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Derwent Estate, Tasmania: vertical tasting, vertical growth

Partners in wine, Andrew Hanigan & John Schuts of Derwent Estate

Continuing this week’s ‘turning over a new leaf’ theme, today we switch focus from the Azores to an Australian island. Tasmania’s Derwent Estate has undergone a dramatic transformation since my last visit in 2012.  Back then, I was super impressed by the estate’s own label Chardonnay (the 2010 vintage is a former Wine of the Month).  

Vertical growth

I say ‘own label’ because Derwent Estate used to sell 70% of its fruit.  These days, with its own winery, the estate is buying 50% again of what it grows and only sells a small amount of Chardonnay to one rather prestigious customer – Penfolds, for Yattarna. 

Farmers and grape growers the Hanigan family acquired the Mt Nassau property in the Derwent Valley in Tasmania’s south in 1913.   So what was the catalyst for the headlong plunge into winemaking precisely one century later?

Viticulturist Andrew Hanigan told me, “I’d always wanted to do it, but didn’t know how to do it. Most challenging was the winemaking part.” So in 2013 it was a nice coincidence when he discovered that, at the very point when most of the estate’s grape growing contracts were coming to an end, Derwent Estate’s contract winemaker John Schuts was ready for a change.

Picking up the story, Schuts told me he was drawn to Derwent Estate because, during the 11 years that he worked at Winemaking Tasmania, “Andrew was bringing in some of the best grapes.”  Comparing them with the other 42 vineyards from which he made wine under contract he added, “this site is very unique and the fruit off here is really exciting.”  

He attributes Derwent Estate’s uniqueness largely to its soils which, thanks to a fault line, are (unusually for Tasmania) calcareous.  A real boon for the man who turned down another opportunity in Margaret River because he wanted to make great Pinot Noir.  Check out this photo of marine fossils from my first visit with Andrew Hanigan, which is taken from the old lime quarry at the top of the property.

But it’s not just about the soil. Schuts cites vine age (vines were first planted in 1993) and the estate’s north-facing (warm) slopes as important too.  Derwent Estate’s scenic location on the banks of the Derwent River reduces the risk of frost.  In 2014, a bad year for frost, Derwent Estate lost 30-40% of production to frost whilst others were 60-80% down.  Meanwhile, prevailing westerlies guard against disease pressure.

Since Schuts joined the business in 2013, the changes have come thick and fast.  Not least in Schuts himself, who is evangelical about the “paddock to plate approach.”  He couldn’t ring them more than when he reports that the Pinot Noir used to be harvested in one, maybe two picks.  These days it’s harvested in 20 different picks over two to three weeks, depending on clone (D2V5, D5V12, MV6, 114, 777) or block. The little differences between soil types and clonal differences have an “immense” impact, he adds.

Could be Coonawarra but for that long grass!

So many different picks dictates a small batch approach to winemaking. Schuts and Hanigan equipped the eco-friendly straw bale winery with 700kg to 3000kg fermenters.  It was built just in time for the 2014 vintage, when the producer made five times more wine.  ‘Harvesting’ into bottle is also being done to the beat of Derwent Estate’s own drum. Schuts insisted on their own bottling line, “so it’s our schedule, we bottle when we want” (there are no mobile bottling lines in Tasmania and, generally, only the bigger players have bottling lines).

Straw bale walls make for awesome insulation

Unsurprisingly, the team has also mushroomed with another full-time winemaker and a full-time viticulturist.  Although Hanigan observes “there’s lots of interest in Tasmania and so lots of people looking for jobs, we didn’t take on the big names because we wanted to train up locals; if the business evolves, they can step up.”

Proud that the company now has full national distribution “and it’s snowballing,” he believes it has broadened the family’s horizons about what it takes to sell wine “and selling profitably is the magic part of the business.”  Ninety-five percent of sales are currently focused on the on trade.

Caught up in the commercial aspects these days, Hanigan admits that these days he spends around a third of his time doing his specified (viticultural) job.  But it certainly pays to be on the ball.  Where he sees fruit shortage as the biggest risk (the business is losing 3 grower vineyards), plans are afoot to plant more vines in the next year or two.  Although the lower part of the estate is mostly arable land and the higher, rockier part better suited to sheep farming, Hanigan reckons there is scope to double the size of the vineyard from 10 to 20ha.

