While it may sound like exaggeration, Sam Middleton and Mount Mary are a microcosm of history, evolution and revolution in Australian wine. The foundation of Mount Mary was inspired by the Swiss vignerons who pioneered the Yarra Valley as Victoria’s first wine region. The elegant cool climate wines made by Dr. John Middleton influenced the evolution of Australian wine in the 1970s and 80s. Today, Sam Middleton is leading a quiet revolution working with Rhone Valley varieties to make exceptional wines dedicated to the memory of his grandmother. Hence history, evolution and revolution all in one idyllic corner of one of Australia’s great wine region.
Finding a passion for home on the other side of the world
Sam Middleton as the winemaker at Mount Mary, now looks after all aspects of the vineyard and winery and whilst he was born into an influential Australian winemaking family he didn’t always have his heart set on a life in wine. After finishing school he was unsure what to do with his life. As he’d enjoyed growing up on the family farm and the lifestyle that offered he thought a general degree in Agricultural Science would be a good place to start.
Taking a year off to see the world before entering the workforce is a rite of passage for many young Australians. They leave behind the shelter of family and university life to experience new cultures, customs and places. Some are irrevocably changed forever, seeking a different career or life path on their return to Australia. For Sam his travels truly ignited his passion for wine, a passion that has been burning brightly ever since.
Learning with winemaking royalty
After spending time working in the ski fields at Whistler and visiting a variety of wine regions in Europe Sam headed home and enrolled in a Wine Science course at Charles Sturt University. In 2006 he worked his first vintage at Coldstream Hills in the Yarra Valley, turning theory into practice at the winery founded by Australian wine legend James Halliday. He learnt a lot and loved the people and the place so much that he went back the next year to do it all again.
The history, evolution & revolution of the Yarra Valley
Over the next couple of years Sam kept building his skills and regional knowledge. He worked as a cellar hand with cool climate pioneer Dominique Portet. Dominque grew up in Bordeaux around winemaking royalty at Château Lafite-Rothschild before moving to Australia in 1976. He founded iconic Australian wineries Taltarni in the Pyrenees and Clover Hill in Tasmania before setting in Yarra Valley in 2000. Sam learnt a huge amount for Dominique and the winemaking team there and was already showing a deft touch for winemaking. It wasn’t long before the family came calling. It was time for Sam Middleton to return to Mount Mary.
It’s funny to think back now as it feels inevitable that I would have ended up in the wine industry. I’ve got such strong memories as kid of running around the winery during vintage time seeing people drag hoses here, there and everywhere. So it was always going to rub off on me eventually.
Evolving an Australian wine legacy in the Yarra Valley
As soon as he decided that he wanted to spend his life working as a winemaker Sam started to dream of one day taking over at Mount Mary. However, he didn’t want an easy ride to the top. He wanted to earn the position on merit and not through nepotism. If there were ever any questions around whether or not Sam had the talent, drive or attention to detail required to be winemaker at Mount Mary these have quickly faded away in the time since he returned home.
Dr. John Middleton had exceptionally high standards in the vineyard and in the winery. He believed that you should do everything you possibly can to make the best wine possible, no matter what the cost. He was a highly opinionated person who didn’t suffer fools gladly, shown most clearly in his legendary winery newsletters where he regularly courted controversy. While Sam hasn’t inherited his grandfather’s love for controversy he has inherited his relentless drive for perfection in wine.
My grandfather is a huge source of inspiration for me, from what he was able to achieve at Mount Mary… He was extremely strong minded, very confident in his own views and opinions, he was able to stick to his guns and not get swayed by fads or trends… The wines that he made, especially tasting back through the older wines, are something truly special.
The clearest indication of this relentless drive has come with the addition of the Marli Russell range of wines at Mount Mary. While this isn’t the time or place to debate the elements of climate change, the Middleton family knew they needed to do something to ensure the long-term viability of their vineyards. They looked to the traditional varieties of the Rhone Valley in France to increase the diversity of wine styles produced and thus future proofed Mount Mary for generations to come.
Mount Mary – A modern Australian icon shining brighter than ever
While it’s common for wineries to trial and experiment with new varieties or techniques they do things differently at Mount Mary. Every single aspect of the project was thought through in meticulous detail, from the vineyard to the winery. Three white grapes, Marsanne, Roussanne and Clairette and four red grapes, Grenache, Syrah, Mourvedre and Cinsault were planted to make a red and a white blend. In a short space of time the wines have achieved tremendous acclaim, a fitting tribute to the matriarch for whom they are named and to Sam’s work as winemaker.
I truly believe that you can always improve wines that you make within a certain framework and style. From my perspective I’m not trying to change the Mount Mary style but at the same time I’m not trying to make the exact same wines we made 30 or 40 years ago. My whole philosophy revolves around keeping the style the same but continuously improving what we do.
A gifted winemaking talent is celebrated by an icon
There’s no question that the title of winemaker at Mount Mary comes with great pressure. The eyes of the wine world have been on Sam Middleton from the moment he returned to the farm in Lilydale to continue his grandfather’s fine wine legacy. Rather than withering under the weight of expectation Sam has flourished. Exciting new wines have been added to the venerable Mount Mary portfolio while the Estate wines are looking better than ever.
In 1972 John and Marli Middleton planted the Mount Mary vineyard on a gentle slope of grey-clay soils near Lilydale in the Yarra Valley. Over the next 45 years or so John, Marli and their descendants developed Mount Mary into an Australian wine icon through a blinkered focus on quality above all else. They’ve received countless accolades over the years but the crowning achievement for the family came in August 2017. James Halliday announced that Mount Mary was his Winery of the Year for 2018, arguably the highest possible honour for an Australian winery. In bestowing this award James has also heralded a new winemaking star in Sam Middleton - a modern winemaker who embodies the history, evolution and revolution of Australian wine.