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Thirty years of Hardys Eileen Hardy Chardonnay: a vertical

Eileen Hardy Chardonnay is 30 years old this year.  A brilliant excuse for this eye-opening, unrepeatable vertical (old stocks are too depleted), which I felt privileged to attend.  The flagship Eileen Hardy range was created in 1973 in tribute to Eileen Hardy, who was awarded an O.B.E. in 1976 for her services to the wine industry. Although it was suggested she might receive her O.B.E. in Australia, there was no stopping the 83 year old from coming to London to visit the queen!  And it would seem this sprightly Chardonnay has taken a leaf out its namesake’s book.  It ages extremely well. 

Tom Newton (pictured below), Hardy’s Chief White Winemaker, hosted the tasting together with founding family members Sir James Hardy (Eileen’s son) and his nephew Bill Hardy with his daughter Alex. Given the corporate revolving doors at Hardy’s, like these older vintages, Newton is a rare beast.  He joined Hardys in 1982, since when it became part of Australia’s second largest wine group (BRL Hardy Limited), then the world’s largest wine company.  That company, Constellation Wines, was renamed Accolade Wines when it was acquired by CHAMP, an Australian private equity company, in 2011.

But then Newton seems a steady fellow.  An ideal custodian, one might say, for the jewel in the crown of Hardy’s flagship Eileen Hardy brand, the Chardonnay.  Like the company, it has evolved through a series of strategic alliances, switching fruit sourcing to embrace Australia’s best cool climate Chardonnay regions.  In the 1980s, that was Padthaway in South Australia’s Limestone Coast.  Although Padthaway Chardonnay would still have been acidified, Newton pointed out, the region was still much cooler than the source of most Australian Chardonnay back then, the Riverland.

Cooler for drinkability & complexity

In the 1990s, fruit from the cooler Yarra Valley, Adelaide Hills, Canberra and Tasmania was blended with Padthaway Chardonnay.  Newton explained “we were making big, flavoursome wines but you couldn’t drink more than a glass – maybe a second, but not a third, so we started thinking about drinkability and it evolved into a cool[er] climate Chardonnay.”

In the late 90s, Padthaway was ditched.  Since then, fruit sourcing, which differs each year, has tended to focus on Yarra Valley, Adelaide Hills and Tasmania with contributions from Tumbarumba, even a dash of Margaret River in 2014.

Seeing the light/lighter – away from yellow peach to white peach and citrus.

Although producing multi-regional blends is a great means of achieving great consistency of style, this vertical featured significant stylistic variation (over and above the impact of vintage) by reason of the individual regional make up of each year and, I reckon, different degrees of malo and batonnage.

Some wines seemed to have more emphatic texture and savoury funk than others. For me, this was a refreshing aspect of the tasting – pursuing a house style can sometimes iron out some interesting X factor creases!

A canvas

Newton has made Chardonnay at Hardys since 1984 (apparently 1983 was a bad year).  That’s early days for the variety in Australia (Tyrrell’s are attributed with releasing the first commercial Chardonnay, Vat 47 in 1971 – it was labelled Pinot Chardonnay as the grape was then known down under.)  Speaking about his passion for the grape, he told us he loves Chardonnay for being “a bit of a canvas.” Which means, he observed, even for so-called non-interventionists, choice of site shapes the wine.

As for the Burgundian winemaking techniques (barrel ferments, natural yeast, lees-ageing and batonnage) which have become de rigueur since he started, Newton reckons they were “a natural progression” for Eileen Hardy (together with malolactic fermentation) given the shift to cooler climate regions.  Why?  Because in his opinion, “if you don’t build up texture and interest [wines are whole bunch pressed and wild fermented on just hazy solids] you will make simple wines.”

Impressive ageability

If there was a common thread, it was about the quality of the fruit and the age-worthiness of this impressive Chardonnay.  Though a few of the wines (all under cork) showed a bit more development than expected, none of the wines were, as we say in the trade, “curios,” i.e. interesting to taste from a historical perspective, but a ghost of their former selves.  Even the oldest, the 1986, retained more than a vestige of fruit, prompting some interesting discussions.

