In a quiet corner of McLaren Vale Ox Hardy’s returning life to a sacred wine site.
I doubt Andrew ‘Ox’ Hardy wakes in the morning and has a panic about what he’s going to wear to the office.
I haven’t seen inside his wardrobe, but I suspect there’s a decent selection of variously toned pink shirts, lurid to pale. He’s famous for them. Not quite as famous as Chester Osborn is for his outrageous shirts, but he’s getting there.
He’s wearing one, as you would expect, on the morning we meet up at his office for the day, the original Tintara winery site tucked discreetly away in a north-easterly corner of the McLaren Vale region as it rises into the revered Blewitt Springs district.
It’s been there since 1863; the vineyard since 1861, both created by regional pioneer Dr Alexander Kelly, later acquired by Thomas Hardy in the 1870s. There was a time when 360 people lived and worked 700 acres of bush vines and in the winery here.
What remains are two classic country homes, still occupied, 350 acres of the estate and 105 acres of vines, and the remnants of the old gravity fed winery.
A row of slate fermenters in various condition, five of the original 12, still stands on the side of the hill, below it a stone and brick-domed water tank and two round-ended open tanks where secondary wines were made for later distillation.
A photo at a 1953 anniversary gathering at the site shows a huge winery cellar building which operated from 1863-1923.
If it wasn’t for some action around the slate fermenters, today you might easily be tempted to call these the ruins of a historic site in the story of Australian wine. Random rocks. Slate chips strewn all around.
In that context, it is a sacred site. And at the centre of it all, Ox Hardy is returning life to it – small, first steps to fulfil a lifelong dream. Today, he’s performing his winemaking duties as honed over 35 plus years in the game, notably at Petaluma across its varied ownerships before taking on the role as winemaker across several brands at the umbrella WD Wines – Ox Hardy Wines among them.
What Ox is doing here is genuinely going back to basics. He’s plunging a cap of fermenting Shiraz in one of the slate tanks – the third year he’s done so after they’d been idle for 95 years.
The foamy highlights of the red wine in early fermentation are a perfect colour match on the winemaker’s distinctive, collar-up shirt. His scarred work boots almost camouflage his steps on the old family stomping ground.
The rebirth began in 2018 when he swept out the tank that was in best nick, cleaned it thoroughly, waxed up its edges and corners, shaped a removable ply top and bucketed in 2.3 tonnes of fruit from what’s called the Moreton Bay block on the estate after it had been crushed nearby. The resulting wine has just been released – more on that later.
This story – this wine – has been five generations in the making. Ox has always wanted to make something out of this place and this history.
“There’s no commerciality about it,” he says. “It’s a really simple way to make wine. It’s handmade, old fashioned, how it was done in the past.
“Who says if it’s right or wrong – I’m doing it because I’ve always wanted to do something here.
“I’ve come here since I was a kid. We used to play here. We used to have family picnics near here. We all ran around in the creeks.
“This had to happen.”
While its simplicity and directness are the core characters of this wine and its siblings from the estate, a more accessibly priced, affectionately nicknamed ‘Little Ox’ vineyard Shiraz and an elite 1891 Ancestor Vine Shiraz, as well as a Blewitt Springs Grenache sourced from a vineyard nearby, the wines do engage in intriguing conundrums.
Does the slate fermenter, sourced and built from a local Willunga quarry in the early 1860s, weathered for more than 150 years at Upper Tintara, impart anything to the wine that normally would not occur from a barrel or stainless-steel tank?
Well yes, is the short answer. There is something going on here, Ox ponders. A difference in colour, which seems to be much bolder than other Shiraz from the estate. And texturally – he describes it as a unique tannin feel that goes beyond what comes from the seeds and skins of the fruit, and not from any new oak influence, the wine, still a 2018 youngster, having only ever seen older French barrels.
“I think it’s the slate – I don’t know how to explain it,” he says.
“Chemically there might be a reason. There’ll be an ion exchange happening with the tannins. And the wine is soaking into the slate, but when you empty the fermenter there’s no colour in the slate. So, something is happening.”
A clearer answer may appear after this vintage because Ox has directed fruit from the same block, picked on the same day, crushed concurrently at the current Tintara winery in McLaren Vale and taking in its indigenous yeast, like the slate Shiraz, but then into a small, open stainless-steel tank to do a mirror ferment, plunged three times daily, everything the same, the whole shooting match.
Will there be a difference between the two wines? The answer is: watch this space.
Will you be able to taste the history? Where does terroir start and finish? Big questions.
“Maybe I am influencing it,” Ox thinks aloud.
“But this – the slate fermenter, local slate too – is part of the terroir because it’s been here so long. It’s the history. This has been here since 1863 and hasn’t moved. You could make an argument that it is part of the terroir.”
Perhaps there’ll always be some mystery about it, he wonders. A sensory thing. A family thing. A destiny.
“I don’t even know if I want to know what’s going on? Do you really want to know?
“Even when you do know you won’t really know.”
OX HARDY 2018 SLATE SHIRAZ ($80)
Only 80 dozen made. Rare and yes, something special is going on here. It’s dark, purple to black. There’s a faint ferruginous, iron filing thing that is like a foundation underneath an earthy spice note to start. Fruit ripeness is delightfully controlled encouraging darker berry and anise senses. Then there’s the palate feel – medium to just fuller bodied and a seamless, chalky tannin that never blocks the limitless, dark shiraz flavour flow. Fully engaging wine.
OX HARDY UPPER TINTARA VINEYARD 2016 SHIRAZ ($38)
In this unique space, this is more your everyday ‘Little Ox’ Shiraz, a terrific drinking McLaren Vale wine but with distinct Upper Tintara district senses. An aromatic red floral note to start, and if McLaren Vale Shiraz can ever be described as “elegant” this is it. The tannin arc starts later than the slate, allowing a juicier style with textural delicacy.
OX HARDY 1891 ANCESTOR VINE 2010 SHIRAZ ($225)
A tiny block of vines planted by pioneer Thomas Hardy remains, and only a small number of those go into this historic, emblematic wine and fewer than 1,000 bottles were made. The colour is still incredibly youthful – as are those vines for their age. The nose still impresses with primary fruit characters, yet it smells undeniably of old vine shiraz. How to define that smell? Ox’s answer: “What is that – it’s that piece of dirt, red, ironstone is underneath. It’s that ferruginous thing all over again.” In the mouth there’s a beautiful fruit character that’s powerful but gently so, you sense extraordinary intensity but it doesn’t knock you over. Ox’s thoughts: “It’s a very soft way of making wine, little fermenters, hand plunging, little tank presses, nothing aggressive about the winemaking, No fancy stuff going on.” There’s wonder, history and a timelessness in this bottle, that comes in a wooden box with detailed notes.