon curd and toffee.
As my friend Nicole and I moved around the Eastern half of the island, we gathered information about good restaurants, wineries, and lodgings. This was the best way to go, since we met fellow wine and food lovers that relished the chance to point us in the right direction. In fact, Tasmania’s a pretty small place when you come right down to it, and especially when you narrow it down to food and wine destinations. Quite often we ran into the same people two or three times in different places.
It was pretty amusing. One of the places we heard about from various sources was the Blue Bell Inn in Sorrell. We were to arrive later in the evening and had requested a fire to warm up by after a day out in the elements around Port Arthur. We got there a little later than we expected, and the owners, Marlene and Barry Gooding, tried to ask us politely to pass on the fire, since they wouldn’t be able to sleep well if they knew that a fire was blazing upstairs. I couldn’t be dissuaded and the New Yorker in me came out. “Marlene, I hear what you’re saying, but for 150 bucks, we’re going to light that fire.” And we did.
Fortunately, I wasn’t too rude, because Marlene became a wonderful guide for us, pointing us towards Angasi Restaurant to the North on stunning Binalong Bay (I’ve seen water this blue in Greece, but never this cold) and the Banc Restaurant in Swansea. And everybody knew the Blue Bell Inn, as well.
At the Banc, where we first tried Apsley Gorge, the owner, Lee Bailey, gave us the number of Mandy Burbury. This is a perfect example of how friendly and helpful the people are. Mandy is a wine lover who consults and writes in Swansea. She met us the next morning and actually interviewed Nicole and me for her newspaper column she writes for Tasmania Country. I hope she found us interesting. The house she lived in was one of the oldest on the island, built in the 1830s, and was still in pretty good shape. We spoke of the rising tide of interest in Tassie wines. She seemed to be in a position to help the small producers, since many of them had no idea how to market or export their wines. She also got us in touch with Brian Franklin, one of the partners in her export comany and Apsley Gorge winemaker. I look forward to doing some business with her. She also suggested we visit the artisan winemaker, Dr. John Austwick, at Craigie Knowe winery.
Dr. John Austwick is a former dentist turned winemaker and the kind of guy you love to meet. Iconoclastic to say the least, Austwick has been around the block a few times and runs a loose, quirky and totally self sufficient winery. Craigie Knowe wines are pinot noir and cabernet, the latter which he shapes into the Bordelaise style. In his opinion, Bordeaux, like the 82 Lynch Bages, are the best wines in the world. We smelled a couple of whites he had in stainless steel barrels that were shocking, but he really does make nice cabs, and the pinots were as perfumed and lacey as any Chambolle. I noticed an old dog-eared copy of Emile Peynaud’s “Knowing and Making Wine” lying open on his table. As we left him, he rolled a cigarette, informed us he now has his first internet address, and that we were welcome to return anytime: just honk.
A few days later as we walked along the Hobart waterfront, Nicole bumped into a McLaren Vale winemaker, Peter Dennis, and his local sales rep in Tassie, Mick. We sat down for a coffee, and we told them of our travels, hitting close to 30 wineries and some of the best hotels and restaurants in the state. Nick laughed when we mentioned Craigie Knowe. Apparently Dr. John was his dentist as a child. He never used novocaine, and Mick said the experience was so painful that he hasn’t been back to a dentist since. As he said, “John Austwick is a much better winemaker than dentist.” How odd to meet one of his patients so randomly, but that’s Tasmania for you. There’s a running joke on the mainland about inbreeding on Tassie, which may be true, but it does feel like everybody knows each other somewhere down the line.
Everybody knows everybody else’s business here, and should you one day visit this pristine island, you will see what I mean. Just remember to bring your electric blanket.