With overnight temperatures often falling below 5°Celsius during the past week, Dr Andrew Pirie admits the pleasure of drinking award-winning sparkling wine can seem somewhat surreal when you're starting work just after sun-up and there's a day of pruning ahead of you.
But the renowned prestige sparkling winemaker wouldn't have it any other way.
"After spending many years running large vineyards, it's great to be hands-on again with this Apogee project, growing my own grapes, tending my own vines," Pirie says.
"Being able to take control of all the key steps is the ultimate in winemaking."
Cool mornings can be expected at this time of year. But when they are followed by distinctly dull days for much of January and February, that's a different matter.
"The Pipers River district experienced the wettest summer in 20 years," the man from Lebrina notes.
"It was also the coolest summer in 10 years. Fortunately, a burst of warm weather around Easter accelerated ripening and conjured a large crop of perfectly ripened wine grapes at harvest. Put simply, it was an exceptional vintage."
Achieving great outcomes from challenging seasons has become almost par for the course for the Pipers Brook Vineyard founder. That wasn't the case 40 years ago.
When Pirie and his brother David first planted vines back in 1974, they modelled much of their viticulture on practices then in use in northern France.
"Pipers Brook was one of the first close-planted vineyards in the modern Australian industry," Pirie says.
"The theory was that if we could establish a vineyard site in Tassie that was climatically and viticulturally similar to Burgundy and Champagne, then we might expect to get similar results in terms of fruit and wine quality."
But what looked good on paper was problematic in the district's rich red dirt.
"While close planting achieves improved yield and quality on the poor calcareous and gravel soils of France, on the richer agricultural soils of Australia it can lead to shading, lower yield, and lower quality fruit than with traditional plantings," he adds.
Pirie's decision to return to his adopted home after a stint in the Tamar Valley as CEO of the state's largest wine company gave him the chance to re-assess those earlier pioneering exploits. It's no surprise the 2ha vineyard he planted on Golconda Road in 2007 has since become the site of a world-class sparkling wine program.
From day one, its planning, planting and day-to-day management have been cutting edge, based upon the latest available viticultural research and climatology.
"According to the data we've collected over the years, our average growing season temperature (GST) is 14.5°C, which puts us at about the middle of the temperature range for Champagne," Pirie explains.
"I'm able to ripen fruit to sparkling wine maturity somewhere around the first week in April. That confirms us as a high-quality sparkling wine site."
Apogee's extraordinary wine quality is not merely due to its sunny vineyard aspect and favourable climate. The site's ferrosol soils are lighter in composition and have better drainage and lower water-holding capacity than you'd find elsewhere in the district.
Pirie's mix of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Pinot Meunier and Pinot Gris are all being grown on carefully selected rootstocks that deliberately restrict vine vigour.
But the project's pièce de résistance is a unique vineyard trellising system that Pirie devised himself, even before planting the site. In essence, it blends some of those aforementioned traditional French practices with more analytical and innovative methods developed in the United States during the 1980s.
"The system has a very large leaf area that promotes good, even fruit ripening and high-quality wine production at high yields," Pirie says.
"It also allows us to create better air and sunlight penetration, while ensuring our fruit remains largely free from disease risk."
A state-of-the-art weather station and wireless substation on the property provide valuable support to Apogee's 21st century approach to viticulture. These provide real-time data for 23 different environmental factors, from measures of temperature and humidity to leaf wetness and wind chill. Records are updated every five minutes and can be readily accessed anywhere on the planet.
If you think all that sounds expensive, you're right.
"You certainly need plenty of operating funds at the start of the season - particularly for pruning and early season shoot removal - but the payback comes at the end with significantly improved yields of very high-quality fruit," Pirie notes.
"That's a very good outcome when you're small and hands-on. You don't have the scale and opportunities to reduce costs."
PICK OF THE CROP
2016 Apogee Deluxe Vintage Brut $63
Quality bottle-fermented sparkling wine takes time to produce and this outstanding release from the warm, dry 2016 vintage spent 45 months on its yeast lees before being disgorged in January 2020.
The 18 months that have elapsed have added further layers of complexity.
Noticeably fuller, rounder and more generous than last tasted in November 2020, this is a wonderfully expressive sparkling that is a sheer delight to drink right now. Its bready citrussy elements show a hint of red apple Pinot Noir, endowing it with plenty of potency and versatility to match with a broad range of entrée dishes. Superb.
2018 Apogee Deluxe Vintage Rosé $75
Like many movie sequels, wines that follow previous exceptional releases can provide disappointment. But fear not, Apogee's latest release of Vintage Rosé is truly deserving of its Deluxe moniker.
Indeed, you will need to part with serious money to find a wine of similar stature, one almost certainly grown and made on one of Champagne's most hallowed sites.
Its subtle aromas of red apple, watermelon and forest sassafras are beautifully complemented by lees-derived secondary characters that simply power across the palate. Lively Chardonnay acidity maintains the focus and sustains the pleasure. Wow.
2019 Apogee Alto Pinot Noir $62
Dr Andrew Pirie's early releases from Apogee Tasmania comprised Deluxe Vintage sparklings from 2010 and 2011. Alto Pinot Gris joined the portfolio from the 2012 vintage. But the man from Lebrina is a hard task master.
There have been just three releases of Pinot Noir during the past nine years and this is perhaps the best to date. Beautifully fragrant, the wine practically bounces out of the glass and into the mouth.
It's a delicious mix of ripe cherry and red fruit flavours, albeit light bodied and neatly structured. Fine natural acidity provides verve and freshness to partner spicy Asian duck courses. Classy.
- 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.