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Wednesday 22 October 2014

Hardys: the only way is up

22nd July, 2014 by Gabriel Stone

Explaining the stylistic implications of cool climate for wine is a key challenge in the drive to push consumers into higher price points, according to Australian brand Hardys.

Bill Hardy, brand ambassador and fifth generation family member at Hardys

Bill Hardy, brand ambassador and fifth generation family member at Hardys

“There’s a question of whether consumers really understand what cool climate means,” said Paul Lapsley, chief winemaker at Hardys, whose owner Accolade Wines invested £2.5 million in 2013 as part of an ongoing drive to raise the brand’s image as a premium producer.

Latest Nielsen MAT data shows that the Hardys currently holds an average UK retail bottle price of £5.25, compared to £4.87 two years ago.

Brand ambassador and fifth generation family member Bill Hardy described the company’s marked shift in recent years towards sourcing fruit from cooler regions as “incredibly important” for the brand’s upmarket message.

“In order to achieve that quality and style I think it was necessary to increase our holdings and contracts in cooler, more frontier areas,” he told the drinks business. “We were not only looking to lift quality but to take the wines in a slightly different direction.”

However, he noted: “It’s always difficult when you’re trying to get someone to trade up. As you trade up you’re buying more finesse rather than more power and I’m not sure the consumer always expects that it might be tighter, leaner and lighter in colour.”

Outlining the shift in the producer’s regional focus in recent decades, Hardy recalled: “The big push in the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s was into Limestone Coast, places like Padthaway, Wrattonbully and Coonawarra. We had a big presence in all these areas that is now greatly reduced.”

For Lapsley, the brand’s top Chardonnay, Eileen Hardy, neatly illustrates the sourcing shift that has taken place within a company that prides itself on its portfolio of multi-regional wines.

“If you wanted to map the style change in Australia Chardonnay, Eileen would be the wine to do that,” he remarked. “We’ve gone from the first vintage in 1986 with Limestone Coast, which completely dropped out in the early ‘90s, to the inclusion of Yarra, Adelaide Hills and then Tasmania as the fruit became available.”

As a result of this move, Lapsley explained: “We’ve gone from a big, obvious style to something leaner with great fruit flavour.” In addition to this regional influence, he pointed to “a subtler and much finer use of French oak,” as well as a move towards barrel rather than tank fermentation in order to achieve a more harmonious end result.

Turning to the producer’s red wines, Lapsley suggested: “I think we actually cover most of the stylistic spectrum.”

Hardys

One of the most recent additions to the Hardys range

With Hardys drawing on Shiraz from across the country, he emphasised the different characteristics in evidence, citing Frankland River’s “pepper and good acidity”, the “blackberry and beguiling soft style” of Margaret River, the “brilliant peppery Rhône style” fruit of Adelaide Hills, the “chocolatey dark fruits” of McLaren Vale and the “lovely fruit cake” character of Barossa Valley, while Clare Valley also represents a valuable source for the brand.

“Because of our size we can dabble,” summed up Lapsley. “If someone said ‘can you give us this style of Shiraz?’ I think we could point them to one of our labels.”

Despite this ability to react to trends, he indicated that Hardys would be steering clear of one particular current movement. “The big thing at the moment is whole bunch Shiraz,” noted Lapsley. “I’m not convinced because you can have this really sappy green character. I don’t believe that’s going to be a trend going forward because I believe the consumer will eventually run away from it.”

In keeping with the shifts seen in its Chardonnay, the Hardys team confirmed that a number of different cooler climate parts of Australia could potentially be of interest for red grapes.

“We’re looking to go back to a whole lot of regions we’ve been in before, but also new regions,” indicated Lapsley. In particular, he noted: “The one area I really regret pulling out of is Canberra. We were just getting to understand what it takes to make a wine like Clonakilla. I’d love to get some Canberra Shiraz. To go back into those regions is not new territory for us.”

Since 2008, when Hardys created its first vintage of Eileen Hardy Pinot Noir, this grape variety that is so closely associated with cool climate viticulture has also become an increasingly important focus for the producer.

Initially based on fruit from Yarra Valley and Tasmania, subsequent vintages of Eileen Hardy Pinot Noir have become increasingly reliant on the latter region.