Over lunch, my mention of tasting a stunning Hardys 1959 Cabernet a few years ago prompted Newton to observe that, while mature Australian reds from the 60s and earlier can show great complexity, wines from the 70s and 80s are relatively “solid” and “boring.”  We agreed that they can be remarkable keepers of fruit, but lack layer and nuance.

My feeling with Eileen Hardy Chardonnay is that the wines of the noughties and the current decade will show more nuance and layer with age than their more solid counterparts from the 1980s and early 1990s. The inclusion of Tasmanian fruit in particular produced a marked step change in structure.  To borrow from Red Bull, cool climate acidity gives these wines’ wings – an un-matchable (and, being natural, perfectly integrated) backbone of acidity around which to build texture and extend and enhance the very many layers of flavour which Newton crafts into Eileen Hardy Chardonnay.

Better storage conditions and screwcap (introduced in 2004) has evidently helped produce more tightly wound wines too –  the last flight looked extremely youthful.  Occurring relatively late in the day (although Hardys had experimented with it in the 70s when it failed to take off with consumers), Sir James explained “we had some glass [bottles for cork closures] left over…we’d have changed in 2002 if we could have.”

During the tasting itself, which was held at Berry Bros & Rudd, I sat next to Bill Hardy who, with Alex, had attended the earlier Australian 30 Year vertical.  Unable to contain himself, Bill enthused “I really can’t believe it – I thought the first dozen would have fallen over….”  Also seated at my table, Berry Bros & Rudd’s Dan Jago, Robert Joseph and I all expressed disappointment about ‘prem-ox,’ which has resulted in inconsistent and rapid development of some top Burgundies.

It was not the first tasting in which the ageability of fine Australian Chardonnay was compared very favourably with Burgundy.  (I particularly had in mind the six bottles of Domaine Jospeh Faiveley Puligny-Montrachet 1er Cru Les Folatières 2010 – a recent top vintage – which I’d bought a few years ago for this year’s milestone birthday).

The tasting – conclusions

Below you’ll find my notes on the wines.  They appear in the order shown (oldest to youngest).  Each of the three chronological flights was themed by Hardys, hence the titles.

The 1986 was the first year in which Eileen Hardy was made.  It has been made every year since save 2011, although the 2007 (shown) was not released.  Not as concentrated as the others, the 2007 served to underline Hardys’ rigorous focus on quality.

With scarce library stock, no Eileen Hardy 1991, 1993 and 1994 was available for the tasting.  I’m told a good few bottles of the earlier examples were discarded to arrive at our fault-free flights.

My picks of the bunch?  In flight 1, the 1987, 1990 & 1996.  In flight 2,  2000, 2001 & 2003.  In flight 3, lots to like here.  The older wines in this flight are really hitting their straps, so 2004, 2006, 2008 & 2009 really stood out.

Finally, it’s worth flagging that ageability is not the only reason one might favour fine Australian Chardonnay over Burgundy.  Representing terrific value for money, Hardy’s Eileen Hardy Chardonnay retails for around £25 at Asda and Waitrose (half the price of my disappointing Faiveley); you will find details of stockists for some of the older (2008, 2010, 2012, 2013) vintages below as well.  I really wish I had some of those noughties in my cellar!

Flight 1 – 1986 to 1996  – in search of complexity

Hardys Eileen Hardy Chardonnay 1986 (Padthaway)

Antique gold with a touch of mouldy orange peel on the nose (which I commonly find in older whites).  In the mouth it surprised me how well it was holding up, with concentrated waxy tangerine/tangerine peel – distinct fruit sweetness – as well as spicy grapefruit pith (especially going back), cashew and lightly salted butter.  Good body and balance still.  Going back at the end, the fruit has tired a bit and it looks a little flat.  But a couple of hours later that’s not unreasonable for a 30 year old Chardonnay!  Impressed.  12.1%

Hardys Eileen Hardy Chardonnay 1987 (Padthaway)

Paler, prettier and fresher than the 96, with a lively thread of acidity to animate its pot pourri, ripe peach and candied lemon zest fruit.  Going back to that conversation with Newton over lunch, it’s less ‘solid’ than the ’96.  It makes for a motile, lingering and layered wine with a touch of creaminess to the finish.  The pot pourri gives it nice lift too.  12.5%

Hardys Eileen Hardy Chardonnay 1988 (Padthaway)

