The Ox Returns – Ox Hardy McLaren Vale Shiraz

South Australia’s McLaren Vale has been an ancestral home for Australian Shiraz since the 19th century. A warm to hot Mediterranean climate and located close to Adelaide, the first generations of grape growers made the area initially a fortified wine hub with local Tawny Ports being shipped across the British Empire. 

As the years went on Australian winemakers began to look towards table wines and shiraz became synonymous with quality for the region. The Hardy family have been pioneers in the area since the early days, with Thomas Hardy’s efforts in the 1800’s seeing him known today as the Father of South Australian Wine. Nowadays his great-great-grandson Andrew ‘Ox’ Hardy runs the show at his own label Ox Hardy. As a fifth generation winemaker, shiraz runs in Andrew’s veins and something very special comes out of the portfolio – the great Aussie shiraz crafted in three unique styles. 

The flagship of the brand is the Ancestor Shiraz. Planted in 1891 by Thomas Hardy, the Ancestor vines grow on just 2.54 acres (around 2 football fields) yielding under 1000 bottles each vintage. They’ve been ‘borrowed’ by local vignerons seeking the clonal beauty of this vineyard, which has been cared for meticulously by generations and nowadays sits as a living history of the region. 

The wine has all the hallmarks of a high-end product. Old vines (which give more concentrated but low yielding fruit), hand harvested (so only the best fruit is selected), fermented with indigenous yeasts only for 10 days (believed to be more expressive of the region than commercial yeasts, but more unpredictable) and then treated to post-fermentation maceration for another 14 days.

No part of this process is easy. For the first vintage in 2008 Andrew likened it to ‘ripping up $100 bills in the shower’ whilst his team meticulously learnt how to handle fruit from their special vineyard and how to craft a world class wine. After such a viticultural effort the 1891 Ancestor Vine Shiraz is only released when Andrew believes the wine is ready. After almost 2 years maturing in French Oak barrels, the 2010 only hit the shelves in 2019. This bottle aging has allowed the wine to settle, the tannins to soften and the flavours to integrate. 

So whilst similarly priced wines are valued on name alone, and it’s up to you to store and care for it, this wine has been aged and is ready to drink. With great fruit flavours and deep colors bordering on purple this wine can be aged longer if you enjoy wines with more tobacco and earth on the palate. 

Of course, the Ancestor Shiraz is a special wine for special occasions, which is why Ox Hardy has a selection of shiraz to choose from. Next in line is the Slate Shiraz, a 2018 full-bodied dry shiraz. The Slate name comes from the unique locally sourced antique slate fermenters used for this wine at the original Tintara Winery which gives an incredibly unique local feel to this wine, much like Romans using terracotta amphora may have done thousands of years ago. 

Disused for 90 years the open slate fermenters are incredibly unique in the wine world. Of particular note is how after fermenting in barrels the oak becomes highly stained with the red colours of the grape, but Andrew noted on his first vintage how the slate had next to no discolouring so there was no loss of colour.  In turn the wine has a very deep colour, lots of flavour and some minerality from these natural rocks. The fermenters are small, and the slate does not heat up during fermentation so it’s a cool, long ferment – a delicate extraction of all things delicious.

The other interesting part of this wine is the use of the cultured yeast strain QA23, which is used mostly for fruity whites. Cooler ferments take longer and are often used for fruitier wines, with volatile aromas lost at high temperatures. The 12 day ferment in slate after cold soaking with a cool fruity yeast strain creates a very fruity shiraz. The grape must was also mixed through the fermenting juice three times a day, to give greater extraction of colour and flavour. 

All of these techniques make such an interesting shiraz. At 14.5% alcohol you’d expect it to be just another Aussie blockbuster, but it’s so nuanced and with intricate flavours developing as the wine opens up. Aged in oak for 18 months for chocolate and spice notes, the wine is young, and can be enjoyed now or some years down the line – this baby will age. As with the Ancestor, decant for half an hour at least, but taste a little straight away to see how this deep, purple hued shiraz opens up. 

Finally, the Upper Tintara Shiraz comes to the party. From the same vineyards as the Slate Shiraz but with a different approach to winemaking, this is much more in the ‘typical’ Aussie style. No cold soaking prior to fermentation, with draining then pump overs during fermentation as the chosen way to mix the must, a gentler method than with the Slate. But the wine was still aged in oak for 18 months with no expense spared.

Delastage was used for this wine, where the wine is racked into another vessel during fermentation and then returned, aerating the yeast to assist with fermentation and softening the tannins, leading to a more drinkable wine at a younger age ,compared to the 1891 Ancestor which has been made to handle significant time in the cellar. The process is gentle for the Upper Tintara Shiraz so that floral notes take hold whilst the bones of the wine are still strong and punchy.

Of course there’s good tannin in any McLaren Vale shiraz, and the 2016  comes with a few years of bottle aging as well. The tannins have softened, the colour is more ruby than purple and the herbs and liquorice are shining through. Enjoy with barbecued meat.

It’s so great to see Aussie winemakers experimenting and showing their portfolios are not simple one trick ponies. If you are having a winetasting of shiraz from around the world keep Ox Hardy in mind because this trifecta is proof there is no longer just one style of Australia’s favorite grape.

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