It’s not often a family business can boast 180 years of continuous operation but as pioneers of the Australian wine industry, Hamilton’s has changed the drinking habits of a nation.
Ever since Sydney Hamilton found the key to temperature controlled fermentation in the 1930s, Australian wines entered a renaissance that continues to this day.
Fifth generation Hamilton wine-maker Dr Richard Hamilton has chronicled his family’s rise to the top of the South Australian wine scene in two documentaries, Wine Lines and Wine Lines 2 and as we celebrate SA business month, he shares his story with Kochie’s Business Builders (KBB).
Growing up in the family business, Hamilton has countless memories of time spent in his family’s vineyards.
“As a child, I spent my school holidays tagging along behind my father in the laboratory, engaging with Maurice Ou the family’s celebrated French winemaker,” he says. “I learned a lot about wine chemistry which fascinated me. Also, my weekends were spent with my father down at the Hut Block vineyard at McLaren Vale where I learned about caring for vines and growing good grapes.”
As a ten-year-old he tried his first home-grown experiment, crushing the grapes from his backyard vines to make his first ‘wine’.
“I found I could actually make wine at home just using the natural yeast that was on the grapes – it was very exciting! Later I would ask Dad to bring home some freshly crushed Pedro and Verdehlo grape juice from the winery along with some pure yeast – which I might say gave much better results,” he laughs.
Whilst Hamilton initially studied medicine – and he is a specialist plastic surgeon to this day – the grapes continued to lure him with their siren song and in 1972 at the age of 25, he started his own winery Richard Hamilton Wines at McLaren Vale. Assisted by his father Burton and uncle Syd, the vineyard is a going concern to this day.
Richard Hamilton Wines is the next swatch in the rich Hamilton family tapestry, whose story weaves a rich tale of survival and innovation. Hamilton sees himself as something of a custodian of the family history.
“I have seen it as my role, following the decline of the old Hamilton Wine business in 1979, to continue the heritage,” he explains.
“I am very conscious of the fact that I am a fifth generation Hamilton winemaker continuing this unique uninterrupted heritage of 180 years since my great great grandfather planted SA’s first vineyard for winemaking soon after arriving in 1837. We are the oldest continuously producing winemaking family in Australia.
In addition, Hamilton’s has a long history of innovation, beginning with Richard’s uncle Syd.
“My Uncle Sydney Hamilton realised in the mid-1930s that temperature controlled fermentation was the key to making light aromatic white table wines – that could be consumed with a meal – and also for making fresh fruitier red table wines of the claret style, all with lower alcohol.
Richard says uncle Syd’s initial attempts to perfect refrigerated fermentation were met with failure.
“He finally succeeded by building a refrigerated underground fermentation cellar in the early 1940s. This led firstly to the white wine revolution which was followed by the red wine revolution; no longer would Australians be drinking the more alcoholic ports and sherries. All due to Syd’s ingenuity and determination commencing in the 1930s.”
Until Syd’s pioneering efforts Australians were a nation of beer drinkers. But with the introduction of refrigerated fermentation that all changed.
“Up until those days, Australian table wines were nigh undrinkable as fermentation could not be controlled, leading to bacterial and wild yeast overgrowth with off flavours evident in the wine. So, people didn’t have many alternatives but to drink beer,” Richard explains.
“Once Australian red and white table wines became eminently drinkable following the introduction of cold fermentation, consumption patterns changed radically amongst Australians to favouring wine. The humble grape became much less humble.”
With 180 years of business to look back on, Hamilton says a lot has changed.
“Winemaking today is based on science. The chemistry is much better understood and technology has been harnessed to bring the best out of the grapes. Of course, winemaking is still an art, but getting the science right has allowed the art to flourish so that Australia is now a significant force on the world wine scene.”