Helen McCarthy is the proud custodian of one of Australia’s great cool climate wineries, Mountadam in the Eden Valley. Growing up in England, she couldn’t have imagined the life she would carve out for herself in Australia. When she arrived in Adelaide, Helen never dreamed of becoming a winemaker despite her having a keen interest in chemistry and biology, both vital disciplines in winemaking. But we have her husband and one of his university lecturers to thank for encouraging her to study oenology.
From that moment on Helen has spent her life immersed in the Australian wine community, quickly making her mark and being recognised as one of Australia’s brightest winemaking talents. This talent was recognised when she was appointed Chief Winemaker at Mountadam in the Eden Valley, a place with a proud history and a pedigree for producing exceptional cool climate wines. With her keen focus on sustainability in the vineyard and minimal intervention in the winery, she is ensuring this historic winery will be producing amazing fine wines for years and years to come.
‘My wine philosophy is to get it right in the vineyard. Then you are basically just a steward as it comes through the winery. I don't mess around too much. A couple of my mates reckon it's just lazy winemaking, but I say that it's good stewardship!’
David Wynn – A true Australian wine legend
Before we learn more about Helen’s story and her work at Mountadam, we should take a little time to learn the origin story of this special winery and its founder, the legendary, David Wynn.
David was born into a winemaking family, his father Samuel established himself as a wine wholesaler and retailer before branching out to become an exporter and founder of one of Australia’s great winemaking companies, Wynns. David was involved in the wine business from a young age, quickly standing out as Samuel’s natural successor. This didn’t mean that father and son always saw eye-to-eye. When it came to important decisions for the Wynn company sometimes Samuel prevailed and sometimes David got the upper hand. Thankfully for David, and for the broader Australian wine community, David prevailed when it came to the question of whether to purchase Chateau Comaum in the Coonawarra. Samuel was against the idea, David was all for it; faith which has been well and truly vindicated. As a result, a few dilapidated vineyards are now a global icon; Wynns Coonawarra Estate.
David didn’t just have a keen eye for a vineyard; he was also an innovator and trailblazer. David Wynn popularised the flagon and the wine cask, converting many Australians from beer and spirits drinkers into wine drinkers. While today there are negative connotations around the cask, David Wynn focused on quality and convenience with the first successful iterations. This helped to radically alter the perception of wine in Australia, so much so that even today around one-in-three glasses of wine drunk comes from a cask. So, after helping define the Coonawarra as a fine wine region and fundamentally changing perceptions of wine in Australia you’d think that David would be happy resting on his laurels. But he wasn’t finished. His next project was to search Australia to find a very special place for producing wines of elegance and structure.
The Mountadam story – An Australian wine legend heads for cooler climes
After searching and researching vineyards and potential sites across Australia, David Wynn decided to plant his vineyard at the highest point in the Eden Valley wine region. While a truly stunning location, the cool climate and windy conditions made for significant viticultural challenges. At 550 metres above sea level, the site is among the most elevated vineyards in South Australia. At the time, cool climate viticulture in Australia was nascent to say the very least. The revival of classic Australian cool climate regions like Tasmania, Yarra Valley, Mornington Peninsula and the Adelaide Hills had yet to gain momentum. It would have been much easier to choose a more familiar site or region, but David was a man with foresight and a vision to see things before others could.
So it comes as no surprise that David did things differently. All of the vines at Mountadam were planted on hillsides, focused on cool south and east-facing aspects. This was unlike almost all other vineyard sites in in Australia at this time. David also planted 24 hectares of Chardonnay at Mountadam, by far the largest Chardonnay vineyard in Australia at the time. In 1972 only one wine labelled Chardonnay had ever been released in Australia, by Craigmoor in Mudgee. But David had confidence in the variety he believed it could be a big success at Mountadam and in cool climate regions around Australia. Once again David was right and today Helen McCarthy is the proud custodian of his legacy.
Name-dropping with Helen McCarthy
You don’t get thrown the keys to one of Australian wine’s historic estates without a huge amount of talent and experience. As soon as she made the decision to study winemaking, Helen knew she had made the correct choice. Almost instantly she was passionate about the art and the science of making great wine. While passion is important in making a great winemaker, you’ve also got to have talent. Whether it was while working in retail while studying, working as a cellar hand at the Barossa Valley Estate or her work at famous names like Taylor’s, Penfolds and Mountadam, it’s been patently clear that Helen has passion and talent in equal measure.
In 2008 while she was working for Taylor’s in the Clare Valley, the Australian wine community recognised that Helen was destined for great things. Helen McCarthy was awarded the Gourmet Traveller Wine Kemeny's Medal for Young Winemaker of the Year, Australia’s most prestigious award for young winemakers. Helen followed this up with the Wine Society’s Members Choice award for Young Winemaker of the Year, all within a month. There was no question that Helen was one of the hottest winemaking talents in Australia.
You probably wouldn’t blame Helen for getting comfortable after winning these awards. She had a plum role as Senior Winemaker at Taylor’s in Clare Valley, one of the most highly coveted roles in Australian wine. However,while Helen loved working in the Clare Valley, she had made her home in the Barossa with her family. She loved the sense of community and she loved the lifestyle of living in a region with such a long food and wine heritage. A place where growing your own produce was part of life, not just a fad. A place where sustainability and caring for the environment was important and understood as vital for ensuring the legacy of the regional pioneers for many years to come. So, after eight fantastic years working at Taylor’s in the Clare Valley, Helen took up the role as Senior Winemaker at Thorne-Clark. For five or so years Helen helped to shape and grow Thorne-Clarke into one of the leaders of a newer generation of Barossa wineries. This included an award for the world’s best Shiraz from the prestigious International Wine and Spirit Competition for her 2012 Ron Thorn Shiraz. Helen was at the top of her game, but in 2015 the opportunity of a lifetime presented itself at Mountadam...
Helen McCathy: Sustainable brilliance
If we continue to erode our environment, we just aren’t going to have anything left. Viticulture really needs to come to the fore and say we are sustainable, we are environmentally friendly.
Helen McCarthy, Chief Winemaker, Mountadam
Taking the reins at one of Australia’s most iconic wineries carries great responsibility. Helen McCarthy has revelled in this responsibility, taking a holistic view of the vineyard, the winery and the environment in which she lives and works. Helen is keenly aware of the increased awareness people have as to what they are putting into their bodies. Just as she ensures she is aware of the chemicals and preservatives her young daughter is consuming, Helen ensures that she manages the vineyards and winemaking at Mountadam with as little chemical input as possible. Using sustainable practices to ensure that the land can be used by her great grandchildren. Ensuring that David Wynn’s wonderful cool climate legacy at Mountadam can be enjoyed in the glass around the world for many, many generations to come.
Somewhere, surely, David Wynn is looking down on his High Eden vineyard and winery with a big smile on his face, safe in the knowledge that his legacy is in great hands with Helen McCarthy.
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