It’s been an historic year for Hunter Valley-based Mount Pleasant — not only is it celebrating 100 years since winemaker Maurice O’Shea acquired the first property that would bear its first vineyard plantings, but the winery, vineyards and brand now boast new owners in the Medich Family Office, a Sydney-based investment group, following its acquisition from McWilliam’s Wines. Standing tall among Mount Pleasant’s stable of wines is the Lovedale Semillon. The wine was first made in 1950 and labelled Lovedale Riesling when released a couple of years later, as early Hunter Valley Semillons were often called. Today considered one of Australia’s and the world’s finest examples of the variety, the Mount Pleasant Lovedale Semillon is released with a minimum of five years bottle. To find out more about this historic and iconic wine, Sonya Logan went behind the scenes with current Mount Pleasant chief winemaker Adrian Sparks and Phil Ryan, who was chief winemaker for 35 years from 1978.
This year, ownership of Mount Pleasant passed from McWilliam’s Wines to investment group Medich Family Office. How far back does the association between the McWilliams family and Pleasant stretch?
Phil Ryan (PR): McWilliams Wines was established in 1877 and by 1913 was based in the Riverina. Mount Pleasant was established by Maurice O’Shea in 1921. The McWilliams family purchased a half share of Mount Pleasant in 1932 and acquired the remaining 50% in 1941.
When was the Lovedale vineyard acquired and planting commenced?
PR: In 1939, shortly before the onset of World War II and with the support of the McWilliams family, Mount Pleasant winemaker Maurice O’Shea looked to expand their viticultural opportunities in the Hunter. O’Shea, with his now considerable local experience and understanding of terroir, chose a property owned then by the Love family (hence Lovedale). The planting of the vineyard was temporarily halted between 1939 and 1945, with the Australian Government retaining a large section of the property as an emergency landing field during the war years.
The motivation for the purchase was to plant on a site specifically for white grapes and to produce a wine with regional definition from the sandy, aggregate, light clay soils with their unique structure that would capture the perfect tightness and acidity, especially with Semillon (called Riesling at the time). In its early years of planting, which began in 1946, the vines struggled to be established in this difficult environment but with perseverance the first grapes were harvested in 1950. Many years later, one of O’Shea’s workers who was involved at that time said, “the soil was so poor that even the rabbits were carrying a lunch box”.
Semillon (aka Riesling) was the first choice because of its success since the first viticultural endeavours in the Hunter in 1828. It has been a variety that has consistently produced not only quality and flavour intensity but also, importantly, yield and, remarkably, because of the unique Hunter terroir, the ability to mature in bottle.
When was the first Mount Pleasant Lovedale Semillon released?
PR: The first Mount Pleasant Lovedale Semillon was the 1950 Lovedale Riesling released around 1952. The Riesling name for Semillon goes back to the very beginning of Australian viticulture in the early 1800s in Sydney. Thomas Sheppard, who was in charge of the Darling Nursery, mistakenly propagated Semillon from his collection thinking it was a Riesling variety from Germany. He named these Semillon vines Sheppard’s Riesling which by 1828 also became known as Hunter River Riesling, a name that was maintained until the 1960s.
What prompted the first release of the wine?
PR: Hunter River Riesling (Semillon) was extremely popular and sought-after at that time. In fact, it was the principal wine variety of New South Wales, long before varieties such as Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc were considered. Therefore, the two white varieties of consequence of that era were Riesling from South Australia and Hunter River Riesling (Semillon from the Hunter).
Do the same vines in the Lovedale vineyard usually provide the fruit for the wine or can that change from year to year based on the vintage?
PR: The original vineyard planting of 1946 is always chosen for the Single Vineyard Lovedale Semillon label. The controlling factor is that the wine is only labelled Lovedale Semillon in what is considered an outstanding, high quality vintage.
Describe the characteristics of the vines used to make the wine:
Adrian Sparks (AS): Mount Pleasant Lovedale Semillon is made exclusively from vines planted in 1946. These gnarly, twisted old vines have an unidentified clone and the unique thing about this block is the random vines scattered throughout the Semillon — they aren’t the same as 99% of the other vines, whether they’re different Semillon clones, or completely different white varieties. These one-percenters are what makes Lovedale unique, and can’t be replicated anywhere else. The vines are cane or spur pruned depending on the upcoming season, with minimal leaf or shoot thinning; a small amount of crop is removed for balance and space. We don’t crop thin for the sake of it. We run cover crops through the mid row annually, and the undervine is kept free from competing grasses. All fruit is handpicked.
How has the Lovedale vineyard grown from the original plantings?
PR: The vineyard has grown substantially over the last 50 years. Fifty percent of the original 1946 plantings are still maintained to produce to the classic Lovedale Semillon. These plantings were on original roots. Further plantings of Semillon on Ramsey rootstock are used to support the Elizabeth brand and other varietals such as Chardonnay and Verdelho have been introduced. Recently we have begun to replant blocks, with new clones of Chardonnay going in the ground this year; over the next two years more Semillon will be replanted.
Describe the current winemaking process that brings the wine to fruition, from picking through to bottling?