The expansion won’t come a moment too soon.  While the Hanigans at least have suitable land, securing capital investment to develop it was somewhat curtailed by the fact that Tasmanian wine was something of an unknown quantity until relatively recently.  Currently, Derwent Estate can’t keep up with the market – “Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Grigio are most in demand – especially Pinot Gris because so little is planted and it’s our biggest seller by a long way.”

In these more confident times (“until five years ago, Pinot Noir was too cheap…now the industry has proved itself”), the aim is to plant another 5ha within five years and take the total up to 20ha within seven.   Already another half hectare of Pinot Noir has been squeezed out of the existing footprint by removing the tree lines (which sucked out water and competed for nutrients).

Vertical tasting

Derwent Estate Riesling 2016 (Derwent Valley, Tasmania)

Fruit is sourced from an original 22-year-old block on the uppermost slope on shallow, permeable loams over limestone.  This is a dry, talcy, textural Riesling (a small percentage sees a bit of skin contact to build layers) with orange blossom lift (for Schuts, an estate trait).  The acid is ripe and round (the fruit is picked quite ripe “to get that glycerol and alcohol effect.”)  Promising.  Based on my previous visit when I tasted a couple of older vintages, this wine benefits from a few years’ bottle age to really strut its stuff. 13%

Derwent Estate Pinot Gris 2016 (Derwent Valley, Tasmania)

The fruit – harvested in three picks – comes from two different estate blocks from the floor and gentle slopes. The soils are shallow, permeable loams over limestone. With 24 hrs skin contact, this wine could pass as a rosé.  It’s a very attractive Pinot Gris, with richness, texture and fruit sweetness (though it is dry, with just 2.1g/l residual sugar). Gentle flavours of poached pears, spice and rhubarb and custard sweets wash over the palate.  Well done.  13.7%

Derwent Estate Chardonnay 2008 (Derwent Valley, Tasmania)

Sourced from original vines – clones I10V1, I10V5 and Penfolds – planted on permeable loams over limestone.  For Hanigan, this vintage shows that they were still getting to grips with the right oak and percentage of malo (this was only the second barrel fermented Chardonnay, so it was early days).  Still, there’s lots to like with its funky, flinty sulphides to nose and palate.  In the citrus-driven mouth it majors on lemon and lime with talcy powder puff lift and savoury cashew notes. 13%

Derwent Estate Chardonnay 2010 (Derwent Valley, Tasmania)

As the stylistic direction has matured this – my former Wine of the Month – is more tightly wound (despite 100% malo) and, overall, tastes drier with grapefruit, apple and oatmeal as well as those attractive sulphide, flinty, slatey notes.  There’s a super subtle sweet hint of candy floss (autolytic lees?) to the finish – a character that I also sometimes find in Yattarna (and which doesn’t detract from this wine’s distinctly firm, dry expression).  It was barrel fermented in French oak, 25% new; 50% wild ferment.  13%

Derwent Estate Chardonnay 2012 (Derwent Valley, Tasmania)

A thrilling piquant and perfumed trill of lime zest to nose and palate, with a firm backbone of grapefruit – well-focused, but with some richness (the aim of 100% malo is to fill out the back palate with softer, lactic acid).  Very pure, even, balanced and long with an attractive hint of bay leaf and seamless integration of oak.  Terrific. 13.2%

Derwent Estate Chardonnay 2014 (Derwent Valley, Tasmania)

This was the first vintage in the new winery which Schuts believes has resulted in greater vibrancy (because of less handling), especially for the Pinot Noir.  A complex nose and palate bristles with bay leaf-edged grapefruit, lime and flinty but very integrated sulphides.  It’s a little fuller than the 2012 but with no shortage of vim and vigour.  Very good.  13.2%

Derwent Estate Calcaire Chardonnay 2011 (Derwent Valley, Tasmania)

