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The First Family of Wine

The Hamilton Family is one of the original Australian winemaking families. In 1837 Richard Hamilton founded the Hamilton Vineyards, just south of Adelaide. It was planted with stock sent from friends in South Africa shortly after the family's arrival in South Australia.

Five winemaking generations later, in 1972, Richard's great-great-grandson, Dr Richard Hamilton established a small winery in McLaren Vale under the guidance of his father Burton, a noted viticulturist, and uncle, renowned vigneron, Sydney Hamilton.

Two years later, at the age of 76, Sydney bought land on the famous 'terra rossa' strip in Coonawarra, South Australia and established 'Leconfield' to fulfil his life's ambition of growing and making a classic Australian Cabernet Sauvignon.

Sydney retired in 1981 after 65 vintages and Dr Richard Hamilton purchased the company from him. Leconfield became the single winemaking facility for both the Richard Hamilton Wines and Leconfield Coonawarra brands, securing the family connection to both Coonawarra and McLaren Vale.

Celebrating since 1837 and still making history...

  • 'The Smuggler' leaves Dover

    Snargate Street, once the main street of Dover, was full of attractive residential and business buildings. It ran along the cliffs of Dover near the Western Docks. In 1837 Richard Hamilton resided at 119 Snargate Street, and it was from here that he emigrated to South Australia.

    Richard Hamilton was a prominent businessman who ran a large tailoring business. He also owned an orchard at an old Roman vineyard settlement called ‘Ewell’, some 8 miles outside Dover. On the Land Order, Richard Hamilton listed his occupation as ‘Agriculturalist’, having in mind the opportunities the new colony would represent to his nine children rather than his personal fortune.

    Richard (born in February 1792) was the eldest son of his father (also called Richard Hamilton). His wife, Ann Holmes, was born at Dover Castle in 1789 (the year of the French Revolution). His name was listed as part of the Petty Jury for local court trials on 21st December 1830. Why he, at the age of 45, and his family opted to emigrate is unknown although it has been reliably suggested he may have been involved with smuggling wine from Bordeaux and the Revenue Officers may have been closing in on him. 

  • 1837July 27th

    Bound for South Australia

    In 1836, Richard's 16 year old seaman son, William Holmes Hamilton, returned from a journey aboard the ‘Duke of York’. The ship was carrying settlers to the fledgling colony of South Australia. Returning to England excited by the potential of South Australia, William somehow convinced his 45 year old father to uproot the family and settle on the other side of the world. In 1837 Richard Hamilton took out ‘Land Order 449’ in London for the Province of South Australia.

    On 27th July 1837 the barque 'Katherine Stewart Forbes' sailed from London and Gravesend for Australia where she arrived at Holdfast Bay South Australia on 17th October 1837 bringing with her just under some 200 passengers, including Richard, his wife Anne and eight of their nine children as well as the proclamation of Queen Victoria’s accession to the throne following the death of King William IV. At the time of their arrival there were 179 European Settlers in the colony.

  • 1837October 17th

    Arrival in South Australia - October 17, 1837

    Having made landfall on 17th October 1837 the family disembarked at Holdfast Bay where they found there was a delay in identifying their land as the surveying was running behind schedule so initially the family lived in tents on the banks of the River Torrens. However, a stroke of luck occurred because one of his sons, John, became an assistant to the Surveyor General Colonel William Light’s surveying party and it was he who identified an excellent plot of land - Lot 148, which straddled the Sturt River near Glenelg in Marion District. The plot had excellent soil and was well drained but comprised grassland with eucalyptus or gum trees. Richard and the family took possession of this plot in 1838 finally completing its transfer in 1840. Initially called “Curtis Farm”, it was the foundation land for the subsequent expanded enterprise. 

