It’s a bright fresh autumn day and Andrew Hardy is striding through his family’s vineyard at Upper Tintara, in a secluded corner of McLaren Vale. His great-great-grandfather, South Australian wine legend Thomas Hardy, bought this place from its founder, Dr Alexander Kelly, another important wine pioneer, in the 1870s. It’s been in the Hardy family ever since.
Andrew’s nickname is Ox. It’s not hard to see why. As a schoolkid on the sporting field, he was known for barging through the oncoming team, ball in hand, “You bloody great ox!” ringing in his ears. I’m struggling to keep up as he walks up the hill to the oldest rows of shiraz vines on the property, grinning broadly with excitement at the prospect of launching a wine made from these ancient plants.
The vines are twisted, gnarled, their contorted shapes tracing the story of their past in space. For the first 70 years after being poked into the ironstone-rich soil here in 1891, the vines grew close to the ground, trunks thickening imperceptibly over time, curling up only a foot or so above the earth. Then, about 40 years ago, Bob Hardy, Andrew’s father, took a cane from each trunk and trained it up to a wire, making the vines easier to harvest by machine.
“Can you believe it?” says Andrew. “Until the early 2000s, this block was still being machine picked! It took a lot to convince Dad to treat them with the respect they deserve and start hand picking them. But people didn’t use to think about old vineyards the way we do now. They didn’t appreciate the heritage and the history.”
Upper Tintara is a particularly precious slice of South Australian wine history. As well as being home to those 1891 shiraz vines – vines that provided grapes for the famous Hardys ports of the mid-20th century, and the equally famous Eileen Hardy Shiraz over the last five decades – there are a few remnants of Dr Kelly’s original 1860s winery, including a row of big, rectangular slate fermenting vats.
Andrew Hardy is clearly proud of his family’s legacy, despite having spent almost all of his career working as a winemaker for other wine companies, first Petaluma, then Knappstein, then Petaluma again. At the end of 2018 he became director of winemaking at WD Wines, owner of a number of brands including Parker in Coonawarra and St John’s Road in the Barossa. His old friend, WD Managing Director Jonathon Hesketh, also convinced him – after 15 years of discussion – to finally launch his own label, Ox Hardy.
The core wine in the Ox Hardy range is a $38 shiraz made from younger vines on the 45-hectare Upper Tintara vineyard. But there will also be a regular release of a special shiraz made from the 1891 vines, sold with a few years’ bottle age: Andrew and his father started making small batches of this wine in the 1980s, mostly for personal consumption, but from 2008 (the current release) onwards, three barriques, or 70 dozen bottles have been laid down each year.
And next year will see a very limited release of a 2018 shiraz fermented in one of the original slate fermenters, the old-fashioned way, with grapes loaded in and out of the vat by shovel and bucket. The wine is a really different, exciting expression of McLaren Vale red: I’m tempted to say it’s a “new” expression, but it’s perhaps more a glimpse of how Dr Kelly’s and Thomas Hardy’s wines might have tasted like back in the 19th century.
It’s not all shiraz in the Ox Hardy range, though. Andrew has planted the Italian white grape, fiano, and the Portuguese red grape, touriga, here at Upper Tintara, and is very happy with how both perform in McLaren Vale’s warm climate. He has made small batches of wine from the scattering of old cinsaut vines – probably unintentionally planted – in among a block of old cabernet sauvignon; he likes the wines so much he has taken cuttings to plant an intentional cinsaut block.
He also shows me the empty paddocks where he’s going to plant riesling and grenache. And two rows of old sauvignon blanc vines that, in a way, are every bit as historic as the 128-year-old shiraz block.
“The story goes that Thomas Hardy brought back sauvignon blanc vines from France, supposedly from Sauternes, and planted them here,” says Andrew. “This is where Hardys always used to source grapes from to make their unique fortified liqueur sauvignon blanc. And in the boom time of the 1980s and 90s, when everyone suddenly wanted to plant sav blanc, this is where the cuttings came from.”
Since 2012 Andrew Hardy has been making his own fortified liqueur sauvignon blanc. He pours me a taste of the batch he made in 2017 and it’s beautiful: grapey, perfumed, fresh, with intense flavours of citron and spirit.
“Obviously this is a very long-term project,” he says. “The Hardys liqueur sauvignon was blended from barrels that dated back over a century. I’m only seven years in. This version won’t be ready to release properly until after we’re dead. It’s a wine for future generations.”
Ox Hardy Shiraz Three Ways
2016 Ox Hardy Upper Tintara Vineyard Shiraz, A$38
This is a terrific example of modern McLaren Vale shiraz: there’s plenty of glossy, dark plummy fruit rolling around on the tongue, but it’s not heavy or overripe; instead it’s held together by fine, firm, clinging tannins, thanks to the pressings being blended back into the free run. “I like tannins,” says Hardy, smiling.
2008 Ox Hardy 1891 Ancestor Vine Shiraz, A$225
The first of a string of back vintages of shiraz produced from the oldest vines at Upper Tintara, this is absolutely ready to drink right now: squishy, pippy blackberry compote fruit, mouth-coating plushness, supple tannins and an attractive balsamic twist tying it all together. “I like a bit of VA (volatile acidity),” says Hardy, smiling even more. I also tasted the forthcoming vintages and really loved the concentration of the 2012, the seductive richness of the 2015 and sinewy firm oaky structure of the 2016. “I like oak,” beaming now.
2018 Ox Hardy Slate Fermented Shiraz, A$80
Tasted as a barrel sample and due for release in 2020, this is a beautiful, bold and lively young shiraz with floral, spicy perfume, medium-bodied but intense brambly fruit, bright, grippy, powdery tannins and a lick of dark liquorice. Gorgeous now; I can’t wait to try it again once it’s bottled.