The Halliday Wine Awards are amongst the most prestigious in the world. Led by James Halliday, arguably the world's foremost expert on Australian wine, the awards celebrate our best and brightest winemakers and wineries from across our 65 diverse regions. This year the award for Winery of the Year, proudly sponsored by Wine Australia, has been won by one of Australia's most historic and iconic wine producers from our oldest wine region: Mount Pleasant Wines of The Hunter Valley. While Mount Pleasant may be one of the most enduring names in Australian wine it is also one of our most exciting and innovative and has been a driving force in the evolution of Australian wine in recent years under the guidance of Chief Winemaker Jim Chatto and his team.
'It's a wonderful acknowledgement of the hard work and the vision for Mount Pleasant the whole team have been working towards. For me personally, it's really very humbling. James Halliday is beyond all doubt the leading commentator on all things Australian. To be recognised by James among the sheer quality of Australian wine brands today is enormous.'
Jim Chatto, Chief Winemaker, Mount Pleasant
Mount Pleasant Wines: the birth of an Australian wine legend
The site of the Mount Pleasant vineyard was laid to vines by English migrant Charles King in 1880. While we don't know a lot about Charles King, but we do know that he had a great eye for a site and that this one would become renowned for its unique and special terroir. This was recognised by a young man, Maurice O'Shea, who had recently returned from studying viticulture and oenology at two of France's most esteemed institutions, the University of Montpellier and the Agriculture College at Grignon. Maurice, who was the son of an Irishman and a French woman, convinced his widowed mother to purchase King's property in the Pokolbin area of the Hunter Valley. At the time the Hunter Valley was not the centre of fine wine and fine dining that it is today, rather it was a harsh and lonely place that was a long way from the refined French lifestyle Maurice had grown accustomed to during his studies.
Nonetheless, Maurice was determined to make a success of the newly christened Mount Pleasant Vineyard. Sometimes he struggled with the land and the Hunter climate. From 1927 to 1939, for instance, every second vintage was adversely affected by severe hailstorms. But from a simple shack on the side of a hill he set about defining just how great fine Australian wine could be. Initially he worked with the existing Old Hill vineyard at Mount Pleasant as well as planting the now-renowned Old Paddock, Rosehill and Lovedale vineyards. Over the next thirty five years he gained the respect and admiration of wine lovers across Australia. He made thrilling table wines at a time when the vast majority of wine produced and consumed in Australia was fortified. He was also an innovator, using varietal labelling for his wines alongside the first names of friends and relatives while others were using vat numbers and letters. Maurice, alongside the McWilliam family who purchased the vineyard but gave O'Shea full creative freedom, helped to spark a revolution in Australian wine that continues to this day.
The legacy of Maurice O'Shea and the future for Mount Pleasant Wines
After helping to define the possibilities for fine Australian wine, Maurice O'Shea passed away in 1956 and is now remembered as one of our greatest winemakers. But the story of Mount Pleasant does not end here. A succession of exceptional Australian winemakers have taken the reigns and furthered the Mount Pleasant legacy. Brian Walsh was appointed Chief Winemaker and Manager of Mount Pleasant after learning much from Maurice in the final year of his life. Brian was responsible for making the first wine in the style of the Mount Pleasant Elizabeth Semillon, a style that continues to this day as a shining example of Hunter Valley Semillon. Fresh and vibrant when young, it is a wine that truly blossoms over time, developing the type of depth and complexity that led Jancis Robinson to proclaim that, “Hunter Valley Semillon is Australia's unique gift to the wine world”. Brian Walsh continued as winemaker until 1978 when he was succeeded by Phil Ryan.
When he first visited Mount Pleasant and the Hunter Valley in 1967 it wasn't much different from Maurice's time. Phil recalls, 'There were no restaurants, no accommodation, no sealed roads and just six wineries.' Phil worked for Mount Pleasant from the age of 19 and spent many years working alongside Brian Walsh before and after he ascended to the role of Chief Winemaker. This helped to ensure the wealth of knowledge about Mount Pleasant was passed from one generation to the next. By the time Phil retired from his role the Hunter Valley had grown and blossomed into the world-renowned food and wine district we know today. Over 150 wineries and numerous restaurants are now spread across the region; each owing a small debt to the pioneering work of Maurice, Brian and Phil. In 2012 Phil passed the baton to Jim Chatto, only the fourth winemaker at Mount Pleasant since 1921.
'The key to Mount Pleasant is to honour its beginnings, its roots - and its roots are the vineyards. Winemakers are custodians of those vineyards. That is the history, the chalice, that has to be maintained. Where we have come from, it’s where we have to stay.'
Phil Ryan, Chief Winemaker, Mount Pleasant, 1978-2012
Jim is relishing the opportunity to continue the Mount Pleasant legacy. He is focusing on the vineyards, investing time and energy in these special sites to ensure they continue to make great wine for another hundred years. But he is not resting on his laurels. Maurice O'Shea knew he had something special when he first walked the vine rows at Mount Pleasant, but he was also a restless innovator. He planted new varieties and extended the vineyard within twelve months of taking over the property. Jim has continued this tradition by planting new Mediterranean varieties that are suited to the Hunter Valley climate, cuisine and lifestyle. Varieties like Sagrantino, Montepulciano, Tempranillo, Touriga, Mencia, Fiano and Vermentino have been planted and while they won't all excel, Jim is excited to see how they work on these special sites and how they will add to the history and evolving legacy of this legendary Australian winery.
'What's special about Mount Pleasant is the vineyard sites: Old Hill (planted 1880) Old Paddock (planted 1921) Rosehill and Lovedale (planted 1946), all are unique and each with its own personality. There is also such a strong sense of history at Mount Pleasant. It's like there is something in the air, something almost tangible. It's inescapable for anyone that has worked there.' Jim Chatto, Chief Winemaker, Mount Pleasant
From all of us at Wine Australia, hearty congratulations to Mount Pleasant on this magnificent achievement.
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