Calcaire is Derwent Estate’s first foray into a more parcellated approach, very much driven by Schuts.  Yields were pulled back to just 4.5-5t/ha, with vines pruned to just one bunch per shoot before flowering (normally there would be 1-3 bunches).  It produces a concentration which is immediately apparent in the intensity, tautness and attack of this wine.  With fine, racy, very persistent acidity, this Chardonnay has great energy, excitement and tension to its flinty, grapefruit palate, with incipient (sweeter) pink grapefruit and cashew.   Calcaire was pressed straight to (500l) barrels (new) and comprised just the middle cut of the press (c. 400-500l).  Both ferments – primary and secondary – were wild.   Schutz reckons they are on the right track with this (parcellated) project – for him a means of showing what the soil can do and showing off Derwent Estate’s unique acid profile. 12.8%

Derwent Estate Calcaire Chardonnay 2014 (Derwent Valley, Tasmania)

In 2014, a low yielding year in any event (the bad vintage for frost) this wine has the 2011’s impressive concentration, sorbet-like purity, freshness and length, but it is delivered with greater restraint.  Seemingly more urbane, it’s less in a hurry and, with no loss of elegance, is fuller and riper too, with hints of mandarin. I’d love to see this again in a couple of years.  Much yet to give.  12.8%

Derwent Estate Late Harvest Riesling 2015 (Derwent Valley, Tasmania)

A ripe fruit spectrum is encouraged by leaf plucking the fruit exposed to the morning sun two months before harvest, followed by the afternoon sun side into March when the heat has gone out of the sun.  Complete exposure.  With 24 hours’ skin contact prior to pressing, it has a touch of phenolic grunt on the nose – orange peel as well as blossom and honey.   In the mouth, it’s surprisingly soft and honeyed on entry and through the mid-palate,  with pretty, perfumed sweet mandarin and fleshier, juicier nectarine with a touch of tart skin bite going through for balance.  The acid backbone pulls through on a long, persistent finish.  Very pretty, very good.  60g/l residual sugar, 10%

Derwent Estate Pinot Noir 2015 (Derwent Valley, Tasmania)

Schuts rates 2015 for its “beautiful natural acidity.” Plenty of attention to detail went into this Pinot with 20 individual ferments by block and (six) clones – 114, 777, MV6 (fermented whole bunch) and three older, traditional larger berried clones which would have been planted with sparkling wine in mind.  But if you control yields, says the winemaker, “you can get a savouriness with a richness.”  The 2015 displays a good depth of fruit to nose and palate, with five spice kissed slippery plum skins and flesh, mulberry and earthier beetroot layers.  Ripe but present tannins subtly anchor the fruit (the own winery/small batch approach has meant more time on skins – 28 days – since there’s no pressure to press).  But what I like best about this Pinot is its definition and brightness.  For Schuts, freshness gets lost with over handling.  This mostly (85%) naturally fermented (primary and malo), hand plunged Pinot was bottled with minimal sulphur unfiltered.  It was aged for around 10 months in 20% new French oak.  Very good.  13.8%

Derwent Estate Calcaire Pinot Noir 2014 (Derwent Valley, Tasmania)

Schuts says it’s still work in progress locating the most expressive Pinot terroir (“we reckon we’re closer with the Chardonnay”). This vintage is the first Pinot Calcaire to see the light of day so he reckons they are on the right track with a parcel which ripens tannins differently (and well), thus lending itself to whole bunch.  The 2014 saw 85% whole bunch and 100% new oak.   As you might expect, its structure is very much to the fore at the moment – like an inside out garment showing its seams – plum skins and grippy tannins which close down the fruit on the inscrutable finish, though the acidity keeps pushing.  In and amongst, I find a glimmer of hipsway fleshy fruit and lifted violets to the mid palate. It needs a year or two to start coming together, but the raw ingredients are there.  13.5%

Derwent Estate Calcaire Pinot Noir 2015 (Derwent Valley, Tasmania)

The 2015, yet to be released, seems more expressive – motile, sensual even, thanks to riper tannins which allow the juicy ripe plum fruit to flow.  Plum skins, violets and a lick of marzipan/cherry stone nuttiness suggest this will be a more opulent Pinot, with attractive nuance and layer.  But the freshness and definition is there too.  Very promising.

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