Eileen Hardy goes south for quality

Paul Lapsley, chief winemaker of Accolade Wines, owner of Hardy's

Eileen Hardy shiraz and Eileen Hardy chardonnay date from 1970 and 1986 respectively. The wines released under the labels since then mirror Australia’s winemaking history. And, like time capsules, each vintage reveals something of the winemaking and viticulture of its time. Collectively they carry a rich history.

Eileen Hardy Shiraz 1970 reflected the red wine boom of the time, the dominance of warm South Australian regions in this phenomenon and the unquestioned status of shiraz in McLaren Vale – home of the then family-owned Thomas Hardy and Sons. Eileen Hardy shiraz later wandered from its origins, parallel to similar moves across the industry, only to return to its McLaren Vale roots years later.

Sixteen years after the first Eileen shiraz, as white wine boomed, Eileen Hardy chardonnay arrived – based on grapes from Padthaway, South Australia. Over time grape sourcing followed quality southwards – settling principally in the Yarra Valley and Tasmania by the turn of the century.

During the journey, the style changed dramatically – from the big, fat, oaky, buttery style of the eighties (based on warm-climate fruit) to the more fine-boned, intense, Burgundy-like versions we enjoy today.

While Australians embraced chardonnay en masse in the eighties, popular discovery of pinot noir remained decades away. But in recent times it’s become the fastest growing red variety (driven largely by New Zealand wines) – and even now that’s off a very small base.

Once a footnote in Australian red-wine sales figures, pinot accounted for six per cent by value of retail red wine sales in the year to September 2011, according to Nielsen data.

Vintage Cellars liquor executive, Grant Ramage, says the figures also reveal pinot as “the fastest growing of the major varieties” at 21 per cent for the year, compared to nine per cent for shiraz (which accounts for 26 per cent of red wine sales) and five per cent for cabernet sauvignon.

The figures also reveal that we pay more, on average, for pinot than for shiraz or red in general – $17.50 retail a bottle for pinot, $12.50 for shiraz and $8.49 for red wine overall.

Where interest in chardonnay grew on a wide popular front, driven by cheaper wines from high-yielding, warm-climate vineyards, pinot started at the top, made in tiny quantities by dedicated producers in cool regions.

Hardy’s move into serious pinot noir began with its acquisition of Yarra Burn winery and vineyards, in Victoria’s Yarra Valley, a couple of decades back.

Then in the nineties, the search for high quality pinot and chardonnay for sparkling wine led Hardys to Tasmania. But they quickly embraced table wine, too. By the turn of the century, grape sourcing for Eileen Hardy chardonnay had shifted mainly to Tasmania and the Yarra Valley.

From 2002 their Bay of Fires winery at Pipers River processed all of the company’s Tasmanian fruit – for both table and sparkling wines. By 2009, under Fran Austin, Bay of Fires Pinot Noir had emerged as one of the state’s finest.

By this time, Hardy’s also held two held two vintages of its new Eileen Hardy Pinot Noir in its cellars. They’ve since been released quietly into the market – wines of exceptional quality, yet little known outside the wine industry.

The first release, from the hot 2008 vintage, comes from two mature vineyards in Tasmania’s Coal River Valley and the Yarra Burn vineyard in the upper Yarra Valley. It’s a full-bodied pinot noir, reflecting the hot season.

The currently available 2009 vintage ($85 at cellar door), and the not-yet-released 2010, are both 100 per cent Tasmanian, says chief winemaker Paul Lapsley.

But it’s not always a lay down misere for Tasmania”, he says. It can be a blend or a single vineyard”. He explains that in 2009 the blend appeared likely to included fruit from Yarra Burn. But February bushfires, and subsequent smoke taint ruled out this possibility.

Fortunately a single parcel for fruit from the Tollpuddle vineyard, in Tasmania’s Coal River Valley, rose to the occasion. Lapsley says they made the 2009 from a half-hectare section on the middle slopes of the 2.5-hectare vineyard. It’s a finer, more elegant style than the 2009, reflecting benign growing conditions.

The 2010 also appeared set to be a Tasmania-Yarra blend. But untimely heavy rain in the upper Yarra led to flavour dilution – ruling the fruit out of contention for the flagship blend.

In the end, says Lapsley, the wine includes material from on Coal River vineyard and Derwent Estate, at Granton, on the Derwent River.

Lapsley says the greatest sites in Tasmania at present tend to in the Coal River Valley and at Derwent Estate, but may expand to the East Coast as vineyards there mature as “the textural component is lacking at present.

There’ll be no 2011 Eileen Hardy Pinot Noir and the 2012 remains in the future – although Tasmania appears particularly attractive several weeks out from vintage, says Lapsley.

Looking further ahead Lapsley sees continuing “synergies between Tasmania and the upper Yarra. But we won’t stop looking in Mornington, Gippsland and Beechworth. If it fits the bill, we’ll use it”.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2012
First published 21 January 2012 in The Canberra Times, Sydney Morning Herald