Antique gold, this wine tastes like a more advanced example of the 86.   It’s a little pokey – hot (alcohol) and compressed, its spicy/mouldy orange peel and pith flavours reedier than the older wine.  According to Newton, this was a hot year.  Not much to get a grip on here.  13.1%

Hardys Eileen Hardy Chardonnay 1989 (Padthaway)

This wine seems sweeter, with plenty of fruit – ripe peach and tinned mandarin to nose and palate, tingling acidity and a touch of grapefruit pith to balance.   Its delivery is admirably composed for a 26 year old wine.  Even going back at the end, it’s peachy and luscious.   Newton mentioned that there was a bit of botrytis in this vintage which perhaps explains this concentration of sweetness and acidity, also the alcohol.  A one glass wine.  14.1%

Hardys Eileen Hardy Chardonnay 1990 (Padthaway)

This wine is a relatively light hue compared with the previous vintage.  It was the first vintage to be barrel fermented as opposed to cool fermented in stainless steel.  Certainly the smoky oak note, even a touch of fish oil, to nose and palate suggest that there’s been a shift in the oak regime.  I’m pleased to say that the fish oil note had blown off when I returned to this wine at the end.  By this time, it had really moved up a gear, becoming more expressive, with nutty oak and concentrated but, relative to the peach, quite restrained melon and grapefruit.  More textural too, with waxy, lanolin nuances.  One might even say Burgundian.  13.8%

Hardys Eileen Hardy Chardonnay 1992 (Padthaway/Yarra Valley)

Yarra Valley crept into Eileen Hardy for the first time in 1992 (21% of the blend according to the tasting booklet, though it says Padthaway accounts for 89% of the fruit).  This lemony yellow/gold wine has a different acid structure – seemingly more integrated – a little softer.  It seems more savoury too with oatmeal, nutty oak and a very textural finish which ‘clouds’ the fruit a bit.  Looks a bit tired going back.    Although Newton says they were playing around with solids and skin contact on the side, neither featured in this wine.  As Bill Hardy subsequently pointed out “we were brought up to make Riesling – cold fermented, with selected yeasts – so it took us a while to break out and realise the possibilities.” 14.1%

Hardys Eileen Hardy Chardonnay 1995 (Padthaway/Yarra Valley/Adelaide Hills)

The split is 55% Padthaway/35% Yarra Valley & 10% Adelaide Hills.  This antique gold (bottle of) wine seems more advanced than its years, with mouldy orange peel and pot pourri notes.  There’s a green vegetal (fern?) note too – not necessarily unattractive.  Green apricot too.  It has a firm backbone of acidity.  Shame the flavours seem so developed.  13.5%

Hardys Eileen Hardy Chardonnay 1996 (Padthaway/Canberra/Adelaide Hills/Tasmania)

The split is 44% Padthaway, 27% Canberra, 26% Adelaide Hills and 3% Tasmania.  With reference to Tasmania (this being the first vintage in which it featured), Newton joked that the company’s acclaimed sparkling winemaker, Ed Carr influenced the focus on Tasmania and he (Newton) “picked up the crumbs.”  Plenty of life and layer here. with sweet tangerine lift, a lick of spice with peach, waxy citrus peel and pith on a persistent palate with lemony acidity.  Good length with biscuit and cashew to the finish.  Going back it steals over the palate.  Supple stuff, with peach cobbler and a lick of dried herb on my second bite of this cherry.  14%

Flight 2 – 1997 to 2003  – the cool climate revolution

Hardys Eileen Hardy Chardonnay 1997 (Yarra Valley/Adelaide Hills)

The split is 78% Adelaide Hills/22% Yarra Valley.  A golden/yellow hue with an impressively concentrated core of fruit – peaches and cream with juicier tropical fruit.  Very silky, with a welcome hint of savoury lanolin to the finish for complexity. Going back, I detect a hint of overripe black banana, but it’s still juicy, with melon fruit too.  13.4%

Hardys Eileen Hardy Chardonnay 1998 (Yarra Valley/Adelaide Hills/Padthaway)