    Pictured: Sydney & Eric Hamilton with the original land order

  • Establishing South Australia's first Vineyards

    It required much labor-intensive work to transform Lot 148 from its natural state to farmland and this took quite some time. Only 25 acres were cleared and farmed by 1841 for a variety of crops. In 1838 vines were planted on “Curtis Farm” in rich red-brown soil. During the delay over the allocation of land, Richard wrote asking a friend in South Africa to send vines to plant as ‘the health of the family requires a little wine’. The vines were planted in the winter of 1838 and were harvested in due time in enough quantity for both the family and for Richard to be able to sell to nearby farmers. In 1841 Richard made South Australia’s first commercial wine. The business gradually expanded.

  • Henry's Winery

    Richard Hamilton died prematurely in August 1852. While all of Richard’s children inherited a part of the farm it was his fourth son, Henry, who was in charge for the benefit of his siblings and who developed the vine growing and wine making in so doing building the enterprise up into a significant business. Henry was born in 1826 in Dover and had arrived in Australia from England in 1841 having stayed back to be educated in Christ’s Hospital Blue Coat School in London between 1835 and 1841; whilst Richard, Ann and the other children set sail for South Australia in 1837.

    In 1852 Henry bought 47 acres of land of his own to expand “Curtis Farm” and named it Ewell Vineyard. It was located across Oaklands Road from his father’s original plot and it was to provide the nucleus of Hamilton’s Ewell Vineyards and Winery at Marion District. Henry married Mary Bell who was the daughter of a neighbour. 

    To Henry is attributed the fact of having put the business firmly on the map by planting more vineyards and establishing cellars as well as winning a prestigious prize awarded by the Royal Agricultural and Horticultural Society. Henry died in 1907, by which time Port, Muscat, Sherries and sweet white wine were being produced.

    Pictured: Henry's Winery

  • Frank Hamilton and 'The Swiss'

    After Anne Hamilton’s death in 1886, at the age of 97, Henry and his fourth son Frank, set about buying the land back from the other members of the family.

    Frank started managing the business from 1890. Frank, who was born in 1859, was married to Violet Ayliffe and it was during his time in control that his entrepreneurial spirit enabled the business to develop further. He was aided by a young man named as “The Swiss” who was a winemaker from Europe who had jumped ship in Adelaide and was given protection by Frank and his family. He was called “The Swiss” because his actual surname was impossible to pronounce. During this period of growth a large underground cellar was dug at the recommendation of “The Swiss”. This was unusual in Australia at the time and was an early example of the innovative approach to wine-making which became characteristic of the Hamilton family, and often as a result of fortuitous contact with experienced European wine-makers. 

  • Eric and Sydney take the reigns

    Tragedy struck in 1913 when, quite unexpectedly, at the relatively young age of 54, Frank died from pneumonia, caught whilst visiting family in Kangaroo Island. His heirs, eldest sons Eric and Sydney Hamilton, were only 17 and 14 respectively at the time and, of course, the world was soon plunged into chaos through the outbreak of World War I. Eric enlisted and saw action in both Gallipoli and the Western Front and was severely gassed on at least two occasions necessitating his repatriation to England for treatment. 

    In South Australia meanwhile the Public Trustee took control of the Hamilton winery and vineyards over a period of six precarious years. Soon after Frank died in 1913, Sydney aged 15 years, ran off to sea sailing on a windjammer between Port Adelaide and Plymouth. During his time as a seaman he rounded the Cape Horn several times thereby joining an elite group of men known as ‘Cape Horners’. 

    Pictured: Sydney Hamilton on board the 'Chiltonford'.

  • 'The Russian'

    In 1919 Eric returned from the war and, with Sydney already back from the sea, a partnership between the two brothers began which proved to be extremely beneficial and productive for the health and growth of the business. Eric, the older brother as Managing Director, proved to be a formidable marketing operator and spent up to six months a year travelling in England and also made some fifteen visits to Canada promoting Hamilton's wines. The outcome was not only beneficial to the Hamilton family but for all Australian wine producers. In London Eric saw the unrealistically high prices of French wines and realised a market existed for Australian wines at a better price but, importantly, which would still give a healthy return.

