The Eileen Hardy story part 1

This is the story of three jaw-dropping wines – a $90 shiraz, a $13 shiraz and a $40 chardonnay.

The first has been 35 years in the making and the second, 19 years. The third, with only a few vintages in bottle, might be just a shadow of itself without the 35-year endeavour behind the $90 bottle.

The $90 and $40 wines are Eileen Hardy Shiraz and Eileen Hardy Chardonnay, respectively – flagships for the Hardy Wine Company, a division of US based Constellation brands.

Both wines give the lie to the notion – put about by French makers and some critics — that big Aussie companies make nothing but oceans of bland soul-less wine. What rubbish.

The Eileens are superb, small production wines built on a deep and growing intimacy with numerous small vineyard plots.

At a tasting this week, Hardy red-wine maker, Paul Lapsley, explained that in May, after red-wine classifications, the team reviewed the performance of wines from each vineyard and sub-plots within vineyards and from there determined a pruning regime and target yields.

Vineyards likely to produce fruit good enough for Eileen Hardy shiraz had, over the last five years, been converted from mechanical pruning to hand pruning. While expensive, it means individual care of every vine and a higher success rate in creating properly ripe berries – the very core of a wine of this calibre.

Correct pruning is only part of the picture. Lapsley says that it’s important to keep the vines free of excess stress and to avoid overcropping. To achieve this, the Eileen vineyards are mulched to retain ground water while shoot thinning and the removal of unripe fruit help maintain a crop load in balance with the foliage.

If all goes well this produces berries that ripen at modest sugar levels (too much sugar equals too much alcohol in the finished wine) and produce wines with vibrant fruit, not the ‘thick stewiness of over-ripe fruit’.

Typically, says Lapsley,  “the vineyards that produce this quality are 30 to 100 years old. Old vines produce wines that have a sweetness and creaminess on the mid palate – a silkiness”.

The perfect Eileen Hardy Shiraz grape, Paul reckons, weighs about one gram, displays vibrant fruit ripeness and has ripe tannins in the skins and seeds. That’s how finicky this flagship wine business is – aiming to get every berry just right.

Having harvest the right fruit Lapsley’s aim in the winery is to “express that fruit”, to build a savoury element, and to extract the tannins that give structure without harshness.

Each batch is gently crushed to include whole berries and fermented in small open fermenters with the skins floating as a cap on top. The open fermenters mean some desirable alcohol evaporation, with finished wines 1 to 1.5 per cent lower in alcohol than wines from closed vessels.

And the floating cap (as opposed to submerged using boards), according to Paul, allows some oxygen exposure, greater permeability for pumping the juice over and better temperature control.

From the fermenter each batch goes to compatible oak barrels. And the diversity of small parcels used in Eileen means an equal diversity of new used French oak barrels from various top coopers.

And remember, at this stage Eileen is still a collection of unique small batches. The blend comes much later as we’ll see next week.

Hardys Eileen Hardy Chardonnay 2002 $35 to $45
A vertical tasting of Eileen Hardy Chardonnays from the first vintage, 1986, to the unreleased 2004 (see main story) confirmed in my mind that Eileen sits at the top of the pack in Australia. To my palate it hit the pace in 2000 and, since then, it’s made little advances with the 2002 and 2004 being as good as it gets in Australia. And that makes it a bargain given the $100 plus price tags of some of its competitors. Good bottles of 2002 I’d rate as probably the best Aussie chardonnay yet tasted. However, the 2004 gives it a close run and will ultimately be the better buy as it comes screw cap sealed and should not suffer the bottle variation seen under earlier cork-sealed vintages.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2005 & 2007