The split is 52% Yarra Valley/43% Adelaide Hills/5% Padthaway.  Malolactic fermentation (which reduces tart malic acidity in favour of rounder lactic acidity) was used for the first time in 1998 prompting Robert Joseph wryly to observed the switch from acidification (in the Padthaway era) to malolactic fermentations (in the cool climate era).  This wine sports some different characters, with nougat and dried honey to its silky mid-palate of white peach (not the yellow peach of earlier years, no doubt a reflection of Padthaway’s riper fruit). The finish has oatmeal nuances which Bill Hardy associates with the Yarra. Going back, it leaves an impression of sweet vanillin oak in the mouth.   13.6%

Hardys Eileen Hardy Chardonnay 1999  (Yarra Valley/Tasmania/Adelaide Hills)

The split is 55% Yarra Valley/30% Tasmania/15% Adelaide Hills. In this vintage, which is a little cheesier on nose and palate, wild yeast came into play.  Well, no Padthaway fruit here but I get yellow peach with incipient oily, nutty notes and oatmeal.  Perhaps it’s a reflection of vintage given the girth and textural breadth of this wine.    But I like its tanginess.  13.8%

Hardys Eileen Hardy Chardonnay 2000 (Tasmania/Yarra Valley)

The split is 65% Tasmania/35% Yarra Valley.  The elevated Tasmanian component makes for a vivacious apple and (icing sugar-dusted) breakfast grapefruit palate.  Lovely length and resonance. Going back the sweetness is more apparent but I like the snappy, lively undercurrent of acidity here.  For Newton, Tasmania gives fine, persistent, juicy acid, while the Yarra (a vineyard at 400m on red volcanic soil) brings sweet lemon curd.  13.1%

Hardys Eileen Hardy Chardonnay 2001 (Tasmania/Yarra Valley/Tumbarumba)

The split is 50% Tasmania/40% Yarra Valley/10% Tumbarumba.  Still with green glints this wine looks and tastes young.  Even on the nose it has a piquant freshness.  In the mouth, it has a firm, long, persistent palate with green apple, grapefruit, sour dough, incipient lanolin and slatey minerality – a profile which has barely changed when I go back.  Great complexity with structure and focus.  Very good.  13.2%

Hardys Eileen Hardy Chardonnay 2002 (Tasmania/Yarra Valley/Tumbarumba/Adelaide Hills)

The split is 43% Tasmania/28% Yarra Valley/20% Tumbarumba/9% Adelaide Hills.  This wine is a deeper colour than the 2001 and, in almost an about turn, is peachier and sweeter too.  Which surprised me in this cool year, though it firms up on the finish with grapefruity acidity.  13.3%

Hardys Eileen Hardy Chardonnay 2003 (Tasmania/Adelaide Hills/Yarra Valley)

The split is 62% Tasmania/31% Adelaide Hills/7% Yarra Valley.  This is a muscular, rich but lithe Chardonnay packed to the gunnels with white peach, icing sugar dusted grapefruit and green apple.  Remarkably youthful, the emphasis is firmly on the fruit which just keeps motoring; great grapefruity, steely, mineral back palate resonance.  Very good.  13.3%

Flight 3 – 2004 to 2014  – refinement of a lady

Hardys Eileen Hardy Chardonnay 2004 (Tasmania/Yarra Valley/Tumbarumba/Adelaide Hills)

This is the first vintage under screwcap.  The split is 47% Tasmania/30% Yarra Valley/20% Tumbarumba/3% Adelaide Hills.  A really zippy, tightly focused wine on first taste and going back.  It seems ‘drier’, with less overt/cooler climate fruit/oak sweetness than earlier vintages.  It has a touch of smokiness (Newton told us he is happy to use charry oak), flint (sulphides?) and perfumed melon to the nose.  In the mouth the flint follows through but the fruit is firmer – green apple and grapefruit.  Snappy acidity makes for terrific persistence. Fabulous for a 12 year old Chardonnay.  So bright and long. 13.2%

Hardys Eileen Hardy Chardonnay 2005 (Tasmania/Tumbarumba)

The split is 53% Tasmania/47% Tumbarumba (at 600m).  This wine is not as snappy as the 2004, with broader, sweeter white peach and savoury lanolin as well as succulent melon, juicy apple and grapefruit.  It is flintier than the 2004, which Newton attributes to Tumbarumba’s stony sandstone.  He also believes that Tumbarumba (or at least their fruit source there) doesn’t tend to produce such tight Chardonnays as Tasmania or the Yarra.  13.7%