    Sydney meanwhile took over as winemaker aided by a cultured modest Russian emigrant, called John Seeck who was a talented and highly skilled experienced winemaker from Europe. He joined Hamilton's in 1929 and stayed until his retirement in 1944. He had an interesting past having studied winemaking at Heidelburg University in Germany and for several years later in France and Spain. After further travel, including a visit to Australia, he returned to pre-revolutionary Russia but the Czarist secret police made him flee to St Petersburg from where he was able to leave Russia smuggled aboard a British ship. Back in Australia after tasting samples of Sydney Hamilton’s wines, John Seeck politely suggested “they are in need of some improvement”. And over the years improvement was pushed to the limits. 

    Pictured: A Pruning lesson in 1943

  • Innovation leads to success

    During the inter war years Sydney Hamilton’s innovative style pioneered the use of mechanical refrigeration in winemaking in Australia which was hugely important as it allowed control of the rate of fermentation of the wine in the otherwise hot climate. 1935 saw the installation of the first such cooling unit but by 1944 a much larger underground cold fermentation cellar with refrigeration plant was excavated which enabled the winery to handle greater quantities of all types of white wine grapes regardless of the climatic conditions at the time. The business flourished under the name of Hamilton’s Ewell Vineyards Proprietary Limited.

    A light white wine with a slight spritzig called “Ewell Moselle” was developed in 1929 and became a top seller throughout Australia. Experimentation and inventiveness resulted in closed wooden vats fermentation being developed which excluded oxygen in a key part of the process resulting in the high quality delicate Ewell Moselle that was produced. Previously wine fermentation took place in open cement tanks which created oxidation and hygiene problems. Sydney’s experiments with refrigeration led to further pioneering initiatives including huge cellars being excavated at Marion. The net result of Eric and Sydney’s partnership period was a seismic shift in wine making much influenced by temperature control turning the Ewell Moselle into a “great wine” and enabling Hamilton’s to produce quality dry red wines which they called Burgundy and Claret.

    Together Eric and Sydney rebuilt and expanded the winery, they installed a distillery and restructured the company in 1935 as Hamilton’s Ewell Vineyards Proprietary Limited. This period in the family business produced a veritable wine revolution and by 1955 the Ewell Moselle was declared the best white wine in Australia and then came Hamilton’s Springton “claret” as Sydney was constantly refining his wine making processes.

    Sydney resigned from the family business in 1955 moving to Happy Valley some 15 miles south of Adelaide. There in retirement he planted vines and was to work as a vigneron for another 20 years dreaming of and yearning constantly to make the classic Australian dry red “claret” style of wine.

    Pictured: The partly excavated Old Cellar at Marion today.

  • A Change of Scene

    Meanwhile Frank’s fourth son, Burton Wyndham Hamilton (1904 – 1994), who was only eight years old when his father died in 1913, had been carving out a successful life for himself as a viticulturist / winemaker but only after experiencing other aspects of Australian life. Eventually Burton returned to Adelaide in 1935 with his young wife Gida Mott from Albury, whom he had married in 1932.

    Burton initially became the maltster in the thriving family winery and distillery under Eric and Sydney. In 1947 in a major step, Burton purchased the historic Hut Block vineyard (est 1892) in McLaren Vale, some 25 miles south of Adelaide, now a cornerstone of Richard Hamilton Wines, and later he bought more vineyard land in McLaren Vale and nearby Willunga. Among his purchases was the acquisition of two acres of Grenache vines which, in due time, would produce a great quality wine called Burton’s Vineyard Grenache. He had a strong preference for hand tended vines from planting to pruning and harvesting and as a result of his endeavours he further diversified into Shiraz, Chardonnay and Grenache vines. Burton had also worked for a 10 year period in the Hamilton’s laboratory under Sydney from 1948, then later as a travelling salesman for the business in the late 1950s but much of his time was still devoted to experimenting in laboratory work as he sought to perfect his wines.

