It takes all of two minutes into our walk through the barren vineyards of Jansz Tasmania for me to find myself silently pleading with vineyard manager Jen Doyle to hold me tight and never let me go. The winery – located on the north-east coast of Tasmania within the Pipers River region of the Tamar Valley – is dramatic in its beauty, yet so close to Bass Strait that the mid-winter chills blowing up over the
25,000-acre vineyard are slowly freezing my face. I can barely speak, much less conduct an interview.
“It’s cold, isn’t it?” Jen says as she continues to stroll like it’s springtime in the Bahamas. (I later discover she grew up on a beef cattle and cereal cropping farm near Tamworth, New South Wales, and has worked across the country in a variety of wine industry jobs, so she is well-versed in all things freezing.) Although the vines are threadbare at the moment (grapes are picked in March and April), leaves will begin to grow soon, followed by fruit in November or December.
There is one question that occupies me, however: are they crazy to be growing grapes in such an unforgiving environment? “Actually, it’s the perfect climate to grow our grapes,” Jen tells me as our noses turn blue. “Our close proximity to Bass Strait moderates temperatures here so that the wind you’re experiencing keeps frost away in winter, and provides a cooler ripening period in summer, which allows the grapes to ripen slowly and develop intense, yet refined flavours,” she says, adding that the climatic conditions in the Jansz Tasmania vineyard rival that of famous French wine region, Champagne. “Actually it was with a little French contribution that we became Tasmania’s first sparkling using the traditional méthode champenoise,” Jen admits. “But we call ours ‘méthode tasmanoise.’”
The ‘we’ Jen speaks of are Louisa Rose, head of winemaking at Jansz Tasmania, and Maxine Harris, wine room and events manager. Maxine greets us with steaming hot bowls of scallop risotto as we hurry in to sit in the warmth of Jansz Tasmania’s impressive wine room and cellar door, which was renovated by Crawford Sherman Architects in 2003 and is filled with artworks from local artists. The three women make a formidable group and represent the changing face of winemaking in Australia, which has traditionally been a male-dominated industry.
“It’s a sign of the times more than anything else,” says Maxine when I press her on the issue. “We all certainly had the interest in wine and the wine industry, however, in previous generations, the industry – like all other agricultural industries – was inflexible with maternity leave and of course the time pressures women faced with juggling work and a family were extraordinary.”
Happily, this is changing. The proportion of female oenology graduates at two of Australia’s oldest schools for winemakers has doubled in the past 20 years and enrolment rates are at their highest ever. “I think you’ll find women are actually quite suited to the industry, because we tend to have attention to detail, patience and a real emotional connection to the process,” says Jen, who admits to becoming teary when she sees a vine produce its first-ever grape. “You feel it as a proud mum and I think this emotional connection is expressed in our sparkling wines.”
Maxine agrees, adding that one of her favourite parts of her job is tailoring the wine tasting experience for each person who walks through their wine room. “I always try to get to the bottom of what they’re looking for – knowledge, experience, or the art of pairing food with wine, and I’ll perhaps set them up with a picnic blanket out on the lawn and do the tasting like that,” she says. “Perhaps it’s that motherhood instinct but at the heart of it, I want people to feel that special connection we have with the wines.”
Established as ‘Heemskerk’ (so named after Abel Tasman’s ship) in 1975, the region caught the eye of esteemed Champagne house Louis Roederer, with the striking similarities between its hometown and the Tasmanian region. And so, together with the owners of Heemskerk, Jansz Tasmania spent the mid-’80s planting classic varieties of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir and adapting the traditional méthode champenoise to suit the location. In 1997, the Hill-Smith family purchased the vineyard and has since steadily worked to put Jansz Tasmania on the global map.
But what makes Jansz Tasmania special, I ask them, between mouthfuls of their delightful Late Disgorged Vintage Cuvée. The Tamar Valley is known as a terrific wine-producing region, so what is it about their vineyard and product that makes it stand out? The question is an honest one, but Rose bursts into laughter in response.
“My goodness, if I could answer that 100 per cent, we’d have cracked one of the great questions of winemaking!” she says before explaining that the vineyard entirely depends on terroir – the influences it has from the soil, climate and weather, but also its people, history and culture. “Our vineyard obviously makes us unique – you can’t replicate what we have anywhere else in Australia – but also it’s our attention to detail,” she says, explaining how her team work to preserve a grape’s ‘Tasmanian-ness’ by harvesting each grape by hand so that they aren’t damaged, and pressing them ever-so-gently so they don’t end up with any ‘hard’ flavour or colour.
“We’re not precious about what we do – once the fermentation process takes place, a non-vintage bottle might be stored for two to three years and a vintage bottle stored for up to eight, but we don’t make our wines to be put up on a pedestal,” says Rose. “We just want them to be enjoyed with friends over a good meal and we want to have fun getting to that process.”
Jen agrees, adding that one of the things she’s most proud of is the commitment to sustainable farming practices. “As an industry, we’re all looking to move away from traditional broad-brush herbicides and insecticides, and at Jansz Tasmania, we’ve been steadily incorporating cultural practices such as canopy management and introducing predatory insects to control the pests. It’s more work, but the outcome is better for everyone.”
One question remains, however – which sparkling wine is their best? Maxine is quick to jump in: “People always come in and say, ‘I’ll try your best one’ but I always say, ‘The best one is the one you like best.’ That’s the great thing about wine – it doesn’t have to be any more complicated than that.”