Toasting Perth's pioneer winemakers
IT'S a safe bet that when three British Army officers who'd served together in India bought a farm block in the Swan Valley outside the fledgling township of Perth, they wouldn't have realised that wine-lovers across Australia would be raising a toast to their venture in November of this year - 175 years after they'd made their little investment.
Thomas Yule had retired from the Army to settle in Perth and in 1836 convinced mates Ninian Lowis and Richmond Houghton to join him in an investment in the Swan Valley; in deference to Houghton's seniority as a Lieutenant Colonel they named their property Houghton - but interestingly Houghton himself never visited Australia, and although Lowis called into Fremantle on his way to the eastern colonies, he too never bothered visiting his Swan Valley investment.
Yule established fruit orchards and planted grapes for making into raisins, and being a raconteur and home-entertainer also made his own wine for regular dinner parties. But he fell on personal hard times in the mid-1850s and sold his interest in Houghton to his partners, who in turn sold out in 1859 to the Colonial Surgeon, Dr John Ferguson.
The highly-regarded Ferguson, a Scot who reputedly was the first person in Australia to use anaesthetic in 1849, had a scientific interest in winemaking, and in his first year at Houghton used Yule's grapes and winemaking equipment to produce the property's first commercial wine.
It was just 115 litres but its sales success in Perth prompted him to expand his vineyard - and to buy an adjoining property which he appointed his son Charles to manage. While wheat and fruit had been successful on both, the Fergusons decided to concentrate on grapes for making into wine and raisins, and by 1866 had 6ha under vines.
Charles Ferguson took over the full company reins in 1875 and five years later won the prestigious 'Order of Merit' at the 1880 Great Melbourne Exhibition… the first of countless accolades that would see his little winery flourish and prosper into the ultimately most-awarded in Western Australia.
And interestingly he developed a small business relationship with a winemaker in South Australia named Thomas Hardy who had founded Thomas Hardy & Sons, and who acquired some of Charles' raisins, writing to him afterwards "(they) are the best I have seen… finer than any from Mildura and much larger than any we have ever had here…"
Little would Charles have foreseen that 83 years later, Thomas Hardy & Sons would become the owners of his Houghton property.
By the early 1900s Houghton wines were so successful that in 1920 Charles turned the property over to his own sons John and Donald, with George Mann as chief winemaker.
And George Mann in turn trained his own son Jack as a winemaker, the son inheriting the Chief Winemaker mantle from his father in 1930. Seven years later, Jack Mann experimented with a wine using entirely Chenin grapes, the wine winning 'Best Dry White Table Wine' trophy at the 1937 Royal Melbourne Wine Show - with one judge likening it to "the great white Burgundies of France…"
With such praise the company labelled it Houghton White Burgundy and over the following 74 vintages to today (amazingly fifty-one of them under Jack Mann's stewardship,) its become the biggest selling white wine in Western Australia and amongst the biggest sellers nationally… although international regulations forced Houghton's to drop the reference to "White Burgundy "in 2006, and it's now labelled Houghton White Classic.
Houghton was bought by the Emu Wine Company in 1950, saw its first 1-millionth bottle of White Burgundy produced in 1972, and in 1976 the Emu Wine Company was in turn acquired by Thomas Hardy & Sons.
Remarkably in its 175 year history, Houghton Wines has had just thirteen Chief Winemakers; the current 'custodian' of the title, Ross Pamment starting with the company as a Cellar Hand, moving elsewhere, and returning in 1999 and being appointed Chief Winemaker ten years later.
Today Houghton's Swan Valley property includes the original Scottish 'crofters' homestead built by Dr John Ferguson in the 1860s, and on November 13 Houghton's 175th birthday will be celebrated with tours of the historic winery and homestead, wine tastings, historic displays, live music, dining and children's activities.