Kendall Hill assesses the boutique reputation of the Tamar region on a four-day degustation tour.
It's a big call, granted, but the best potatoes I've tasted were seymour golds from Dunalley in Tasmania. They were cooked with a little sage, thyme, garlic and butter and served at Daniel Alps at Strathlynn, a scenic riverside restaurant in the Tamar Valley. They tasted like sunshine, which is odd given they grow in the dark.
In that same valley, I tried an excellent '09 gewurztraminer from Goaty Hill vineyard that smelled like musk sticks and rose petals and I sipped sparkling whites that brought to mind their supposedly superior French counterparts. (I'm hardly the first to make this link but decades ago the French champagne house Louis Roederer helped establish what became the Jansz vineyard at Pipers Brook.) As an added bonus, I stayed in accommodation that was tasteful, historic and stylish all at once.
Almost everywhere you turn in the Tamar, there is food, wine and accommodation of a quality that surprises - especially given Launceston, the urban heart of the region, has a population of barely 100,000. But perhaps the answer lies in the words of Dr Andrew Pirie, the pioneering Tasmanian winemaker and passionate local. "Living in a wine district imposes certain responsibilities on the residents," he explains. "Normally, one has to eat better food than average because wine districts have a better culture of food than would otherwise exist."
Pirie maintains that vineyards have a "civilising" effect on their surroundings and anyone who spends a few days touring the Tamar would be inclined to agree. This is the ideal domestic food destination - a gorgeous rural setting handy to the bright-ish lights of city life, inhabited by enthusiastic growers and cooks who take an innate pride in delivering memorable food. There's wine on tap (more than 70 per cent of Tasmania's output is produced here) and watery views that bring to mind somewhere in greenest Europe but with an unmistakable Australian flavour to the attitude and surroundings.
My journey starts in Devonport, fresh off the ferry from Melbourne, though an influx of budget flights has put Launceston Airport in easy reach of all the eastern capitals. From Devonport, it is a brief drive to Latrobe, world platypus capital and home to the House of Anvers, where you can feast on fine European-style chocolate for breakfast. Belgian-born chocolatier Igor Van Gerwen has been making chocolate in Tasmania for 20 years and raves about the state's pristine dairy products. "The biggest advantage we have over Europe is the quality of our dairy," says Anvers marketing manager Nick Sallese. "Ours is always going to be fresher than European chocolate and we think it's also better tasting."
Ordinarily, you wouldn't make a habit of mixing chocolate and wine in the morning but, in these parts, it's difficult to deny such pleasures. So I head to Tamar Ridge Wines, where Pirie is chief winemaker and a keen advocate for a region anointed by Decanter magazine last year as "one of the important emerging wine terroirs in the world".
Pirie founded the Pipers Brook vineyard in 1973 (it's now owned by the Belgian Kreglinger group) and has devoted years to scientifically researching the optimum conditions for making the best Tasmanian wine. While his day job is at Tamar Ridge, he has his own plot in the valley where he tinkers away at viticultural perfection. "The whole region is now the heart of the wine industry in Tasmania," he says. "And it is starting to deliver the goods in terms of wine quality and the whole package - wine, food, scenery. That's what we do particularly well."
Lunch at Daniel Alps at Strathlynn proves his point. That overused foodie phrase "paddock to plate" comes into its own here; Alps can point to where he sources his prized Eversley cherries or Pilot Station calamari. Most suppliers are within easy reach of this vineyard restaurant beside the meandering Tamar River.
"It's an amazingly easy journey here," Alps says as we snack on his home-baked bread with Lentara olive oil, made by two retired school principals at nearby Exeter, north of Launceston. "Everything just seems to happen. Everyone works together."
After spending more than a decade nurturing small growers to provide the finest ingredients for his stand-out dishes, Alps now showcases their wares at his new food store, Alps and Amici, in upscale East Launceston. He hopes the range of seasonal fruit and vegetables and take-home meals will alert people to the bounty that's here on their doorstep.
Later that afternoon, I check into TwoFourTwo, an early 20th-century bakery in Charles Street reborn as serviced apartments. Owners Katie and Alan Livermore have created three chic boltholes equipped with little luxuries (Gaggia coffee machines, iPod docks) and high-end timber furnishings designed by Alan. His spiral staircase in the duplex Bakehouse suite is both work of art and labour of love and typical of the fastidiously finished suites. There's also a small shopfront selling local artists' works and a selection of special Tasmanian wines.
At Stillwater, a landmark Australian restaurant in a converted mill beside the Tamar, co-owner Rod Ascui updates me on the latest news in the north as we dine on scallop sashimi with cauliflower puree, palm sugar and wakame.
There's the $3 million refurbishment of the historic Lake House at Cressy, now owned by Virgin Blue co-founder Rob Sherrard. It's due to be relaunched this year as a grand guesthouse, perfect for the rich folk flying in to play golf at Barnbougle Dunes - the new links-style golf course, a sort of St Andrews-Sur-Bass-Strait that's attracting enormous interest among the plaid-wearing set. The owner is a local farmer, Richard Sattler, who plans to open a second 18-hole championship course on his property this year.
