Yattarna at a quarter the price!

At the Tasmanian Wine Show awards night, they were calling it “Yattarna at a quarter of the price”. Derwent Estate Chardonnay 2007 ($32 at cellar door) (tastings) scooped the trophies for the best chardonnay and best white wine of show. The Yattarna reference is because chardonnay grapes from the 10-hectare vineyard, on the bank of the Derwent River tidal estuary, north of Hobart, regularly go into Penfolds Yattarna (tastings), at $130 one of the icon white wines of Australia. But the trophy winning ’07 Derwent Estate Chardonnay and its brother, the ’08 vintage (tastings) (which won a high silver medal and is sure to turn out at least as good as the ’07) are outstanding value for money.

Anna Pooley, a winemaker for Foster’s with special responsibility for Tasmania (she makes the Heemskerk wines) was full of praise for the Derwent Estate vineyard. “It’s a really great north-facing, sloping site facing the Derwent River.” She had visited it earlier that day as part of her vineyard rounds, and was excited to see the healthy state of the vines and their big, bright green leaves. She confirmed the grapes go to Yattarna, and are picked quite early at about 12 degrees Baume, to preserve natural acidity, finesse and low alcohol. Andrew Hanigan, who manages the family-owned vineyard, said the last four years’ grapes had gone into Yattarna.

Lecturer in soil science at the University of Tasmania, Dr Richard Doyle, described the Derwent Estate soil as being loess, or wind-blown brown sands, over a calcareous layer with well-drained gravels beneath. And, as we know from Burgundy, Chablis and Champagne, chardonnay loves limestony soils. Right next door is Stefano Lubiana, whose soils are subtly different. While the two share a boundary, Lubiana’s soil is more gravel and mudstone.

The Derwent Estate tally from the Tasmanian Wine Show was 2007 Chardonnay – gold and trophy for best chardonnay of show (tastings); 2008 Chardonnay (also $32 at cellar door) – high silver medal (tastings); 2009 Riesling ($25) – silver (tastings); 2008 Pinot Noir – silver (tastings); 2007 Pinot Noir ($32) – silver (tastings); and 2004 Riesling ($35) – gold in the museum class.

Six entries and nothing less than silver for all of them is a great result. The site is obviously blessed, but part of the praise for these wines must go to the contract winemaker, Julian Alcorso’s Winemaking Tasmania, which has four winemakers – more than any other in Tasmania.

Winemaking Tasmania also makes The Wine Society‘s Tasmanian wines: its riesling (tastings) is about one-third Derwent Estate grapes. At $16.99, this pungent, tightly limy wine is perennially great value.

I especially like the style of the Derwent Estate chardonnays. They are delicate yet intense wines of moderate alcohols (around 13%) and understated oak. They are refined to taste with seamless acidity, which is a sign the acid is natural and not boosted by the addition of powdered tartaric acid. They have a complexity of flavour, with grapefruit-like fruit aromas to the fore, and nutty, mealy, nougat-like overtones adding depth and interest.

What of the family behind this magical vineyard then?

Andrew Hanigan is the vineyard manager. His parents Trevor and Pat Hanigan were both school teachers, who took over managing Andrew’s grandfather’s property after he died about 20 years ago. The 160-hectare farm ran sheep and grew crops. “My parents retired from fulltime teaching and we just fell into vinegrowing,” said Andrew. “The first vines were planted in 1993. I’ve done TAFE courses in viticulture and I worked at Steve Lubiana’s and at Julian’s. I have about 15 years on-the-job experience. We still run sheep but the vineyard is the main industry now.”

The Hanigans have a long relationship with Foster’s and its previous incarnation (Southcorp). “About five or six years ago Hardy’s approached us to grow grapes for them. So we put in an extra five hectares of pinot noir, riesling and pinot gris for them.”

Oddly, they didn’t want chardonnay. And the grapes all go to table wine. As Andrew Hanigan says, it’s a warm site, a table-wine site, and not cool enough for sparkling. About half an hour’s drive upriver is Meadowbank, which is a very good sparkling wine site. Colder, higher and more inland, it supplies grapes for Hardy’s top sparkling wines under the Arras label.

Hanigan continues: “Hardys approached us because they understood we had a safe, secure, frost-free site.” Frost-prone vineyards abound in Tasmania, and big companies are especially mindful of the security of their grape supplies.

About 40% of Derwent Estate’s grapes go into their own wines. They’re sold in Tasmanian restaurants and liquor stores, from the cellar door, and more recently wholesaled in NSW via Quality Estate Distributors.

Wines made by Winemaking Tasmania dominated the awards at this year’s recent Tasmanian Wine Show, and Hanigan is full of praise for Alcorso and his troupe. “We have a great relationship with Julian and his team. They are doing great work now. There wasn’t much room at their table on awards night, because of all the trophies.”

He points out that earlier in its career, Derwent Estate was winning awards for its rieslings; now it’s more the pinot noirs and chardonnays. The ’07 pinot noir (tastings) won a gold medal at Hobart Wine Show in 2009.

Full Tasmanian Wine Show results: www.taswineshow.org

First published in Sydney Morning Herald, Good Living – 2 February 2010.

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