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Celebrating three Australian wine legends - Halliday. Hancock. Horgan.

Celebrating three Australian wine legends

James Halliday AM. Chris Hancock MW. Denis Horgan AM .
Celebrating three Australian wine legends - Halliday. Hancock. Horgan.

Legend. It’s a term that is thrown around with almost reckless abandon these days. Something as simple as a hamburger can become ‘legendary’ in a few months. But in the Australian wine community it takes more than a couple of good deeds or exceptional vintages to become a legend.  Since 1992 the Winemakers Federation of Australia (the WFA) has honoured the legends of the Australian wine community by electing them to the ‘College of Patrons’ or awarding them Life Membership of the Australian Wine Industry.

The membership of this exclusive federation includes Australian wine legends such as Len Evans, Dr. Ray Beckwith, Bob Hardy and Tom Angove. These are people who have spent their lives dedicated to promoting fine Australian wine around the world, helping to grow Australia into one of the top five wine exporters in the world. Other honourees like Brian Croser, Wolf Blass and d'Arry Osborn continue this work today and in so doing help shape the ongoing Australian fine wine story.

Life Membership of the Australian Wine Industry 2017

These legends were recently joined by three new Life Members. James Halliday AM, Chris Hancock MW and Denis Horgan AM were recently honoured by the Winemakers Federation of Australia for their outstanding achievements in shining a spotlight on fine Australian wine.

  • James Halliday is quite simply the doyen of Australian wine writers and the most respected voice on Australian wine. Between his numerous books and magazine articles to his annual Wine Companion and regular appearances on panels at wine events around the world, there is simply no more authoritative voice on Australian wine.
  • Winemaker and Master of Wine, Chris Hancock’s C.V. would cause most others in the wine community to blush. From dux of his class at Roseworthy College to his work with Penfolds in turning Australian Chardonnay from a little-known curiosity to global phenomenon, Chris has long been a leader in the Australian wine community.
  • As for Denis Horgan, it is almost impossible to think of a fine Australian wine story today without mentioning the contribution of the Margaret River. Denis has been instrumental in building the once sleepy surfing community into a gourmet food and wine destination.

In this latest Wine Australia blog, we meet these three Australian wine legends and look at their contributions to the Australian wine story.

James Halliday: Vigneron, author and champion of Australian wine

It was while he was studying a law degree that James Halliday was first bitten by the wine bug, but back then he could have had no idea that one day he would be recognised as the global authority on Australian wine. It was another legend of the industry, Len Evans, who became most important influence on young James.

Len shared his passion for wine with James, from tasting and judging to making and writing, instilling in him the importance of communicating consumers about wine. James’ passion was such that in 1970 he established Brokenwood winery in the Hunter Valley with two fellow solicitors, Tony Albert and John Beeston. Learning as they went, the amateur vignerons picked their first vintage in 1973 with the help of friends and family. It wasn’t long before the wines made at Brokenwood attracted the attention of wine lovers, and the winery’s reputation has grown and grown ever since.

For twenty years or so, despite his obvious talent and passion, wine was a part-time lover to James. His day job, as a partner in the esteemed law firm Clayton Utz, allowed James the stability and security that enabled him to support his wine passions. But a move to Melbourne with the firm in the 1980s provided the catalyst for James leaving the legal profession to concentrate on wine.

He had been seduced by the Yarra Valley in the 1970s while writing a book on the wines of Victoria. He established Coldstream Hills in the 1980s and has lived on the property ever since. Here James has produced exceptional wines, tasted thousands and thousands of wines for review and written countless books and articles. It is no coincidence that the rise and rise of Australian wine has run parallel with James’ rise as Australia’s preeminent wine communicator. James Halliday’s words have inspired a passion for Australian wine in several generations of wine consumers around the world, making him a true legend of the Australian wine community.

Chris Hancock MW: The winemaker who became ‘Mr. Chardonnay’

From his earliest days in the Australian wine community, Chris Hancock was earmarked for greatness. Chris studied oenology at the esteemed Roseworthy Agricultural College, graduating in 1963. Chris was dux of his class, winning the Leo Buring Gold Medal for oenology and the Gramp, Hardy, Smith Memorial Prize for outstanding student. The kid was going places.

His first stop was the iconic Penfolds, where Chris quickly made his name across their New South Wales and South Australian operations. Chris was even involved in producing Penfolds Grange through the 1960s and early 1970s. But just as James Halliday’s life changed forever when he met Len Evans, everything changed for Chris when he met Robert Oatley.

After establishing himself as an exceptional businessman trading coffee and cocoa beans, Bob entered the wine game with his nascent winery Rosemount Estate. He needed someone to help make the wines and build the Rosemount brand into something special. In Chris Hancock, he found just the right person to take Rosemount and Australian wine to the world.

Chris and Bob were an unbeatable combination. Rather than working as a full-time winemaker, Chris guided the wines and led the day-to-day business operations of Rosemount. He travelled the world promoting the wines, making lasting connections in the wine trade. Rosemount Estate Chardonnay soon became a global phenomenon, leading the charge as many around the world discovered Australian wine for the first time. Chris became known as ‘Mr. Chardonnay’, a title that, while cute, belies the breadth and depth of his achievements and service to the Australian wine community. Chris has helped mentor many of our great winemakers and has served with distinction on boards and committees in Australia and around the world. Today, Chris Hancock MW is recognised a legendary figure in Australian wine. A distinguished winemaker, business leader and communicator who has done so much to champion Australian wine throughout his glittering career.

Denis Horgan AM: From accidental vigneron to Australian wine legend

Today, Leeuwin Estate is one of the most highly regarded Australian wineries in the world. Denis, who worked as a chartered accountant specialising in mergers and acquisitions, bought the property on which Leeuwin Estate now stands in 1969. The property was purchased in a deal to acquire a plumbing business and at first Denis harboured no dreams of building a fine wine estate The property lay untouched until 1973 when Denis got a phone call from the U.S.

Like James Halliday and Chris Hancock, Denis Horgan’s life changed completely when he met another legendary figure in the world of wine. On the phone was an attorney from Seattle, Washington calling about their property in Margaret River. A few probing questions from Denis and the attorney revealed that his client was Robert Mondavi, already a legend in the world of wine. Mondavi, recognised as arguably the most important person in modern wine, put the Napa Valley on the map with technical innovations and brilliant marketing strategies. When Robert Mondavi is interested in planting vines on your property you don’t question, you get planting!

In the early years, Mondavi helped Denis as a consultant with the planning of the vineyards and with the direction of the wine styles. One of Robert’s key pieces of advice was to plant Chardonnay, which was quite a rare variety in Australia in the 1970s and 1980s. This astute advice led to Leeuwin Estate’s most iconic wine, the Art Series Chardonnay. This wine was a beacon to producers in the region around Australia, showing that Margaret River could make wines to rival the best in the world.

Denis has skilfully combined his passion for wine with his passions for great art and great food. Innovations like the art gallery at Leeuwin Estate, the regular concerts held at the winery and the award-winning Leeuwin Restaurant have become oft-copied examples of excellence in food and wine tourism. Denis Horgan has helped to shape modern Australian wine in ways that will resonate for generations to come.


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