Hardys Eileen Hardy Chardonnay 2006  (Tasmania/Yarra Valley/Tumbarumba)

The split is 50% Tasmania/28% Yarra Valley/22% Tumbarumba.  A silky, leesy palate – very spun, pillowy lees, with savoury lanolin nuances.  Succulent white peach is cut with riffs of lime zest, struck match/flint and white blossom.  Snappy green apple at its heels brings bite and length.  Lovely balanced delivery, complexity and length.  13.4%

Hardys Eileen Hardy Chardonnay 2007  (Tasmania/Yarra Valley)

This vintage was not deemed good enough for release.  The split is 80% Tasmania/20% Yarra Valley.  It has a flinty nose with sweet, toasty lemon zest  and smoked hazelnut oak.  The finish falls away.  This wine doesn’t seem to have the bones or flesh – structure and concentration – of the others.  Newton mentioned that smoke taint was an issue in the Yarra.  12.2%

Hardys Eileen Hardy Chardonnay 2008  (Yarra Valley/Tasmania)

The split is 56% Yarra Valley/44% Tasmania.  Markedly paler than the 2007 with green glints.  A flinty, tightly wound palate sports subtly sweet lemon zest, grapefruit and lime skin – the persistent push to the gentler pull of savoury, tangy sourdough and pillowy lees.  Great tension, persistence and pace, the grapefruit reverberating on a very long, dry, firm finish.  13%  £28.98/bottle or £25.98 when you buy two at Wine Direct

Hardys Eileen Hardy Chardonnay 2009 (Tasmania)

A single region is represented for the first time since the Padthaway era.  Incidentally, fruit was sourced from the Tolpuddle vineyard for this wine, so it’s interesting to see the resonance between this wine and Shaw + Smith’s single vineyard Tolpuddle Chardonnay, which I reviewed on Friday.  A super snappy, galvanising palate exudes edginess/energy with steely, slatey grapefruit, salted limes, icing sugar dusted green apples.  Wonderful persistence.  Going back that snappy, dagger-like acidity strikes home again.  I pick up an intriguing note of laurel/bay leaf too.  Great ageing potential.  Terrific.  13.9%

Hardys Eileen Hardy Chardonnay 2010 (Tasmania/Yarra Valley)

The split is 72% Tasmania/28% Yarra Valley.  More texture and overt savouriness to this blend which underwent 65% malo.  It has sourdough, lanolin, bacon fat and nutty nuances aplenty.  Tasmania’s snappy acidity injects tension and line. Intriguing mineral notes glimmer like crystals going through.  Complex and textural.  12.9%  £28.98/bottle or £25.98 when you buy two at Wine Direct

Hardys Eileen Hardy Chardonnay 2012 (Tasmania/Yarra Valley)

The split is 81% Tasmania/19% Yarra Valley.  A sweet but savoury nuttiness/ripe seed character threads its way through this wine from tip (nose) to tail.  Fleshy, juicy golden delicious cut with grapefruit and bacon fat/lanolin.  A complex web of textures and flavours. If I didn’t know, I’d have guessed this was more Yarra than Tasmania.  Nice length.  13.7% £29.99 at 1853 Wine Club (Accolade’s online retail presence).

Hardys Eileen Hardy Chardonnay 2013 (Tasmania/Yarra Valley)

The split is 65% Tasmania/35% Yarra Valley.  Quite funky, edgier and yet somehow a little shyer (as in introspective, inside out even), with ginger beer notes and flinty sulphides/struck match to its golden delicious and steely grapefruit.  There’s lovely back palate struck match resonance; the mid-palate/fruit flavours seem on the back foot.  Needs time to percolate.  13.6%  £25.99 at Waitrose, £29.99 at 1853 Wine Club (Accolade’s online retail presence).

Hardys Eileen Hardy Chardonnay 2014 (Tasmania/Yarra Valley/Margaret River)

The split is 63% Tasmania/34% Yarra Valley/3% Margaret River.  Another about turn.  This wine puts the fruit to the fore with powerful, ripe white peach and ample mouthfeel to boot – more pillowy lees than savoury lanolin/bacon fat.   Persistent acidity makes for good length, teasing out the fruit so, though powerful and expressive, this is an elegant wine.  Lithe, with lovely fruit intensity.  14%

 

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