Searching for Bordeaux and discovering Tasmania
Peter Althaus and Domaine A / Stoney Vineyard
By Kerry Scambler
What do you do when you desire a supply of your favourite wine through retirement? Grow and make it yourself was the answer this perfectionist winemaker chose, thus beginning a journey that took him from the mountains of Switzerland to the rolling hills of the Coal River Valley in Southern Tasmania.
Wine experts and wine lovers around the globe agree that the European-style wines from Domaine A / Stoney Vineyard are amongst the world’s best.
These finely balanced wines have been crafted by Peter Althaus in his Tasmanian vineyard for over 20 years and enjoy an international reputation, with many gracing fine dining tables and cellars of Europe.
But what stirred an IBM electrical engineer from Switzerland to travel across the world to the Coal River Valley in Tasmania’s south and pursue a ‘retirement’ of winemaking?
It was obvious. Peter Althaus wanted to make cabernet sauvignon because it was his favourite wine, and he wanted to find the right place to make the best wine possible to his exacting standards.
And so the search began....
In the late 1980s, Peter was already a passionate and extremely knowledgeable wine lover, having been involved with many wine guilds including serving as President of Les Amis du Vin in Switzerland, with over 7000 members nationally.
He could see then that the prices for good European wines would only ever rise and decided there must be somewhere, outside of the rather ‘full’ northern hemisphere, with climactic conditions matching those of Bordeaux.
Peter and wife Ruth then started a search for a genuine cool-climate location, heading south by latitude. From Argentina and Chile to New Zealand and finally Australia, they took their time to study and research possible locations.
The search ends and the quest begins
In March 1989, Peter and Ruth met George and Priscilla Park on their one acre of vines named Stoney Vineyard, not far from Richmond in Southern Tasmania. George had kept excellent records of temperature, rainfall, soil analysis, vintage conditions and more, all of which impressed Peter and added to his rigorous research.
Tasting Stoney Vineyard wines, even those from so-called ‘bad seasons’, Peter and Ruth decided that this would become their home and for Peter especially, where he could concentrate his energies on winemaking.
Peter’s philosophy was and remains that there should be consistency of quality from vintage to vintage, not consistency of taste. And there is a difference – he believes each vintage should reflect the conditions of that particular season, how the weather developed and the fruit reacted. In other words, wine must taste of where it comes from and when.
These days the term terroir is understood and appreciated by an audience beyond wine experts, but at that time, mentioning the word could almost be guaranteed to raise a laugh.
But Peter has resolute determination and exacting standards, so it was no surprise he was undeterried, paying minute attention to what may have seemed like the smallest details of his land.
There are two labels: Stoney Vineyard – the early drinking style – and Domaine A, the collector’s wine made for long term cellaring.
This flagship wine is a cabernet sauvignon blend, deliberately and definitely styled European, made in the same way as top Bordeaux wines. Domaine A is a harmonious blend of cabernet sauvignon, merlot, cabernet franc and petit verdot, the proportions of which change from year to year, to maximise the quality of the vintage.
Peter painstakingly selects and harvests the grapes at optimum level of acidity and sugar level, keeping them separate for the first fermentation. He then blends and blends until that perfect taste rolls through his mouth. And it has to be right. Peter has been known to make up to forty blends to achieve his standards of perfection.
From there the wine undergoes a second fermentation in new oak barrels to achieve the all important balance of alcohol content and acidity – balance being an extremely important factor for longevity of a wine and its cellaring potential. This technique is unusual, but it's one he learned first-hand in the cellars fo Bordeaux.
Taste a Domaine A or Stoney Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon and Peter’s pure determination and ability to create a perfectly balanced wine shines through.
Of course, there’s much more to Domaine A / Stoney Vineyard than cabernet sauvignon. For his wife Ruth’s birthday in 1996, Peter crafted Domaine A Lady A, a wood-matured sauvignon blanc, simply because she loves this style of wine. It’s now regarded as one of the finest in the world.
The vineyard also produces small quantities of high quality pinot noir and merlot, all made with the same attention to detail.
And the critics say…
James Halliday rates Stoney Vineyard as a one of the 'Best of Best' wineries and gave it 5/5 red stars in his 2010, 2011 and 2012 editions of The Australian Wine Companion. Halliday says: "Outstanding winery regularly producing wines of exemplary quality and typicity... made without compromise, and reflect the low yields from the immaculately tended vineyards."
Langton's Classification V rates the cabernet sauvignon as 'Excellent' and Max Allen succinctly says "Domaine A – Australia's Best Cabernet?"
Jancis Robinson MW OBE wrote in 2009 "My suggestion is that as many wine lovers as possible should try wines from (Domaine A), an example of those who make wines hugely superior to the current Australian stereotype." She also described the oaked sauvignon blanc as "perhaps the most distinctive Tasmanian wine."
UK wine writer Matthew Jukes was more than impressed. "I have never been so gob-smacked with a range of wines in my life...1998 Domaine A Cabernet...(is) nothing short of a life-changing wine."
Anthony Foster MW says: "We have tasted this wine (1998 Domaine A Pinot Noir) alongside the very best in Burgundy – including DRC – and it is in the same league."
And so the list goes on… and on... all agreeing on the world-class quality of the wines from this vineyard and winemaker.
Changes and new friends
Over the past 20 years, Peter has seen many changes within the industry, both in Tasmania and around the world, but he has also watched the consumer mindset change dramatically. We don’t have to tell you that wine and food is of huge interest, with people now actively looking for quality and provenance.
Back in 1989 Peter says it was hard to get a good coffee in Hobart and Tasmanian wine was almost unheard of in the local pub, or even in many restaurants. These days residents are spoilt for choice, not just in the cities but also in smaller regional towns. Locals and visitors alike are getting to know the people who make and grow Tasmania's food and wine through the media, and are taking a personal interest in their personal stories and production processes.
Having a great love for art, music and culture has also led Peter to be involved with organisations like the Australian Business Arts Foundation, 10 Days on the Island and many more.
It also prompted him to mix music and wine in his marketing by recruiting Maria Lurighi, a qualified opera singer, to become one of Domaine A's 'ambassadors'. Maria has enthralled many a wine gathering with her telling of the Domaine A story, painting a picture of landscape, vines and winemaking life in her own unique and lively way. And oh, to hear her sing!
Peter's affinity with the arts world and of course the fact he produces fabulous wine – the initiator of many a great friendship – also means a great mix of vineyard followers and close personal friends. From chef Tetsuya Wakuda to blade-smith John Hounslow-Robinson and artist Tom Samek, all share his love for fine wine, food, friends and art.
Regrets? Well, just the one
We asked Peter if, when he started on this journey in 1989 he envisaged the position Domaine A / Stoney Vineyard now holds in terms of national and international acclaim. His answer reflects his determination and skills: "It was always my vision, so I’m not totally surprised, no."
But he does have one regret – that his wines will outlive him. However with assistant winemaker Jeremy Harris (himself with ten years' experience in Bordeaux wineries) now entrenched and working at Peter's side and to his exacting standards, the world-class European style wines from Domaine A / Stoney Vineyard will surely continue Peter's vision into the future.
- Coal River Valley (TAS)
To see our recommendations, ratings and reviews you must be a logged-in subscriber.
To subscribe please enter your email address in the "Subscribe Now - it's Free" box on the right and click the "Join" button, or fill in this form >