Sydney Hamilton

Sydney Hamilton

(18 July 1898 – 22 July 1987)

Leconfield Coonawarra was established in 1974 by noted oenologist, Sydney Hamilton. During a winemaking career spanning nearly 60 years, Sydney was highly regarded for his contribution to the industry.

Sydney Hamilton was especially known for pioneering temperature-controlled fermentation of white wines. This technique allowed for the preservation of delicate aromas and flavours and has become the benchmark for production of white wine around the world.

At the age of 76, Sydney Hamilton still yearned to make a classic Australian Cabernet Sauvignon and set himself the task of finding the right district in which to establish his own vineyard and winery. Showing great foresight, Sydney selected Coonawarra as the area with the potential to fulfill his ambitious dream. Thus Leconfield was born, named after an English ancestor, Lord Leconfield.

Situated in the southern half of the Coonawarra strip, the vineyard occupies some of the area’s richest terra rossa soil over limestone, a composition for which Coonawarra is famous. Original plantings were to the classic variety Cabernet Sauvignon however, Sydney saved a small section of the best soils for Riesling cuttings he had sourced from his Happy Valley vineyard in Adelaide. This enabled him to continue producing a small amount of dry white wine in the style for which he was famous. 

In 1981, with 65 vintages under his belt, Sydney decided to finally retire and Leconfield was acquired by his nephew Dr Richard Hamilton, then based in McLaren Vale. The winery retains its individual identity and character to this day, representing the essence of the famous Coonawarra strip. 

Pioneering Winemaking

Ever since Sydney Hamilton found the key to temperature controlled fermentation in the 1930s, Australian wines entered a renaissance that continues to this day.

Sydney Hamilton realised in the mid-1930s that temperature controlled fermentation was the key to making light aromatic white table wines – that could be consumed with a meal – and also for making fresh fruitier red table wines of the claret style, all with lower alcohol. His initial attempts to perfect refrigerated fermentation were met with failure.

He finally succeeded by building a refrigerated underground fermentation cellar in the early 1940s. This led firstly to the white wine revolution which was followed by the red wine revolution; no longer would Australians be drinking the more alcoholic ports and sherries. All due to Syd’s ingenuity and determination commencing in the 1930s.

Until Syd’s pioneering efforts Australians were a nation of beer drinkers. But with the introduction of refrigerated fermentation that all changed.

“Up until those days, Australian table wines were nigh undrinkable as fermentation could not be controlled, leading to bacterial and wild yeast overgrowth with off flavours evident in the wine. So, people didn’t have many alternatives but to drink beer,” Richard Hamilton explains.

“Once Australian red and white table wines became eminently drinkable following the introduction of cold fermentation, consumption patterns changed radically amongst Australians to favouring wine. The humble grape became much less humble.”

Built by Hand

At the age of 76, Sydney Hamilton bought 30 ha of terra-rossa soil determined to make ‘the classic Australian claret’.

"Sydney Hamilton was a memorable character. I first met him at Coonawarra when he was digging the foundations to the Leconfield Winery when he was 80.

I watched him for some time, a nuggetty, stooped old man with a shovel in his hands, hardly puffing. He was conducting tastings from a cottage, but seemed none too pleased at the interruption to his digging in the bright red soil (terra-rossa of course). He reluctantly dropped his shovel

‘So you are interested in wine, but you aren’t interested in soil?’ I said I could take it or leave it, and he nodded sadly. ‘That’s the trouble with you young people, you don’t understand the importance of soil. I’d expect better from a bloke with your hair colour, its almost as good as this soil.’

Mark Shield, red head wine writer for ‘The Age’ January 1992