Spirit of Sydney Hamilton lives on in Leconfield Wines, Coonawarra

Leconfield Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon 1980’s label explains how the grapes were “Hand picked by experienced girls”. But were the girls as experienced as Sydney Hamilton? He was eighty-two when he made the wine, one of his first reds from a 30 hectare Coonawarra vineyard he’d established, virtually single handed, six years earlier. And though Syd was new to Coonawarra, he’d been making wine since 1917, longer, presumably, than the experienced girls had been picking grapes.

Old Syd (and the experienced girls) made a good job of that 1980, by the way. Chardonnay Lodge, the motel sitting smack in the middle of Coonawarra’s terra rossa soil, had, until the Canberra Times wine buying team arrived, a little cache in its restaurant. We could not resist. It turned out to be glorious drinking, a wonderful salute to the memory of Syd (he died at 89 in 1987) and a great accompaniment for Yoey’s vintage cheese from nearby Mount Gambier. (Why do wines always taste best close to the winery and with food from the same region?).

That wine tells us a lot about Coonawarra and why the 1991 Leconfield Cabernet was included in the boutique dozens currently being offered by The Canberra Times. The 1980 demonstrates the richness, power, and longevity of Coonawarra cabernet from a good maker in a good year. Here was a wine made from very young vines by a very old man (and experienced girls) emerging triumphantly from the cellar thirteen years later.

Leconfield was not the only good red from Coonawarra in 1980, a year hailed widely at the time as the best ever. It turned out the best was yet to come. But in my mind I see 1980 as a milestone vintage, a turning point from an era when Coonawarra demonstrated only an occasionally realised potential, to a decade of turning out countless very good reds and more than its share of truly great ones.

Drive up and down the main road now and you can enjoy good reds along the whole fifteen-kilometre stretch of Coonawarra. In our search for the boutique dozens, we tasted superb reds from Bowen Estate, Hollicks, Balnaves, Parker Estate, Penley Estate, and Zema Estate. (In the latter there’s a wonderful story for another day… how little Dometrio Zema plucked one of Coonawarra’s plum sites from under the noses of the big companies).

Any one of these, indeed others as well, might have been selected. But our affection for old Syd Hamilton, subsequent drinking of several bottles of Leconfield 1991 cabernet, and successful negotiations with Syd’s nephew, Dr Richard Hamilton (he bought the estate from his uncle in 1981), all helped swing our decision to Leconfield.

Sydney was a direct descendent of another Richard Hamilton. He established South Australia’s first vineyard and winery, Hamilton Ewell, near Adelaide in 1837 and it was here that Syd worked as wine maker from 1917 to 1955.

With fellow wine maker, Russian-born but Geisenheim-trained Count Von Seeck, Syd pioneered the use of mechanical refrigeration in the 1930’s. It was unheard of and widely poo-poohed at the time. But it led to the making of clean, fresh, delicate whites. Older readers will fondly remember Hamilton’s Ewell Moselle and Springton Rhine Riesling, wines imitated by so many others.

In March, I wandered through Leconfield vineyard with wine maker Ralph Fowler. He pointed out the vines planted by Sydney Hamilton. These original plantings were cuttings from Hamilton’s Springton vineyard in the Eden Valley. Located on the best terra rossa soil, they are low yielding and still provide Ralph with his very best fruit despite considerably expanded plantings since Syd’s days.

The winery, too, is a great memorial to Sydney Hamilton. Even before being extended recently, it was a substantial two-storey-high building, made from Mount Gambier limestone. Old Syd dug the footings himself!

If Syd’s spirit lives on in the vineyards, winery and wines of Leconfield, in my mind I recall an assertive but polite old man, burning with energy and enthusiasm for his wines. I met him just once here in Canberra in about 1979, making him 81 at the time. He’d driven across the Hay plain with a boot load of samples and was doing the rounds of the trade.

Wine quality and enthusiasm were a winning combination. Syd whipped up considerable support on that whirlwind visit at a time when the trade was much less wine-orientated than it is today.

Sydney Hamilton established Leconfield in his old age. His goal was to make a classic Australian cabernet using Bordeaux as a model. He chose the right area and successfully laid the foundations for the goal to be achieved.