When Cranbrook's John Austwick planted his first few rows at Craigie Knowe, neighbours and passers-by shrugged their shoulders in disbelief.
"People used to say to me, 'you're mad, John, wine grapes will never grow here on the East Coast.
"I was seen as a bit eccentric back then," the retired Hobart dentist recalls of his pioneering exploits in the district.
"But that was 1979," Austwick adds with a wry smile.
"I suppose it did seem a bit mad at the time. Not anymore."
Nowadays, there are around two dozen vineyards scattered up and down the coast, from Sterling Heights and Priory Ridge at St Helens to Darlington, overlooking Orford.
They don't all have cellar doors, but collectively they account for around 20 to 25 per cent of Tasmania's annual wine grape harvest.
A lot of top-notch wine has been produced in this picturesque part of the world since Austwick's first vintage yielded 11 bottles of 1983 Cabernet Sauvignon.
And with vines up and down the coast now looking resplendent in their summer leaf canopies, this is a perfect time to head out onto the Great Eastern Drive to taste a veritable smorgasboard of grape varieties and wine styles.
Producers have been glad to see fresh faces in recent months.
Tourism ground to a halt there in mid-2020 due to the impending pandemic.
Data published by Tourism Tasmania show that since 2016 the Great Eastern Drive Touring Route has been among the State's top three tourist destinations.
The region welcomes visitors with stunning ocean views and larders chock-full of quality produce from renowned farms and fisheries.
Juicy berries and more-ish ice creams are in plentiful supply right now.
So too are the professionally managed, COVID-safe food and wine experiences that operate here seven days a week.
After being isolated from the public for three months of 2020, Priory Ridge co-owner David Llewellyn is optimistic about the future of the vineyard and cellar door he and his wife Julie operate just outside St Helens.
"Before the pandemic, our cellar door trade comprised 40 per cent overseas visitors, 40 per cent interstate visitors and only 20 per cent Tasmanian," he says.
"But with locals being unable to travel overseas or to other parts of the country, since late winter we've seen people getting out and about doing Tasmania instead. The period between July and Christmas was really good. That's continued on into the new year. The popularity of mountain-biking in and around Derby has also helped to improve visitor numbers. Our cellar door trade has been very good, actually."
The former State Labor MHA and his wife began their Tasmanian wine foray in 2008.
Priory Ridge was established on land formerly known as Tarpot Farm.
The 20ha property had been in Julie Llewellyn's family for more than 120 years.
Today, the cellar door houses a marvellous collection of memorabilia marking the pioneering endeavours of the first families to settle this part of north-east Tasmania. Be sure to drop in if you're travelling nearby.
Freycinet Vineyard is another producer feeling optimistic about 2021.
Winemaker Claudio Radenti says this time last year, many sites up and down the East Coast were on the receiving end of a double-whammy from Mother Nature.
Subjected to drought in 2018 and for much of 2019, the subsequent late summer and autumn months of early 2020 were characterised by persistent high rainfall.
"The early effects of the drought were just relentless," Radenti explains.
"Our crops last vintage were down by around 30 to 40 per cent in some varieties. The incredibly small berries and small bunches gave us some beautiful fruit for winemaking. But we certainly had to work hard to stay ahead of the disease pressure we saw mounting as harvest approached."
"The East Coast is certainly a place of extremes," says Cranbrook farmer and Gala Estate proprietor Adam Greenhill.
He and his Amos family forebears have devoted almost 200 years to growing crops in the district's parched and bony soils.
Resilience is an under-rated quality in a wine grower - the ability to shrug off recent setbacks and move forward to the next vintage.
Perhaps that explains why many of the best wines on Tasmania's East Coast come from sites and families that have been there the longest - the Greenhills and Amoses at Gala; the Lynes at Spring Vale; the Cottons at Kelvedon and Lisdillon; and the Dunbabins at Milton.
But you can be the judge of that.
To gain the most from visits, download the 2021 Wine Guide from winetasmania.com.au and check details with individual operators.
Cellar door capacities will be limited.
PICK OF THE CROP
2018 Priory Ridge Sauvignon Blanc $30
David and Julie Llewellyn's Priory Ridge outside St Helens features a rustic but attractive cellar door, showcasing the district's rich history. The property's carefully managed, north-facing 6ha vineyard enables Sauvignon Blanc to develop considerable richness on the vine.
This 2018 wine is generous and full bodied, setting it apart from the styles associated with Marlborough in New Zealand. Made by AGV's Brian Franklin, it's an amalgam of ripe flavours, smooth textures and top-quality French oak. Carrying 14.5 per cent alcohol with ease, it is better suited to white meat dishes than sipping in the sun.
2018 Spring Vale Estate Chardonnay $42
When Spring Vale released its first wines in the early 1990s, it quickly developed successful grape-growing and winemaking strategies for its Estate Pinot Noir. Its white stablemate, meanwhile, has played hard to get over the years, seldom reaching the heights of the property's rich, sumptuous red. But recent changes in block allocations and winemaking are paying dividends.
This is the best Estate Chardonnay I can recall - smooth, refined, and white nectarine flavoured. Supporting French oak and fine natural acidity allow the wine to flow serenely across the palate. Top marks for hitting the 13 per cent alcohol target. Good stuff.
2020 Craigie Knowe White Label Pinot Noir $30
When wine industry pioneer John Austwick first planted Craigie Knowe at Cranbrook, he had aspirations of it being Cabernet country. Little did he realise Pinot Noir would ultimately provide wines to lure enthusiasts to the district in large numbers. Now in the hands of the Travers family, the Craigie Knowe label is returning to top form.
This simply delicious, early drinking Pinot Noir is among the best of its current crop. The wine is juicy and vibrant, offering surprising intensity and length of flavour for its price.
Red cherry and cherry liqueur flavours have a lovely glossy dimension. Mmm...
- Mark Smith wrote his first weekly Tasmanian wine column back in 1994. He continues to chart the successes of the state's small scale, cool climate wine industry with contributions to some of Australia's leading industry publications.