Hardy-Reynella winemaker beavers on despite turmoil

Last year’s spate of wine company floats could easily be seen as bankers selling debt to the public on a prayer that things might get better. A sceptical view, perhaps, but not unjustified in light of the apparently poor returns of most wine companies. Beneath the turmoil in boardrooms, though, winemakers continued to make the most of the vineyards and equipment procured with those borrowings in the 1980’s.

On Christmas Eve, David O’Leary, red-wine maker for the BRL Hardy Group, shyly slipped into the office carrying a plain brown wine box. A year of turmoil as Hardys and Berri Renmano Co-Operative joined forces hadn’t touched operations down at Hardys Tintara Winery in McLaren Vale.

In the box, O’Leary bore the fruits of his labours: samples of red wines made in 1991, the second consecutive outstanding vintage for much of South Australia, and especially he McLaren Vale region.

O’Leary deserves much of the credit for having pulled Hardys out of its red-wine tail spin of the mid to late seventies and early eighties. With respect for historical achievements in red wine making and a good mastery of technology, he’s quickly dragged the company’s reds back to their roots without closing an eye to what consumers may want.

He worked his first vintage in 1980 at Lindemans in Coonawarra. There he saw those blue-bloods, St George Cabernet and Limestone Ridge Shiraz Cabernet in the making. From there he moved to Petaluma in the Adelaide Hills under the inspired guidance of Brian Croser.

At the Tintara Winery in McLaren Vale he was pleasantly surprised when Hardy’s Chief Winemaker, Geoff Weaver (a white specialist), gave him virtually free reign with the reds. And, he reports, BRL Hardy’s new chief, Steven Millar, seems to support that idea.

Since O’Leary took the reigns at Tintara, we’ve seen a lift in red body and depth. O’Leary attributes that to work in both vineyard and winery.

He’s a great admirer of the Penfold Wine Group’s ‘end use evaluation scheme’. Under this system, Penfolds tracks the end use of every batch of grapes delivered to its wineries. The scheme not only rewards growers of better quality grapes with bonuses, but ultimately lifts wine quality as it identifies particularly favoured sites and encourages adaptation of vineyard management techniques to suit them.

O’Leary’s domain may be somewhat smaller than Penfold’s, but he spends a lot of time in vineyards, and sees to it that growers of the highest quality grapes receive a bonus for their efforts. He too tracks the end use of each batch. He sees a direct correlation between yields and quality. While that varies from region to region and with different varieties, he believes that, in general, the very best wines come from vines yielding 7 tonnes or less to the hectare.

In the winery, he combines modern and traditional techniques to extract pure fruit flavours and add complexity.

He uses closed, temperature-controlled Vinomatic fermenters to capture fresh fruit aromas and flavours. And to get texture and complexity, he’s resurrected turn-of-the-century basket presses. These are painfully slow, but he’s found the best grapes respond by giving inky deep colours and a rich, chewy mouth feel.

These better grape batches ferment in old wax-lined, open concrete fermenters, where the cap of skins are held under by boards, and the tanks laboriously drained and the cooled juice pumped back over each day to break the cap help extract colour and flavour. He finds that these batches while lower in primary fruit flavours and smells than those from the Vinomatics, give his reds more grip and that wonderful, brooding, inky-deep colour and flavours.

The ultimate expression of all this effort is Eileen Hardy Shiraz. The 1991, a McLaren Vale-Padthaway blend is simply brilliant – a tour de force of ripe Australian shiraz aged in the best quality oak. Long cellaring is required.

In a powerful return to the tradition of Chateau Reynella, his 1991 Shiraz and Cabernet are phenomenal wines for the cellar. The Cabernet is remarkable for its sweet fruit and power; the shiraz for a magnificent ‘violets’ aroma.

Stepping away from tradition, his Hardy Collection Coonawarra Cabernet 1991, to be released at around $9 or $10, seems even better than the gold-medal-winning 1990. A ‘Reserve’ version from a contacted section of the old Hungerford Hill Coonawarra vineyard shows even greater promise.

And for everyday drinking, Hardys McLaren Vale Hermitage 1991 delivers rich, plummy, genuine regional flavours for around $6. Its cellarmate, Nottage Hill Cabernet Sauvignon 1991 (38 per cent McLaren Vale , the balance Padthaway and Coonawarra) provides greater fragrance with the elegant, smooth taste of Cabernet.

At this level we see not profound wines, but wines far better than we bought for the same price ten yeas ago.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 1992 & 2007