AS: The current winemaking is very simple, yet needs to be so precise. It all starts in the vineyard, with slow-ripening, well-balanced vineyards the key to flavour development. We pick the old vines in three passes, ensuring only the best grapes are handpicked, where they are then delivered to the winery for weighing. The fruit is then destemmed, crushed and sent to the press where we take a free run of around 500 litres per tonne. This juice is cold settled and then racked to tank for a cool fermentation at around 14°C, taking about 10-12 days to complete. The wine is then racked, taking some light lees, and held in tank for two to three months prior to bottling. It is a very simple but highly detailed process, with very gentle handling and minimal transfers the key to retaining all of that amazing citrus and floral notes you get from the Lovedale vineyard, ensuring they stay in the wine to develop over many years.
Have the winemaking inputs changed over the years?
PR: In the 19th and early 20th centuries, Semillon was made under primitive conditions by today’s standards, but still made sought-after wine. It was not until 1956 that electricity arrived at Mount Pleasant, not until 1960 that the first stainless steel tank was installed and, in 1962, a small unsophisticated refrigeration system was installed. The 1970s and ‘80s witnessed technological advances in winemaking which were grasped and applied to Lovedale Semillon production.
Any name changes over the year for the Lovedale Semillon?
PR: The only change over the years was in the period after Maurice O’Shea passed in 1956. From 1957 to 1979 the label was changed from Single Vineyard Lovedale Riesling to Anne Riesling. In other words, the vineyard name was dropped. The same principle applied in that the wine was only labelled Anne Riesling in outstanding years and made in limited quantity. McWilliams created a second much larger volume label called Elizabeth Riesling which was produced from a number of vineyard sites in the Hunter Valley as well as surplus grapes from the Lovedale Vineyard.
Biggest challenge in making this wine?
PR: The biggest challenge — always the weather!’
What’s the recommended retail price of the Mount Pleasant Lovedale Semillon, approximately how much is produced each year, and where is it sold?
AS: Lovedale sells for $70 a bottle, with production determined by season. At the end of the day, quality and consistency overrule sales figures. We make the best wine possible and that’s the volume we have to bottle. No compromises. It is sold via the Mount Pleasant website, cellar door and through distributors Young & Rashleigh in New South Wales.
What are the ageing recommendations for the wine?
AS: Well, the world is your oyster. Lovedale has been made as a table wine since 1950, and some of these still stand the test of time. The potential for this vineyard, with modern day winemaking, screw caps, storage conditions…who knows?
PR: I believe Semillon has the ability to be consumed as a young wine with its refreshing, vibrant, citrus and textural notes or when the wine morphs into its unique complexities of lemon/lime, toast, honey and nuttiness with unparalleled flavour persistence. It is a wine style that cannot be created anywhere else in the world — a unique Australian wine style where Lovedale is arguably the benchmark.
How many years has the Mount Pleasant Lovedale Semillon not been produced?
AS: We have declassified both 2015 and 2016 Lovedales so they won’t be released.
PR: The vintages in which Lovedale was not released are as follows: (as Lovedale Riesling) 1951, 1952, 1953 and 1954; (as Anne Riesling) 1957, 1958, 1960, 1963, 1964, 1966, 1968, 1971, 1973, 1976, 1977, 1978, 1980, 1981, 1982 and 1983; (as Lovedale Semillon) 1985, 1987, 1988, 1989, 1990, 1991, 1992, 1993, 1994, 2002, 2004, 2008, 2010 and 2012.
From the 1981 vintage and up to the 1994 vintage, the Lovedale Semillon wasn’t declassified because of quality, as so many vintages produced a great wine. Rather, it was a conscious decision by sales and marketing to meet the ever-increasing volume demand for the Elizabeth Riesling.
In many ways this was a regrettable decision as the greatness of Lovedale Semillon from classic Semillon years such as 1981, 1982, 1983, 1987, 1989, 1991, 1993 and 1994 will never be realised.
Most notable accolades?
PR: The first 1950 Lovedale Riesling set the standard. With limited wine show opportunities compared to today it won major acclaim including being awarded Championship Show Wine 1957 and 1969 Best White Wine of Show at the RAS in Sydney. These awards were an indication of things to come for this classic wine style and its potential to mature in bottle. Over the 30-year period from 1980 to 2011, the wine enjoyed consistent outstanding success. Over that period, 14 outstanding vintages of Lovedale Semillon were released achieving some 91 trophies, 188 gold medals and numerous other awards. A few highlights of the trophies awarded: Best Wine of Show – International Top 100, 1996; Best Wine of Show – Tri Nations Challenge, 2003; Best Wine of Show – Len Evans Trophy National Wine Show Canberra, 2001. A wine show highlight was in 2010 when the 2005 Lovedale Semillon was awarded Best Single Vineyard White Wine of Show at the London International Wine Trade Fair. The competition was against every white variety from a single vineyard, any vintage, around the globe.
Any other notable acknowledgements?
PR: Excellent – Langton’s Classification of Australian wine; UK wine writer Matthew Jukes said in 2003, “it is the finest single vineyard in the world. I know it is pricey but you will not believe the class in Lovedale”; UK wine writer Hugh Johnson said in 2001, “this core of old vines in particularly poor, gravelly, sand and silt always supply the Lovedale Wine, which is one of the classic wines of Australia”; in 2002 James Halliday said, “the Lovedale Vineyard is the greatest source of Semillon in the Hunter”.
PR: Where do you start? There are so many wonderful vintages of Lovedale, some with more awards than others and it becomes subjective. To me great vintages are like your children — there is no ‘best’, they are all unique and remarkable!