You can savour a meal with a view at Saffire Lodge’s dining room.Most wine tastings start with a bottle being uncorked. Today, we’re doing something a bit different. We’re drinking straight from the barrel.
Barrel tasting is a normal part of the winemaking process: it’s how winemakers keep track of the wine as it matures. “At certain times in the process, I’ll be doing a barrel tasting once a month,” explains Brian Franklin, the winemaker at Apsley Gorge Vineyard.
Barrel tasting is not something you get to experience on most winery visits; but then, this is no ordinary winery visit. Apsley Gorge, located at Bicheno on Tasmania’s east coast, is an acclaimed boutique winery. It is also not open to the public. Unless, that is, you are staying at Saffire, the luxury lodge just down the road. Saffire is known, among other things, for the range of complimentary experiences included in its room rate – anything from a visit to an oyster farm to eat oysters straight from the sea, to a close encounter with Tasmanian devils.
The Apsley Gorge Wine and Barrel Experience is one of the latest additions to the lodge’s portfolio.
There are a number of surprises on store in this visit. The first is the winery itself. A small building perched directly on the edge of the sea, it looks more like a fishing shack than a winery. In fact, the building once housed a fish factory. Which is appropriate, as Brian Franklin, the winemaker and owner of Apsley Gorge, is himself an ex abalone diver.
“I got too old for it. It’s a young man’s game,” he says cheerfully, explaining his unusual career change. “There’s a lot more money in fishing, but a lot more fun in wine.”
Like many Tasmanian wineries, Apsley Gorge is a small concern – growing just 5.5 hectares of grapes – but it has established a good reputation since its first vintage in 1993. It makes just two wines, a chardonnay and a pinot noir, but both can be found on the wine lists of some of the best restaurants in Australia. The wines are also sold to Britain, Singapore and Japan.
Chardonnay and pinot noir are both typical Burgundy wines. As Franklin clambers up a step ladder to reach the top of one of the 1200 litre barrels – drawing the wine with an oversized pipette, which he then empties into large glasses – he tells us that he spends two months a year in Burgundy, helping make the wine at the respected Domaine Charlopin winery. Domaine Charlopin operates on the principles of natural winemaking, which Apsley Gorge also follows.
“It’s a very hands-on process, clearing the vines to ensure the quality of the fruit, picking according to the phases of the moon,” Franklin says. “They use a natural process, relying on the natural yeast on the grapes and on natural malo-lactic fermentation, which is the same way we work.”
We taste our first barrel sample. You don’t have to know a lot about wine to tell this chardonnay is going to be an elegant, drinkable wine. First, however, it will sit a bit longer in the oak barrels Franklin has imported from France. Barrels are essential to the winemaking process but they have a limited life span. “Old barrels don’t let as much air in – they clog up a bit – so they need to be replaced,” Frankline explains. He buys between 30 and 40 new barrels a year. Each one costs more than $5000.
As we move on to taste the pinot noir – another elegant wine, with some lovely spicy notes – Franklin says that choosing the right barrels is an art in itself.
“I remember the 2002 vintage in Burgundy, we used seven different barrels from seven different coopers,” says Franklin, explaining that the barrel type helps influence the final flavour of the wine. “Some of the barrels were made with fine grain wood, some were made with extra fine grain. Some were medium toasted, some were heavily toasted, some had the ends toasted, some didn’t have the ends toasted.”
From barrels we move on to bottles, finishing our visit with a more conventional tasting of the currently available wines. Having tasted a version that is still maturing, it is fascinating to try the finished product and experience the deeper, more complex flavours that develop during the ageing process.
Our education in Tasmanian wine doesn’t stop there. Thanks to the lodge’s remarkable cellar, a stay at Saffire is a great way to get a crash course in local wines.
“Tasmania is producing great wine,” says Hugh Whitehouse, Saffire’s executive chef who also sources the wines for the lodge. “We are famous for our chardonnay and pinot noir, but there are other fabulous wines. Our best sparkling wines, like the ones from Arras and Bay of Fires, are absolute classics.”
I start my voyage of discovery with my mini-bar – happy in the knowledge that all the beverages, including one of Tasmania’s acclaimed whiskys, are free of charge. The wines are rotated regularly; at Whitehouse’s recommendation, I make a point of trying two Glaetzer-Dixon wines, a clean, citric riesling called überblanc and the Avance pinot noir, which has rich cherry flavours followed by deep mocha notes.
The in-room wines are just the start. Saffire’s all-inclusive approach includes meals and beverages, and with a stock of around 500 labels – “we’re constantly adding new ones,” says Whitehouse – there is plenty to choose from. Whether it’s a pre- or post-dinner drink or a degustation dinner accompanied by matched wines, guests get to try unusual drops such as a Clarence House Estate Pinot Noir and a Milton iced riesling. Those who are feeling flush can choose from the list of premium wines (available at an additional cost), including one of the best selection of Penfolds Grange vintages I have seen in a while.
There is, however, one thing you may struggle to find on the menu: that Australian favourite, sauvignon blanc. “I only have one sauvignon blanc on the wine list,” says Whitehouse. “I’m always trying to push boundaries. If someone loves New Zealand sauvignon blanc, I’m going to encourage them to try a Tasmanian Riesling – they’ll find they love it.” TRIP NOTESMORE INFORMATION
Jetstar, Qantas and Virgin Australia all fly to Hobart and Launceston. Saffire is located at Freycinet, about two-and-a-half hours drive from Hobart and about two hours from Launceston. STAYING THERE
Saffire’s Three Night Sojourn package includes three nights in a luxury suite, meals and beverages, complimentary experiences including the Wine and Barrel Experience, a complimentary Sparkling Cruise Signature Experience, and a $100 credit at Spa Saffire. The Three Night Sojourn package starts at $1750 per night. See saffire-freycinet上海龙凤419m
The writer travelled courtesy of Saffire and Tourism Tasmania.