Old soldiers can teach us lessons

Hardy’s (tastings) served a mind-blowing array of magnificent old wines at a dinner to celebrate the company’s 160th anniversary – and the launch of the new William Hardy range of wines. The dinner was at Fino restaurant in McLaren Vale in August.

So impressive were these venerable wines that they prompted much discussion, especially among those in the group with less experience of such old wines. The oldest table wine, a 1939 Reynell Burgundy, especially intrigued the younger guests. Precisely how rare were wines of this quality? And how do wines from more recent decades stack up against them?

The ‘39 Reynell Burgundy was a humble everyday wine in its heyday and probably sold for the equivalent of less than $1 a bottle. It was made by a forgotten winemaker named Bill Gillard from 100% shiraz grown in Reynella and McLaren Vale.

And here it was, 74 years later, resplendent in its glory – as legendary Houghton winemaker Jack Mann liked to say.

Light ruby/brickred in colour, smelling of tobacco and cedar (‘cigarbox’) with hints of earth and leather, it was tremendously complex, exhibiting perfect fruit ripeness. It was mellow and fully mature on the palate with softness, richness and fabulous balance. As with most of the other old reds, the silky softness of the tannins was a feature. No sign of greenness or overripeness, oakiness, alcohol heat, or any of the other shortcomings that dog many wines from more recent decades.

A 1958 Hardys St Thomas Burgundy, 1961 Hardys Reserve Bin Burgundy C354, 1954 McWilliams Mount Pleasant Richard Hermitage, 1954 Hardys Cabernet Sauvignon B766 and Hardys Eileen Hardy Shiraz 1970 (the first vintage of this line) were all sublime wines. A 1959 Hardys Cabernet Sauvignon C111 was good but somewhat ‘animal’, and a 1965 Chateau Tahbilk Cabernet Sauvignon (tastings) was also impressive although the tannins were a touch hard.

Such wines, of quality and longevity, impress us all the more now because of their age and scarcity. But part of the reason they survived is that they were deemed worth cellaring, because they were the good ones. Lesser wines fell over sooner and weren’t kept so long.

However, relatively few great wines exist from the 1970s. This is because the ‘wine boom’ created strong demand which put pressure on supply. Wines were ‘stretched’, vineyards were over-cropped, and sub-standard grapes found their way into premium labels they never used to. As well, there was a shortage of great seasons in the ‘70s.

By the 1980s, modern viticultural and winemaking methods were in place. Irrigation, fertilisation, sophisticated trellising and other techniques that raised yields were widespread, and the boom had resulted in vineyards being planted in places they shouldn’t. Strange winemaking fashions developed, such as the fad in the late 1970s and early ‘80s for harvesting red grapes too early, resulting in thin, vegetal, low-alcohol wines that were never any good. Judges at the time mistakenly rewarded them.

Mechanisation became common in vineyards, and the regrettable trend of minimal pruning was hailed as a great labour-saving innovation. Few of those wines were ever much good.

The vines that made the great long-living reds of the four decades before the 1970s were mature, low-yielding, often unwatered and unfertilized and no modern trellising and training systems were used: these vines were in natural balance. Many were probably a bit neglected, but because they were not forced, but allowed to do their own thing, they produced some wonderful fruit.

No fancy modern winemaking techniques, machinery, chemistry, forensic analysis or small new-oak barrels were needed. The wines virtually made themselves. The art of the winemaker was in the blending.

Happily, the custodians of great old bottles like the above-mentioned (such as Hardys) are generous, and share them around, so young people can taste and learn from them. The result is that the wine industry is collectively realizing that a lot of wrong things were done in the name of progress in the ‘70s, ’80s and even ‘90s. Again happily, we have entered an era when wine is being produced more naturally, and once again we are seeing great wines that will live for many decades, that will impress and delight future generations. Cheers to that!

First published in Gourmet Traveller Wine Magazine – Oct-Nov 2013.

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