Take a close look at your bottle of Mrs Payten Chardonnay and you will notice an inscription in small, grey font right at the bottom of the label. It reads, “Affectionately known by the family as ‘Armah’, Mrs Payten raised seven children on the family farm (1923-2018).”
So, who was Mrs Payten? Her first name was Ailsa, but everyone called her Mrs Payten – a sign of the times as well as a sign of how well-respected she was in Canowindra, west of Orange. In my family, she was simply Armah, my much-loved grandmother – my mother’s mum – the matriarch of our family.
Mrs Payten was born in 1923. She married my grandfather John Payten in 1945 and with that was given her new moniker – Mrs Payten. She moved from Sydney with her new husband to his farm ‘Alfalfa’ just outside of Canowindra. Farming is not an easy life and back then it was especially tough, but she was a strong, hard-working woman – a pioneer of her time.
She and John raised seven children on the farm, one of whom was my mother, Anne. At 51, she was widowed, but with a young family to look after, she had no choice but to carry on – she was an incredibly resilient, selfless person. A force to be reckoned with and an inspiration to us all.
In time she took on a new role, becoming grandmother to 19 children and a great grandmother to 30. Armah’s extended family totalled nearly 80 people and she kept in touch and up to date with all their lives – she was at the centre of our massive family.
She was a great supporter of all of us and enjoyed nothing more than when we all got together. There was no such thing as having too many people at ‘Alfalfa’ – she loved a party!
And she also loved a glass of good chardonnay. So when it came time to celebrate her 90th birthday in 2013, it seemed only fitting to release a chardonnay in her honour and name it Mrs Payten. We wanted to show her what she meant to our family and to the wider community. It was a small gesture of our appreciation for all she had done for us all.
The 2013 vintage won Best Wine of Show, Best White Wine and Best Young Chardonnay at the 2014 Orange Wine Show. Armah was very proud of her wine, and rightly so. The 2015 Mrs Payten Chardonnay won Best Mature Chardonnay at the 2017 Orange Wine Show and the 2016 Mrs Payten Chardonnay won the same accolade at the 2018 Orange Wine Show.
We know our customers love this wine as much as we do and its quality continues to evolve. Every release has sold out, although we do tuck away a few cases from each vintage to age and offer as museum releases.
Grapes for this wine are hand-picked from the famous Balmoral Vineyard on Caldwell Lane and Hill Park Vineyard, two of the best sites for chardonnay in the Orange region. These vines sit at around 900 metres elevation, which contributes to their fine, elegant structure. The township of Orange sits at the foot of Mount Canobolas, an extinct volcano, which at 1,390 metres above sea level, is the highest mountain in the region. It is this elevation that makes Orange an ideal place to grow premium cool-climate grapes.
With a higher elevation comes a drop in temperature which means a long, slow ripening period, allowing complexity to develop in the grapes. Orange already experiences cold winters (with average lows of 1°C), often with snow, and for every 100-metre increase in elevation, the mercury drops again by around 0.6°C. In summer, this elevation protects the grapes from the dry heat the region experiences, when the average high hits 30°C.
But what does this mean for our Mrs Payten Chardonnay? Well, thanks to the climate it has all the hallmark flavours of a cool-climate chardonnay – crisp apple, fine citrus notes and white peach. It’s everything a chardonnay from Orange should be.
Now that you know where the grapes for Mrs Payten come from, it’s time to discover the magic that goes on in the winery to create this special wine. As soon as the grapes arrive they are whole-bunch pressed – stems and all ¬– straight into oak for wild fermentation. This means we don’t add any yeast, we allow the fermentation to occur spontaneously relying on the naturally occurring yeast floating in the air at the winery. This makes our Mrs Payten Chardonnay even more unique.
Mrs Payten Chardonnay then spends nine months in oak on lees. We use a combination of barriques (also known as a Bordeaux barrels, which hold 225 litres), hogsheads (300 litres) and puncheons (500 litres) of which 20% are new. Different barrel sizes give the wine different amounts of exposure to the oak and the flavour and characters it imparts. Every month we stir the lees to build creamy texture in the wine. Stirring tapers off as it comes to the end of the wine’s maturation. Then, of course, it is time to bottle it.
The result is a refined medium-bodied chardonnay with mouth-filling texture, driving natural acidity and a long finish. It can be enjoyed now or cellared for up to 10 years when those toasty, developed characters come into play – delicious.
At the age of 95, we lost our dear Armah who passed away in Canowindra where she had lived for 73 years and our Mrs Payten Chardonnay became even more meaningful to us. When we drink it now we remember her and all the good times we shared. Wine has that seemingly magical ability to evoke memories of times past.
Mrs Payten left an indelible mark on the hearts of everyone in our family and many in our local community, and now she lives on as the namesake of our most popular wine, made from her favourite varietal – chardonnay. A toast to you Armah!