Describing this wine as “the Holy Grail” but still a “work in progress”, Lapsley outlined the importance of having a convincing Pinot Noir in the Hardys portfolio to support the company’s wider upmarket push.

“The view is that big companies don’t make high quality Pinot Noir,” he remarked. “We make millions of cases every year but in 2010 we produced about 200 dozen [cases] of Pinot Noir.”

Despite this relatively small scale, Hardy reported: “The halo effect is tremendous. We’re nowhere near where we need to be, but we’re really happy with the results.”

As for possible future regional developments for this Pinot Noir, he suggested: “We haven’t sourced from Gippsland or Mornington yet. Those are areas that we think might add interest and different layers of complexity.”

Although confirming that “there certainly won’t be any more varieties going into Eileen”, Hardy flagged up a new Pinot Gris from the 2013 vintage, which has been bottled under the HRB (Hardys Reserve Bin) range and is set to launch in the UK next year.

Made from a blend of Yarra Valley and Tasmanian fruit, Lapsley summed up the style as offering “a lovely drive and length but a little bit of that viscous character you see in Alsace.”

Explaining the stylistic and marketing decisions behind this new addition, Hardy observed: “The real challenge in Australia is deciding which stylistic route you go down – Grigio or Gris. I’m not sure some winemakers understand the difference. We’ve seen quite fat styles called Grigio because Australian consumers like drinking Pinot Grigio.”

Aside from its core range, the company is also busy exploring the potential of other varieties, with a particular focus on planting Mediterranean grapes in the warmer climate but coastal-influenced McLaren Vale.

“It will be a very long time before we see big commercial sales of these varieties,” acknowledged Hardy. “We have to work out which work and find a market for them.”

Nevertheless, he insisted: “Being seen to be doing this is incredibly important for us. It’s stimulating for the winemakers and viticulturalists too, but I honestly think the commercial difference is a halo effect more than the number of boxes we sell.”

Aside from the company’s regional evolution, Hardy highlighted an important change in winemaking approach as part of this pursuit of a more premium image. “We’ve backed away from being totally technologically driven,” he reported. “We’re actually going back and examining more natural methods that we haven’t used over the years because they didn’t necessarily give us purity and precision.”

Marking a contrast with the recent past when “we would get the juice squeaky clean before fermentation,” Hardy acknowledged: “I’m not sure we’re looking for such pristine wines. If you’re going to move up, the wines have got to be more interesting and have more personality.”

With all these changes in place, the Hardys team is now hard at work trying to convince consumers and trade that a brand whose reputation is so closely associated with the supermarket sector is worth following higher up the price ladder.

The brand hosted a "Five Generations of Captains" dinner at Lord's earlier this month to mark its sponsorship deal with English cricket

The brand hosted a “Five Generations of Captains” dinner at Lord’s earlier this month to mark its sponsorship deal with English cricket

“Hardys is known as a very popular supermarket wine; that’s where most of it is bought,” remarked Hardy. “The message we’re trying to get over is that there’s much more to Hardys than everyday drinking wines.”

Highlighting recent high profile partnerships with English cricket and Sky Sports, Hardy reports: “We’re taking every opportunity to get that message across and gradually draw people up.”

To help coax people into higher price brackets, he pointed to the 2012 introduction of a new tier called William Hardy “so there’s more opportunity to trade up within the Hardys range with smaller steps: it’s a £1 leap rather than a £4 or £5 leap.”

Although this upmarket message represents a relatively recent marketing angle, Hardy insisted: “It’s not like we’re starting a premium programme from scratch – it was already there.”

Lapsley echoed this line, saying: “We firmly believe that we’ve always had quite outstanding wines and not believed in them to the extent we should. Our commercial wines have probably lend their degree of importance to the business now and with [new Accolade CEO] John Ratcliffe there’s certainly a move to push the premium wines forward.”

Commenting on the progress made towards this ambitious goal so far, Lapsley reported: “We’ve actually had a very good year,” describing Champ Private Equity, who have launched a £10m investment programme for Hardys since buying Accolade Wines in 2010, as “delighted with what’s happening in the business.”

As a result of this investment support and the arrival of John Radcliffe he concluded: “There’s a lot more emphasis on building quality cues all over our wines across the range. There’s a real energy and drive in the company.”

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