A relaxed pinot noir weekend at Saffire Freycinet showcases Tasmania as a world-class wine, food and nature destination, writes Andrew Conway
It’s 8.30pm on a frigid Saturday evening in Tasmania and there’s no place on earth I’d rather be right now. The chic restaurant I’m dining in is glowing with candlelight, the atmosphere is abuzz with laughter and lively chatter, delicious food is flying out of the kitchen, and vintage wine is flowing like the Franklin River.
Canapés served with a Stefano Lubiana Grande Vintage 2008 are followed by a crudo of hiramasa yellowtail kingfish paired with a 2014 Jansz Vintage Rose. Next, stripey trumpeter, beurre blanc, local Great Oyster Bay mussles and beach herbs are washed down with a Pooley Cooinda Vale Chardonnay 2017.
Had the waiters stopped at the free-range partridge with shitake mushrooms and celeriac and a Géantet-Pansiot Bourgogne Les Bons Batons Rouge 2015, I’d have been more than happy. But no, the best is yet to come with Springfield Farm organic venison, smoked beetroot, Tasmanian pepperberry, pickled radicchio and Longley Farm quince.
I almost place a hand over my glass before a Josef Chromy 2015 is poured, but I’m very glad I don’t. It is astonishingly good. Almost defeated, I step outside into the whisper-still and crisp, clear night, stand under a vast canopy of shimmering stars and near-perfect crescent moon, and breathe in the sweet Tasmanian air.
Off to bed? Not on your life. I’m back at the table to finish a memorable degustation wine dinner with the chef’s final creation of Fallen Autumn Fruits and a nectar-hued Freycinet Vineyard Botrytis 2011.
The restaurant’s panoramic windows reveal nothing of the now ink-black landscape outside, but rather reflect the glow of table lamps and flickering candles onto the soaring timber ceiling.
Welcome to Saffire Freycinet’s annual Pinot Noir Weekend, one of a series of vintage wine, Champagne and whiskey celebrations that not only showcase the finest wineries and distilleries Tasmania has to offer, but the Apple Isle’s extraordinary natural beauty.
This pinot noir weekend is a three-day event for only 40 fortunate guests comprising elegant cocktail receptions and gourmet dinners, casual lunches, unique wilderness experiences, spa treatments, as well as a fascinating pinot noir masterclass by multi-award-winning Australian wine communicator Tyson Stelzer (more on that later).
Part of the prestigious Luxury Lodges of Australia portfolio, Saffire Freycinet is unique within Tasmania and comparable only to the likes of Southern Ocean Lodge in South Australia, One&Only Wolgan Valley in NSW, and qualia in Queensland – all of which hold iconic status by offering five-star luxury experiences in stunning natural settings.
Located midway along Tasmania’s east coast, two-and-a-half-hours’ drive northeast of Hobart and two hours southeast of Launceston, this strikingly contemporary resort cocoons guests in unbridled comfort and privacy, yet actively encourages them to become immersed in the rare primordial wilderness beyond.
This luxury-in-nature approach is a cornerstone of the Saffire ethos delivered by General Manager Justin King and his highly trained staff of about 100, who make sure every guest request, every whim, is met. “Everything we do here has to have a sense of luxury, authenticity and surprise,” he says. “We can’t do anything without one, or all three, of those things.”
Luxury is all around from the eye-catching curved entrance lobby – with its panoramic windows framing Great Oyster Bay, the monumental pink granite peaks of The Hazards, bushland and white-sand beaches – to the 20 super-private, single-storey suites set in front of the main lodge.
Authenticity abounds in Saffire’s unique stingray design (the bay is a ray, shark and skate nursery), blending discreetly into the surrounding wilderness. Not to mention the resort’s exceptional food and wine – 80 per cent of which is sourced from independent Tasmanian growers and producers and Saffire’s own kitchen gardens – and served by crisply uniformed and welcoming staff, many of whom are Tasmanian.
The surprise element is what lies beyond the resort, a pristine and thankfully protected natural eco-environment, best seen on Saffire’s array of complimentary and signature guest experiences from guided walks to beautiful Wineglass Bay, to sportier outdoor activities and an encounter with a reclusive Tasmanian devil in its natural setting.
