Rothbury Estate sits in the Lower Hunter Valley, a dominant landmark, not just for elegant design but for the vision and public profile of its well known, even rollicking driving force, Len Evans.
Len seems to combine a romantic view and love of wine with hard-nosed, pragmatic entrepreneurial skills. As a founding father of Rothbury, Len watched his baby crawl, totter, stumble, walk and grow. From being a Lower-Hunter specialist in 1968 Rothbury became a non-listed public company in 1974, shifted its focus from the Hunter to Cowra in purchasing a large chardonnay vineyard there in 1981 and, after a public float last year, became the centrepiece of an operation including Baileys and St Hubert’s wineries in Victoria.
Prior to the float, St Hubert’s and Bailey’s belonged to the Goodman Fielder Wattie Group. When Rothbury purchased these two wineries, GFW Ingredients, a subsidiary of Goodman Fielder Wattie, acquired 19.7 per cent of the new company, making it the largest shareholder. Len Evans remains the second biggest holder with a 15 per cent stake, and another founding father, Daniel Chen, is the third biggest with 11.3 per cent.
From Rothbury’s 11 founding investors in 1968, Len Evans assumed the role of marketing director, while Murray Tyrell looked after the vineyards. About 340 hectares, all in the lower Hunter and mainly reds, were planted. Wines were made by Gerry Sissingh but only those passing muster with the selection panel – Len Evans, Rudy Komon, Gerry Sissingh, and Murray Tyrell – were sold under the Rothbury label.
Rothbury’s initial production was predominantly red, a direction dictated by a short boom in red-wine drinking in the late sixties. But the quality of reds just didn’t match that of the whites in those early days, and consumer preferences moved quickly to whites.
Acquiring an established vineyard at Cowra in 1981 was a controversial board decision, perhaps the most significant it ever made. It allowed Rothbury to meet an exploding demand for good-quality but inexpensive chardonnays.
It turned out that the wine buying public was little interested in the lower Hunter’s great specialties, shiraz and semillon, varieties making up the majority of Rothbury’s Hunter plantings. Len Evans can take the credit for seeing this demand and persuading the board to grab Cowra.
The Cowra vineyard was established by Tony Grey in 1972. It proved an ideal location. By the Lachlan River in central Western N.S.W. in a benign climate with plenty of water, it quickly and efficiently produced biggish crops of high-quality grapes. Evans recognised the quality early.
He was instrumental in sourcing Cowra grapes for Petaluma Chardonnay from the first vintage in 1977 until the vineyard’s acquisition by Rothbury in 1981. At the time of the purchase, Cowra was planted to a number of varieties including 12 hectares of chardonnay.
In that year Rothbury made just 1,000 cases of its first Cowra chardonnay. Production increased steadily as more chardonnay went in and other varieties were pulled out. Forty two thousand cases were made in 1990, and 1993 looks like being the first year of full production with an estimated 60,000 cases bubbling and glooping away in the fermenters in the Hunter winery. Terrific stuff it is, too.
Rothbury’s production turned even more to whites, and better earnings, with the acquisition in 1988 of Denman Estate’s vineyards in the upper Hunter.
Rothbury’s Hunter plantings are now down to just 63 hectares producing around 500 tonnes in good years. That’s only 10 per cent of the group’s total crush. But in a good vintage Rothbury’s semillon and shiraz from these vineyards can be sensational.
1991 was just such a vintage and both the red and the white make up part of a mixed dozen the Canberra Times will be offering readers next week. These are brilliant Hunter specialties that blossom with cellaring.
Len Evans tells me that with Baileys and St Huberts thrown in, Rothbury produces around 300, 000 cases annually. The plan is to push production up to 500,000 cases over the next few years. To achieve this the group needs to either plant more vineyard or acquire other established producers.
Len sees the Cowra Vineyard as one of the best in the world because it so reliably and efficiently produces such wonderful chardonnay. What the group needs now is a red equivalent. There are parallels to be found in the big soft reds of Baileys at Glenrowan. Perhaps they’ll plant more there. But my mouth waters more when I think of McLaren Vale shiraz. Let’s hope Len looks there, too.