One of the legendary stories of Australian wine history has just been reborn. I suspect this country has not seen a new release of such pedigree, such depth of history and such sheer and effortless magnificence since the very launch of Hill of Grace itself in 1958. Harvested exactly 50 years later and released this month at a glorious 11 years of age, Ox Hardy Upper Tintara Vineyard 1891 Ancestor Vines McLaren Vale Shiraz 2008 would have to be the most exciting new label on the Australian market in years. And it’s been in the making since 1861.
It was in that year that the Upper Tintara vineyard on the slopes of the north-eastern edge of McLaren Vale was first planted. Within a decade it had been acquired by Thomas Hardy, the ‘father of the South Australian wine industry,’ and it has remained in his family and supplied fruit to the Hardy’s brand ever since.
His great-great grandson Andrew ‘Ox’ Hardy recognised the potential of this special and historic site in the 1990s. ‘For my dad, the late Bob Hardy, it was just a vineyard, but I gradually convinced him of how special it was and we did a lot of replanting in 1998 and 1999,’ he reflects. ‘For years I tried to convince him that we should do something special with the fruit, but he was reluctant, having lost heart after the takeover of the family business in 1992.’
Andrew and his dad started making tiny quantities in 2001 of what he describes as ‘bits of wines as hobbies,’ variously created at Knappstein and then Petaluma, where he was working at the time.
The early vintages were largely sold to the US, but since 2008, Andrew began stockpiling a museum collection of tiny parcels of shiraz from the oldest vines in the top rows of the vineyard, planted by his great-great grandfather in 1891.
There is something unique about this little corner of Blewitt Springs. ‘We are in a gully in an amphitheatre that we call Upper Tintara, near Kay Brothers, near Steve Pannell’s Koomilya vineyard, not far from D’Arenberg, on the edge of Chapel Hill Road,’ Andrew explains. It’s his aspiration to have Upper Tintara officially formalised as a subregion.
This is a very special little pocket of McLaren Vale. With altitudes lifting from 120 to 350m, it catches a little of the cool of the Adelaide Hills, ripening later than the Vale floor, infusing an air of fragrance and spice in its fruits.
This is one of the most distinctive terroirs of the Vale, and I have long been captivated by the unique tannin structure common to Kay’s, Koomilya and the single vineyard wines of Chapel Hill. There’s an ethereal, powdery finesse to the structure of these wines, a tannin profile at once strong, confident and enduring, yet simultaneously super fine, a juxtaposition that I have never seen in quite the same way anywhere else in the world.
Andrew puts this down to the distinctive ironstone geology of Upper Tintara. Kay Brothers Block 6 (which was incidentally planted from cuttings from the Hardy’s Vineyard in 1892) is particularly rich in ironstone. This unique 750 million year old geology has long been prized for red wines. On Thursday 4 February 1886, The South Australian Register reported, ‘The grapes from this small vineyard produce a very superior rich wine, due to the ironstone formation of the hill upon which it is situated.’
Little wonder that this fruit has long been prized. The site has supplied Hardy’s since 1871 and the majority of the fruit has supplied Eileen Hardy since 1970. The original winery built on the site in 1863 was in service until 1923. Its original slate fermenters are all that is left today, reinstated by Andrew for little ferments since 2018. Watch this space for a tiny release of a gorgeously bright ‘Slate Fermented Shiraz’.
Andrew’s sensitive and gentle touch in the winery has upheld the fine-boned structure of Upper Tintara geology and the flattering elegance of his ancient vines. ‘McLaren Vale shiraz to me is an old-fashioned style that should be simply made, about structure and fruit, not about being too bold,’ he declares.
Oak takes a purposeful support role. ‘Talking to dad about how they made red wines at Hardy’s in the old days, it was all about big vats, 5,000-6,000L. Right through to the mid-80s, their oak budgets were tiny, so they simply didn’t have access to many new small format barrels each vintage.’
Hand picked, hand plunged and matured in just a couple of older French oak barrels, the entire production of Ox Hardy Upper Tintara Vineyard 1891 Ancestor Vines McLaren Vale Shiraz 2008 clocks in at just 790 bottles, and it’s only made in the best vintages. For all it represents, it’s underpriced at $225.
For the sheer gravitas of his story and his unassuming talent as a winemaker, Andrew’s humility is refreshing. ‘It’s pretty scary showing people my hobby!’ he grins.
It’s a wine of magnificent finesse, ethereal fragrance, fine-boned grace, silky old vine structure and gentle, effortless, haunting persistence. A distinguished and worthy reincarnation of one of the legendary family stories that established McLaren Vale – and, for that matter, Australian wine. Thomas would be proud. As would Bob.
TYSON STELZER, WBM MAGAZINE, JULY 2019