During this special pinot noir weekend, I opt for one complimentary and one signature experience, both delivering Tasmania’s wilderness at its very best.
Under a cloudless Saturday morning sky, seven fellow guests and I are driven by minivan to Coles Bay wharf where affable boat captain Steve Fahey and deckhand Nicole Dyble are standing by with a 12.5-metre Naiad rigid inflatable boat.
The ensuing four-hour trip is nothing short of a David Attenborough documentary, complete with shimmering waters, playful seals, a pod of dolphins, a vast sea eagle’s nest 25 years in the making, and a coastal landscape dating back to Jurassic times.
A circumnavigation of remote and untamed Schouten Island takes us deep into hidden coves and other-worldly rocky outcrops brimming with seals and their pups, eclipsed only by a breathtaking aerial display by two wedge-tailed eagles being dive-bombed by pesky ravens.
The extraordinary cruise ends at Bryan’s Beach – a crescent-shaped, white-sand beach (named after an old whaling captain) with opalescent waters – where we stop for a light lunch served with several bottles of chilled Tasmanian sparkling wine. All in all, the best $275 I will spend all year.
The following morning, I head out to nearby Freycinet Marine Oyster Farm – one of Saffire’s 19 complimentary experiences – where four other guests and I don waders and walk out into the chilly Swan River to a cluster of prime oyster beds.
After a fascinating lesson in oysters by our personable guide Declan Brown, he pulls a crisp white linen table cloth, five flutes, two bottles of local sparkling wine and an oyster shucker from his backpack and lays them all out on the weathered wood table.
He wades back into the estuary, harvests more than two dozen fresh and unopened shells of all shapes and sizes, cracks them open like a pro, and delivers us an oyster-and-bubbles Sunday brunch like no other.
But I’m digressing from the weekend’s signature events: a much-anticipated Saturday afternoon pinot noir masterclass by leading wine communicator Tyson Stelzer, followed by the gala wine dinner in Saffire’s Palate restaurant.
Queensland-based Stelzer, the author of several award-winning wine books, is an eloquent communicator with exceptional knowledge and understanding of Australian and international wines, making him the perfect host for this pinot noir masterclass and dinner.
While he touches on the wine’s traditional French heritage during the masterclass, Stelzer extolls the many virtues of Tasmania’s pinot noir, widely acclaimed as an outstanding wine, especially the 2015 vintage which Stelzer rates as the best in a decade.
“Pinot is a grape that has very specific needs in terms of climate, where it’s grown, the soil, temperature, sunshine and rainfall,” he says. “There are literally only a handful of places in the world that make truly great pinot noir and the great vineyards of Tasmania are among them.”
Showcasing five leading Tasmanian winemakers – Pooley Wines, Josef Chromy, Stefano Lubiana, Freycinet Vineyard and Jansz – as well as Géantet-Pansiot from Burgundy, Stelzer treats his class to stellar tastings along with a fascinating commentary and personal anecdotes by the winemakers themselves.
“Tasmania has an incredibly innovative approach to winemaking in Australia, there’s some real pioneering going on here,” says Jennifer Doyle, Jansz vineyard manager. “I really wouldn’t want to be working anywhere else.”
With the gala wine dinner in full swing, I really don’t want to be anywhere else either, but soon the comfort and privacy of my suite beckons.
Saffire’s 20 deluxe accommodations comprise 10 Signature Suites, six Luxury Suites and four Private Pavilions, and are all similar in interior design and ambience, but vary in size and location.
The suites are an eclectic mix of traditional and contemporary design, with locally made timber mixed with mid-century furnishings such as chairs designed by Charles and Ray Eames and Herman Miller.
All suites feature picture windows, framing The Hazzards and Great Oyster Bay, as well as swish bathrooms and outdoor decks for relaxing and quiet contemplation of the expansive natural wilderness. And each suite is cleverly positioned to maximise the panoramic views while not encroaching on neighbouring suites.
The three-storey main lodge is the resort’s social hub with guests mingling between the reception lobby, plush Saffire lounge, elegant Palate restaurant and dedicated spa. The resort never feels crowded, even when full, and the vibe is thoroughly relaxed and informal.
I’m really trying hard to find fault with this iconic Tasmanian retreat, but like any great Tasmanian pinot, Saffire Freycinet is little short of perfect – down to the very last drop.