    Pictured: Burton Hamilton portrait for the Richard Hamilton 'Burton's Vineyard' Grenache label

  • The Fifth Generation

    In the 1970s Hamilton’s Ewell Vineyards declined and in 1979 they were bought out and the winery closed. Much of the original vineyard site fell victim to the spread of Adelaide suburbs being sold for housing, education, a drive in theatre, and bus depot among other uses.

    Burton gave encouragement to his second youngest son, Richard, who had expressed an interest in keeping the Hamilton name going in the wine game and who had himself bought a modest vineyard and started a winery in McLaren Vale. The wheel came full circle when Burton sold his vineyard and his grapes and gave his tuition and wisdom to young Richard Hamilton (the name where it all started) who then produced his first vintage in 1972.

    It is a family belief that without Burton the Hamilton wine line would have ended but because Burton was so innovative and encouraging, and today’s strong position of Richard Hamilton Wines is due almost entirely to his efforts. He enabled Richard to buy an 80 acre block of land at auction by physically raising Richard’s arm for the winning bid! Richard says he could not have made the success of the business without his father’s help.

    Pictured: Richard Hamilton in the 1980s

  • The revitalisation of the family business

    The current Richard Hamilton is both a prominent Adelaide doctor, specifically a plastic and reconstructive surgeon, and a winemaker who, after the Eric and Sydney period ended and Hamilton’s was bought out and closed in 1979, is responsible for resurrecting the Hamilton name and continuing the Hamilton wine line. Supported by his uncle Sydney Hamilton as well as by a Frenchman, Maurice Ou (who had been offered a job originally by Sydney in 1946) Richard built up the family’s McLaren Vale vineyard holdings initially under the watchful eye of his father, Burton, and Richard Hamilton Wines was opened in 1972.

    Maurice Ou was the third European winemaker to offer expertise to the Hamilton family and came to Hamilton’s just after the war in 1946; initially for two years but that service extended itself over 32 years of passionate wine making. Maurice had studied Oenology at the University of Montpellier and then learned the skills of the winemaking trade in great French vineyards in places like Bordeaux, Beaune and Montpellier, so he was professionally well qualified to be chief Hamilton winemaker after Sydney retired and he brought with him his Gallic personality and sense of humour as well!

    Pictured: One of Richard's mentors, Maurice Ou at Hamilton Ewells

  • Out of retirement - at the age of 76

    Such was Richard's uncle Sydney’s passion for wine making that, at the age of 76, he came out of retirement to plant a vineyard in 1974 with the aim of producing a “damn good” red wine – perhaps the best red wine in Australia based on the cabernet sauvignon grape. He chose a site in the remote Coonawarra wine making district some 250 miles south of Adelaide and called the vineyard Leconfield after an English ancestor, Lord Leconfield. Through the 1970s and early 1980s numerous award-winning Cabernet Sauvignon wines were made by Sydney, allowing him to achieve his lifelong dream. The most notable was the 1980 Leconfield Cabernet.

    In 1981 Sydney sold Leconfield to his nephew, the young Richard Hamilton so the strands of Hamilton wines (Burton’s and Sydney’s enterprises) came together under one ownership once again. 

    Picture: Leconfield Coonawarra's founder - Sydney Hamilton

  • Leconfield & Richard Hamilton Wines

    Today Richard Hamilton has grown the family business into two internationally acclaimed wine brands - Richard Hamilton Wines at McLaren Vale and Leconfield Coonawarra. Together with his wife Jette, their son Thomas and daughter Annasofia, they continue the Hamilton winemaking legacy into its sixth generation.

    Celebrating since 1837 and still making history...

    Pictured: Jette and Richard Hamilton at the McLaren Vale Cellar Door