Vineyards underpin McKay’s new Collector label

Despite Hardy’s sudden departure from Canberra, its ten-year presence leaves a valuable legacy that’s bound to express itself in unsuspected ways.

Short of a miracle, the legacy probably won’t be the Kamberra or Meeting Place brands – the small volume face of Hardy’s Canberra involvement.

It’s more likely to come from the know-how of the staff that stayed behind – Alex McKay and Nick O’Leary — and the ingenuity of a score or so independent, former Hardy grape growers.

We’ll almost certainly see an increase in the numbers of wine brands, including this month the release of Alex McKay’s Collector label.

In a big statement for Canberra’s acknowledged specialty, McKay offers two gold-medal-winning shirazes from the Murrumbateman area – Collector The Marked Tree Road Shiraz 2005 (about $27) and Collector Reserve Shiraz 2006 (about $45).

This extraordinary debut is to a large extent a Hardy legacy – revealing the depth of Alex’s experience in the district and the quality of the grapes available.

But there’s a fair bit more to the story, much of it predating Hardy and going back to a time when Alex McKay, an undergraduate art history student, was whetting his taste for winemaking at Lake George Vineyard, under Dr Edgar Riek.

As Riek entered his second decade as a grape grower in the early eighties, Ron McKenzie established a vineyard on his property Mamre at Murrumbateman. Over a couple of seasons McKenzie planted a little under four hectares of chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon, shiraz and what he thought was merlot (in fact it was cabernet franc).

In 1999 McKenzie sold the vineyard to Andrew McEwin, owner of the well-regarded Kyeema Estate label, and a buyer of part of McKenzie’s fruit crop since 1987.

McEwin recalls that when bought the vineyard, Hardy’s were already buying fruit from it. He recalls ‘Steve Pannell [chief winemaker] in raptures over the shiraz’ and believes that this may have been a key to their interest in the region.

As Andrew’s Kyeema shiraz from the vineyard was a regular gold-medal winner, Hardy’s excitement really just confirmed how good the fruit was – and put a price on it.

McEwin says that in every year but one Hardy’s paid a quality bonus when wine from the vineyard made the cut for the company’s top-shelf products. He believes that both chardonnay and shiraz reached the flagship ‘Eileen Hardy’ blends on at least one occasion.

Encouraged by the vineyard’s quality, Andrew recently expanded it by about 1.6 hectares – about half of that being struck from cuttings of the existing old shiraz vines and the other half planted to merlot and tempranillo.

At the same time he replaced the cabernet sauvignon with shiraz and retrellised the whole vineyard. What was ‘grow and sprawl’, said Andrew, is now the more controlled, and quality orientated, vertical shoot positioning system.

During the growing season shiraz receives particular attention, including shoot thinning and bunch thinning to control yields and maximise flavour.

Andrew says that as a contract maker for other grape growers he regularly sees what other vineyards produce. This, he says, confirms the quality of his own shiraz.

As winemaker at the large Hardy-owned Kamberra complex, McKay enjoyed even greater exposure to Canberra’s various shiraz vineyards than McEwin. As well, he participated in Hardy’s classification tastings across all varieties at company headquarters in Reynell, South Australia.

Coming from that broad – and very demanding perspective – McKay’s decision to make only shiraz for his new Collector label and to select McEwin’s vineyard as source of the ‘Reserve’ version – could, in a sense, be seen as Hardy’s collective learning on our region.

Talking to Alex McKay it’s clear that he views Clonakilla and McEwin as Canberra’s two best shiraz vineyards. Which just goes to show that even with the same inputs, all vineyards are not equal.

There is something special about the grapes – and hence the wine — from Andrew McEwin’s tiny, quarter-century old vineyard planted on a granitic saddle between two hills near Murrumbateman.

We’ve seen glimpses of it in Andrew’s Kyeema Wines over the years. But the winemaking experience that McKay brings reveals even more. I’ll review the two new Collector wines shortly.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2007