As the plane descends toward the tarmac at Launceston airport, I see cows on hillsides munching away freely on lush green pastures. Moments later, I’m comfortably seated in the passenger seat of my prestige transfer , apparently the former car used by the Victorian Premier, as I’m told by owner of Scenic Travel Tasmania, Phillip Cullen.
Cruising along with what seems like the most insignificant peak hour, having just departed Sydney during a Friday afternoon storm, Phillip points to the right.
“See those cows? Best cattle in the world, Black Angus,” says Phillip proudly. “You know those McDonald’s Angus burgers?” he asks, before lowering and drawing out his voice for extra effect, “well, they’re N-O-T ours,” he dryly informs me.
We continue and to the left, he points out the Strathroy Bridge of Launceston, built in 1835 and talks about the fact that Launceston was built on an extinct volcano crater. Within five minutes, I also know the ages, names, occupations and dating habits of his three sons. That’s right – here in Tassie the people are open and unguarded.
I’m here for the annual Effervescence festival – a weekend series of events designed to celebrate Tasmanian bubbles and the vineyards and wineries that produce Australia’s most premium, awarded and world-class sparkling wines.
The event begins at the picturesque Josef Chromy Wines, just a 15-minute drive south of Launceston, who are the key organising winery behind the festival. Walking past the original 1880s homestead and converted cellar door, through the pathway down to the garden pavilion by a lake, the sun is setting picturesquely as guests for the Grand Degustation Dinner in their black tie finery sip aperitifs – sparkling wine of course.
Each year, a guest chef is invited to curate the Grand Degustation Dinner and other key meals that the public can attend throughout the weekend. In 2015, the dinner was prepared by renowned Sydney hatted chef and a member of Relais & Chateaux, Tetsuya Wakuda. An intricately prepared meal of four courses followed, with dish after exquisite dish of delicate flavours presented to our place setting as wine flowed, paired to each course. Various Tasmanian wineries host tables at the event so your meal is matched to a variety of vintage sparkling wines and still red and white wines. I was seated at the Jansz table where chief winemaker Louisa Rose was able to share exactly with the guests her thoughts on each of the wines and the Jansz sparkling winemaking philosophy and house style.
Over the weekend, attendees of the festival can attend a number of sessions to taste and learn more about fine Tasmanian sparkling. I attended sparkling wine masterclasses led by moderator Tyson Stelzer, Australia’s foremost authority on champagne and sparkling wine; joined by Tassie’s best winemakers including Louisa Rose from Jansz, Dr. Andrew Pirrie AM from Apogee Tasmania (founder of Ninth Island wines) and Australia’s most awarded sparkling winemaker, Ed Carr from the House of Arras. The chefs typically conduct a cooking master class in the pavilion where guests are in an intimate group up close to learn some cooking tips from the best. Other highlight sessions include a Producer’s Lunch hosted by different Tasmanian producers including Huon Aqua and Robbins Island Wagyu and then there’s the Saturday night Bubbles and Beats with live music, bean bags and more bubbles. Hobart also hosts events with a ‘Go South’ lunch – so if you’re prepared to make the three-hour drive south, you’ll sample another range of wines from such producers as Stefano Lubiana, Frogmore Creek and Moorilla.
After a night and day of bubbles, I’m in the mood for a recline in a warm bath. My accommodation, the best in Launceston, at the boutique art and design rooms at Hatherley Birrell Collection has just the tonic – an outdoor bath on its deck carved from a single piece of volcanic rock. Overlooking the gardens and in complete privacy from the other guests, it’s magical to stare up at the skies flanked by heritage gardens. My room, the Muse Garden Pavilion, is inspired by a Chinese lantern. The contemporary bathroom has an enlarged, artistic print illustration based on the artwork of Fornasetti, designed by the property co-owner Rebecca Birrell, a graphic artist. It was quirky and a little special to enter my bathroom through a door covered via a giant pair of bright red lips. Little touches in the room, including bedside pencils and an invitation to be ‘creative’ in a sketch book; leather swivel egg chairs with woollen throws by Made in Tasmania; Appelles bathroom amenities; cotton Japanese robes; and leaf tea and a Zero teapot, make for a very cosy stay.
I meet owner Rebecca moving among her beautiful rose garden, carrying a bowl of fresh flowers into one of the other rooms. The property’s dog Mink mooches about and is my kind of dog to encounter at a property – friendly, unobtrusive and chilled. Rebecca explains that she, her husband and children live in the original Hatherley House on the grounds, built in the 1830s. The 1880s wing of the house has heritage rooms converted into accommodations The Ballroom Suite and La Petite Chambre Matisse; while a new wing of additional accommodation, features the Muse Garden Pavilion and the Magnolia Garden Pavilion. If you want the outdoor volcanic rock bath experience, book either of the Pavilion rooms.
Driving around Launceston, there’s something reminiscent of San Francisco about this charming city – with its steep hills, heritage buildings and artistic vibe. As it’s been a few years since my last visit, I notice the more expanded urban arts and culinary vibe that has grown here. Just down the road from my accommodation, the St Georges Square has food trucks and locals converge to grab a meal and play in the park overlooking the city. On Saturday mornings, the Harvest Launceston Community Farmers market has a fun, community feel and you can sample Tasmanian produce, including locally made honey, bread, paté, pork sausages, olives and much more. Just the place for an organic bacon and egg roll – between glasses of bubbly of course.