It's always been a gamble, making wine on the island.
Before European Invasion
The word ‘Moorilla’ means ‘rock by the water’ in various Aboriginal dialects. For thousands of years, the Moorilla site was home to the Tasmanian Aboriginal Mouheneenner People. Until it wasn’t. The story of this rock by the water, like that of Van Dieman’s Land, is mired in the dark history of colonialism and dispossession.
Matthew Flinders and George Bass circumnavigated Tasmania to prove, once and for all, that Tasmania was an island. Bass, an English surgeon and sailor, remarked that the ‘stiff close soil’ near Moorilla was ‘perhaps adapted to the growth of grape vines, rather than of grain’.
Italian émigré and textile merchant Claudio Alcorso purchased a nineteen-hectare plot of land on what was known as Frying Pan Island. Claudio described the site as ‘a neglected orchard’ of ‘unkempt, unpruned apple and pear trees’ with a riverbank overhung with casuarina trees. This would become Moorilla. Claudio was a Roman to be reckoned with: educated in the Italian capital, the London School of Economics and Harvard, he created the leading Australian textile brand Sheridan, became an influential patron of the arts (involved in the founding of Opera Australia, the Australian Ballet and the Australia Council) and kick-started the modern wine industry in Tasmania. Talk about an over achiever.
Claudio commissioned Roy Grounds, iconic Australian architect and designer of the National Gallery of Victoria, to create two knock out modernist dwellings for Moorilla. Claudio and his family lived in one—the Courtyard House, which is now the entrance to Mona—and his mum, the other—the Round House.
Claudio planted the first grapevines at Moorilla. Local government told him it was a bad idea. ‘Apples and pears, Mr Alcorso.’ Claudio ignored them. He planted the vines anyway: ninety Rhine Riesling cuttings sent from David Wynn’s South Australian vineyard.
The vines produced their first crop in 1962. The fruit, destined for wild fermentation, was hand-picked and stomped to smithereens by the feet of the whole Alcorso family. Old school.
Moorilla acquired a second vineyard, St Matthias, on the banks of Launceston’s Tamar River, thus subverting the popular public opinion that Launceston’s only drawcard is the monkeys. Moorilla’s wine production began to expand.
Tasmanian gambler David Walsh purchased Moorilla, which had gone into receivership. At the time he was a museum-less maths nerd, living across the river from Moorilla in a climatically erratic house full of his drunk, nerdy friends, with nowhere to properly store his nascent collection of African antiquities and coins. He read about Moorilla’s financial woes and admired Moorilla’s Roy Grounds-designed modernist architectural marvels (as well as their pinot). He put in a silent tender for Moorilla and became, as he puts it, ‘the proud owner of something I couldn’t afford’. And a vigneron to boot.
The Moorilla Museum of Antiquities opened on-site in the Courtyard House—a modernist villa turned exhibition space and art warehouse (and watering hole for David and his buddies). No one came, says David, so he declared it a triumph and decided to expand.
David convinced Canadian ‘wild child’ Conor van der Reest (thanks, James Halliday) to take the helm at Moorilla. Conor redefined Moorilla (championing the terroir of its vineyards), kick-started an ambitious cellaring program (cultivating wines with maturity) and helped design Moorilla’s new winery (a state-of-the-art facility).
David opened Mona’s doors to the public, expecting scandal and protest. (Sex! Death! A shit machine!) There wasn’t any, much to David’s chagrin. There was, however, a lot of Moorilla quaffed at the grand opening. Moorilla wine now flows freely at Mona’s legendary parties and festivals, its restaurants, bars, cafe and luxury accommodation pavilions.
Moorilla celebrated fifty years of winemaking with the release of the Cloth Label Series: a trinity of daring, artisanal wines that showcase Moorilla’s terroir like never before with a style of wine rarely seen outside of Europe. The labels—natural-dyed, hand-applied cloth—are an homage to Moorilla’s origins and Claudio, who founded the premium Australian textile brand Sheridan in 1967.