The risk when a helicopter is in the mix is that the mode of transport might overwhelm the other elements of the tour. That scenic bubble delivers the best available views, not to mention the drama of the entrance, where you have the attention of everybody within hearing distance.
Fortunately this tour and its destinations are equal to the transport. The helicopter wine hop, organised by James Welsh, co-owner and sommelier of Stillwater, the Launceston restaurant and boutique hotel, visits Sinapius and Apogee vineyards in the Pipers River region before landing for lunch at Ghost Rock in Tasmania’s north-west.
“We chose three producers close to Stillwater’s heart,” Welsh says, another reason being they were producing “some of the most exciting wines on the market.”
After a briefing from pilot Jack Smith, we lift off and within minutes the city slips away and we have views over the bush and ranges, all the way out to Bass Strait with Flinders Island and the Furneaux Group islands in the distance.
Our first stop would have been about a 40-minute drive from Launceston, but we’re there in what seems like 10 minutes. Smith finds some flat ground and soon we’re greeted by Linda Morice who created this vineyard with her late partner, Vaughn Dell.
Their vines of pinot noir, chardonnay and seven other varieties run down the hills in rows so tight, Dell imported a skinny vineyard tractor from Europe to help out, but a lot of what goes on here seems to happen by hand.
There’s a rustic cellar door, the obligatory vineyard dog and, even though it’s time I’d usually be taking coffee, out comes the big spittoon and in come the white wines. Even to my novice palate, these are very good. Then comes the estate-grown, Austrian-style La Peau d’un, created from grüner veltliner grapes. In their words this is a wine “with grip and grunt… with a really satisfying tightening through the finish.” Couldn’t have said it better.
On we go, eventually arriving at the 2016 Enclave pinot noir, a stunner of a red, even at 11:15am, “On the nose, this wine is brimming with sweet red fruits, wood smoke, earthy minerality.”
A few wines down and up we go.
The Sinapius cellar door is open Thursday to Monday, a tasting costs $15 (buy six bottles and you get it back). See sinapius.com.au
It’d be a 15-minute drive, but in our machine it takes minutes to hop from Sinapius over to Apogee, home to Andrew Pirie who is to Tasmanian wine what Miles Davis was to the trumpet. He seems to play it just as well.
We land at the bottom of a paddock and Pirie wanders down and, after a few words of greeting, picks up some dirt to show us what it’s all about – “it’s ironstone, makes the clay porous,” he says.
He looks for regional similarities and right here, he says, at 210 metres altitude and with some coastal influence, a connection is with the Dundee Hills in Oregon, on the US West Coast. Must note that if ever I see the Dundee Hills on a wine list.
Apogee (the word means “zenith”, or “highest point” in both French and English – just as well in the wine game) is a concentrated two hectares of plantings, but from that, Pirie makes around 15,000 bottles of wine.
Before our first tasting, he shows us how to disgorge a sparkling wine. Not any old fizz either – the Apogee Deluxe Vintage Brut 2016 tops the charts with many authorities, near and far.
We settle on the deck with a platter of Tasmanian produce and taste Apogee’s “big four”, the Brut 2016, the Deluxe Vintage Rose 2018, the Alto Pinot Gris 2020 and finally the Pinot Noir 2019, limited to 2000 bottles and with “such a delicate style, similar to southern Burgundy.”
Always learning, researching and improving his industry, Pirie says he was was part of the decision to keep Tasmania as one region, “but regionality will unfold. Tasmania is surprisingly different in climatic conditions from east to west and north to south.”
He’s now working with spatial scientists and using certain climatic parameters “has been able to put a circle around sub-regions.”
Cellar door and tastings by appointment, see apogeetasmania.com
Back in the whirlybird and we’re heading for the coast, flying low over Baker’s Beach on the edge of Bass Strait towards Hawley Beach and Port Sorell, as though on shark watch (happy to report none were sighted).
After the small plots of Apogee and Sinapius, Ghost Rock takes it up a step, with 27 hectares of plantings, but second-generation winemaker Justin Arnold puts it all in perspective: “Tasmania makes one per cent of Australia’s wine and we make three per cent of that one per cent,” he says.
While our other two wineries were in the Pipers River district, this one is in the Cradle Coast, about a five-minute drive from Devonport Airport or 10 from the Spirit of Tasmania’s dock in Devonport (or 20 minutes from Launceston by helicopter).
There are two labels here – the more avante-garde Supernatural and Ghost Rock for more traditional estate grown wines.
Out on the terrace in the sun, before lunch we tasted the Ghost Rock 2017 Zoe Brut Rosé, admiring its “wild berries and floral … creating a truly moorish, fresh palate.”
We make our way through the whites and a rosé to the 2020 Estate Pinot Noir (sorry, it’s sold out) which was every bit the “delicate, perfumed wine displaying cool climate clarity, texture and length” that Arnold claimed it to be.
Why the name Ghost Rock? This land was once on the bridal path from the town of Shearwater to the nearest post office at Wesley Vale and it’s said the horses were spooked as they rode past the hill here.
And just like that, lunch is finished, the tastings done, we farewell Ghost Rock and are up in the air and heading back towards Launceston, the countryside unfolding like a movie beneath us.
Open Thursday to Sunday for wine tastings and lunch, bookings required. See ghostrock.com.au
This is a tour for wine enthusiasts, learners like me can still enjoy it, but the connection with these three remarkable wineries and their winemakers will be most appreciated by aficionados. The tour is available to Stillwater Seven guests and includes wine tastings at the three wineries, a cheese platter at Apogee and lunch at Ghost Rock for $1400 a person.
Rooms at Stillwater from $495 a night, including breakfast. 2 Bridge Road, Launceston, Tas. Phone 03 6331 4153. See stillwater.com.au
Jim Darby was a guest of Stillwater.