Thursday, February 18, 2010

Tasmania is a little island at the end of the world

Tasmania is a little island at the end of the world.

A 9-hour boat ride separates Tasmania from the rest of Australia, and perhaps this isolation – as well as Tasmania’s unique climate and history – gives Tasmania the feel of being in a different country.

While mainland Australia consists of desert expanses, monsoon torrents mixed with severe drought, and is intersected by the Tropic of Capricorn, Tasmania is made of rolling green hills, grey granite cliffs, and is intersected by the 42nd parallel – the same line of longitude that comes close to the Canadian border.

The air in Tasmania is the cleanest in the world – scientifically stated. It is the benchmark against which all other air is measured.

An air monitoring station sits on a cape on the west coast, measuring the quality of the air that travels the longest uninterrupted expanse of ocean in the world. The winds blow in from South America, carried east across the ocean for thousands of uninterrupted miles, hitting Tasmania with full force and earning it a nickname as the land of the “Roaring Forties,” a reference to the longitude.

This climate is ideal for growing berries, olives, walnuts, wine, and raising sheep, goats and cows for producing gourmet cheeses and local yogurts.

And so, in addition to the endless camping and hiking that makes Tasmania famous among outdoor enthusiasts, many visitors come here for the wine tastings.

We started our visit to Tasmania with a tour of the Tamar Valley wine region. Most cellar doors were what you’d expect – open, breezy rooms with hardwood floors, oak-barrel furniture and floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the vineyards or the river.

But one winery was different.

The door is locked when we approach, and we assume the winery must be closed. But a chubby man with a torn black t-shirt appears in the window. He looks to be about 30 and his curly hair is unwashed and oily. He unlocks the door and it swings inwards.

Loud rock music playing as we walk in. A long-haired guy is breaking down piles of cardboard boxes. To our left is a blackboard covered with curvy chalk writing, resembling the menu in a college-town sandwich shop.

The man clears about a dozen empty beer and wine bottles off the desk.

He doesn’t even try to describe the wines. Most wine-tasting hosts say, in slightly pompous and well-heeled tones, “Now let’s start with a Brut Cuvee,” but he began rambling about the time he spent making wine in Oregon and how it showed him that the American political system is screwed.

“I mean, really,” he says as he absently swings some Riesling into a glass, “why do the majority let people get away with not having health care?”

Then he abruptly switches topics.

“You know, you gotta watch for the animals when you’re growing grapes here,” he says as he pours something white and sticky from another bottle without checking the label. “Two years ago, I lost $30,000 worth of crops to wallabies. To wallabies! Can you believe it! They just find their way into the fields and chew up enough crops to pay for a house. You gotta watch out for them. Watch for kangaroos, too. They’ll really mess your crop.”

He pours himself a small drink.

“Some people catch them and drive them over to a competitors field and let ‘em go there,” he tells us. “Business is nasty. But there’s good people, people who trap the wallbies and the kangaroos and drive ‘em out into the country, 60 kilometers away, and let them into the wild.”

He’s switched to red wines now, though he still won’t mention anything about it.

“But I still don’t like live trapping,” he says. “I prefer to shoot the roos.”

He was a window into the young, hip, Generation Y side of winemaking, the kind of winemaking that’s armed with a rifle, listens to an iPod and has no pretentions about what the critics are saying about Bordeaux this year. He loves the chemistry of winemaking, the calculus of soil, wind and water, and the machinery through which it’s processed.

We camped that night under the Batman Bridge, which crosses the Tamar River, which divides the two sides of the wine valley. “Look at us,” Sara told me, “sleeping under a bridge. We’re going to wine tastings all day and sleeping under a bridge at night. In America we’d be considered homeless. Here we’re just called travelers.”