The Stillwater crew have also been busy. They've installed a wine bar overlooking the port and, in town, they've opened a steak place called Black Cow Bistro in the old Luck's butcher shop. It's a buzzing space dedicated to serving the finest Tasmanian beef, including wagyu from just up the road at Longford.
The next morning, I take a short break from the table to glide through the forest at Hollybank. Some adventurous entrepreneurs have strung flying foxes between the treetops there, an idea they borrowed from Costa Rica but one that works perfectly well in the eucalypt forest above the Pipers River.
Two guides send several young families and me sailing among the canopy at speeds up to 70km/h on runs as long as 400 metres. It's a great natural high.
Both Andrew Pirie and Brand Tasmania deputy chair Kim Seagram (also a Stillwater owner) attribute much of the Tamar's dynamism to mainland migrants arriving with money, ideas and enthusiasm for their adopted home. "There are some really interesting people coming into the community," Seagram says. "People who are willing to share and put personal time into developing a vision for what we want for the region."
Among them are the six Victorians who set up the Goaty Hill winery on old grazing land at Kayena 11 years ago and now produce award-winning rieslings and pinot noirs. And Grant Hunt, whose Anthology group runs the Cradle Mountain and Bay of Fires walks from Quamby Estate, an 1830s homestead rescued from ruin and reborn as a sophisticated hotel.
Not everyone riding the Tamar wave is a newcomer. Czech refugee Josef Chromy was 20 when he fled his war-torn homeland in 1950 for the sanctuary of Tasmania. Sixty years later, he presides over an empire that includes the picturesque and ultra-modern winery bearing his name and a multi million-dollar hotel and apartment complex in Launceston called The Charles, due to open this year. During a lively Friday lunch at his vineyard - with great food and wine, naturally - this former butcher explains how he first got involved in grapes in 1994, working to develop the Heemskerk, Jansz and Tamar Ridge labels.
"When he first invested in the wine industry, people thought he was just a man with a big fortune who was going to make a small one," says Josef's grandson, managing director Dean Cocker. "But he is a shrewd businessman and one of the few who has made a lot of money from the industry here."
On my final night in the region, I check into the Red Feather Inn at Hadspen, a Georgian-era coach house first licensed in 1845 to the unfortunately named Grace Sprunt. Its latest owner, Lydia Nettlefold, has given the place an extreme makeover, transforming the complex of antique sandstone buildings into a five-room French-style provincial inn with lovely gardens, 15 minutes from Launceston. Alessi wall clocks, crystal-drop chandeliers, framed French linens and covetable local artworks are drawn together under Nettlefold's expert eye. It's a most unexpected and tasteful transformation of one of the state's pioneer buildings and further proof that Dr Pirie is right: it's all very civilised in this pocket of Australia.
Kendall Hill travelled courtesy of Tourism Tasmania.
Virgin Blue flies to Launceston from Melbourne for $69 and from Sydney, $109. Jetstar flies from Melbourne for $59 and from Sydney, $100. Tiger Airways flies from Melbourne only for $28. Fares are one way, including tax. The Spirit of Tasmania ferry departs Melbourne nightly for Devonport (and vice versa), from $110/$148 for a seat/cabin (11-hour trip). Phone (03) 9206 6220, see spiritoftasmania.com.au.
Twofourtwo, 242 Charles Street, Launceston, rooms from $205. Phone (03) 6331 9242; see twofourtwo.com.au.
The Red Feather Inn, 42 Main Street, Hadspen, rooms from $295. Phone (03) 6393 6506; see redfeatherinn.com.au.
Quamby Estate, 1145 Westwood Road, Hagley, rooms from $150. Phone (03) 6392 2211; see quambyestate.com.au.
House of Anvers, Belgian chocolate factory, wicked breakfasts, 9025 Bass Highway, Latrobe. Phone (03) 6426 2958, see anvers-chocolate.com.au.
Tamar Ridge, 1A Waldhorn Drive, Rosevears. Phone (03) 6330 1815, see tamarridge.com.au.
Goaty Hill Wines, 530 Auburn Road, Kayena. Phone 1300 819 907, see goatyhill.com.au.
Daniel Alps at Strathlynn, 95 Rosevears Drive, Rosevears. Phone (03) 6330 2388.
Stillwater, open Mon-Sat 8.30am-midnight, Sun 8.30am-4pm, Ritchies Mill, 2 Bridge Road, Launceston. Phone (03) 6331 4153, see stillwater.net.au.
Hollybank Treetops Adventure, 66 Hollybank Road, Underwood. Phone (03) 6395 1390, see treetopsadventure.com.au.
Josef Chromy Wines, 370 Relbia Road, Relbia. Phone (03) 6335 8704, see josefchromy.com.au.