10 years of Tolpuddle

By Morgan Dunn

20 Sep, 2022

It's been a decade since Michael Hill-Smith MW and Martin Shaw bought a vineyard in Tasmania's Coal River Valley on a whim. Morgan Dunn reflects on the acclaimed vineyard's anniversary from a vertical tasting to mark the occasion. 

I didn’t attend my 10-year high school reunion. I can’t remember why now. Perhaps I was popping corks as a sommelier at some Melbourne restaurant. Whatever the reason, I have no regrets. 
But a chance to revisit ten vintages of what is perhaps the greatest single vineyard Australia has ever seen? Well, I wouldn’t give that up for anything.
Even sounding it out excites the palate. The sharp ‘Tol’ on the roof of the mouth down to the whimsical ‘puddle’ across the tongue. Oh, yes, these wines will speak to you.
The story is by now deeply ingrained into Australian wine lore. In 2011, two cousins, Michael Hill Smith MW and Martin Shaw of the eponymous and immensely popular Shaw + Smith, took a stroll around Tassie’s Coal River Valley, tasted some wine out of barrel and came back to the mainland with a vineyard. The kind of thing that happens every day. 

Two men standing in front of a vineyardMartin Shaw and Michael Hill Smith MW.

Planted in 1988 on a smattering of silica over sandstone (a large chunk of which was pulled out of the ground and now sits at the entrance to the vineyard), the site was named for the ‘Tolpuddle Martyrs’ ­– a group of English agricultural unionists who were convicted in the 1830s. George Loveless, the head of the group, was sent to Van Diemen’s Land to labour on a property which now comprises some of what is now Tolpuddle
With its soft, north easterly slope it has been described as ‘Burgundian.’ But no. This vineyard is ‘Tasmanian’. 
Alongside some intrinsic new clonal planting of both varieties (amongst which is the Abel clone ­– you know, that one that a Kiwi rugby player apparently tried to smuggle back from Romanée-Conti in his boot) the Tolpuddle team has consistently strived to improve the site. Amongst a host of measures, they have moved to predominantly cane-pruning, implemented the use of cover crops, and made efforts to reduce frost and enhance drainage. 
The first wines were bottled in 2012 by Chief Winemaker Adam Wadewitz, who has since overseen every vintage. Something Michael Hill-Smith said years ago occurs when I taste these wines: “The aim is only to ever make better and better wine.” And as much as the early wines impress, there is a marked progression over the decade. 
Tolpuddle chardonnay has, in its youth, a striking tension arising from the interplay of coiled fruit, acid and texture that nestles in the mouth preparing to ease and unwind like a ball of yarn down the years. The much-lauded 2020 is the best example – it’s a museum of complexity. Lime blossom, mandarin spray, apricot delight, and multigrain toast come to mind. The earlier vintages still feel lively yet carry themselves with an effortless flow ­– that charming host at a party who instantly puts you at ease. 2015 is a highlight in this regard. Textural, sprightly, lime and tonic acidity – and a slow wave of concentration.

Two men standing in front of a vineyardTolpuddle's 2016 Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.

Along with precision and balance, that concentration is perhaps the defining feature of these wines.
Looking at the pinot noirs in succession is a fascinating experiment. Owing to vintage variation the whole bunch usage (around 30 per cent across the board), can sometimes overpower the fruit in some of the earlier years (most noticeably 2014), but the 2015 is an amalgamation of everything that came before it. It seems to hover, barely herbal, fruit shining, over the tongue before moving gracefully down the palate, plush and soft.
Once you hit the 2017 vintage you start to get a real sense of the reds. Regrettably, 2019 held the barest hint of smoke-taint, resulting in the decision to scrap the crop, but the following years contain everything one would want in a cool-climate pinot built for the long haul. These are wines of power and aromatic transcendence – smashed strawberry, quandong, pomegranate, crushed violet, dried lavender, perhaps a hint of smoked lardon. 
Tolpuddle represents the best of what we have as Australian wine drinkers. The evolution of viticulture and viniculture in a unique place, a journey to craft something truly special that stands on the world stage. Do drink the wines. Do cherish them. I look forward to another ten years of Tolpuddle taking me to school.