One can hear the sentiment in Lee Harding’s voice when he talks about the distinctive nature of the stately Centurion vineyard. “It’s the look of it,” says the viticulturist from Richard Hamilton Wines in McLaren Vale. “You’ve got the beautiful old vines, all knotted up. There’s the old-school wide spacing; the big gnarly trunks.”
More than 1,100 old soldiers, assembled in 19 rows, who have weathered the trials of life for well over a century. Today the grapes from these vines go exclusively into Centurion Shiraz, an impressive single-vineyard wine, first produced in 1998 by Richard Hamilton Wines. Paul Gordon presides over the winemaking and has done so for the past 19 years.
Planting of the 0.74-hectare Centurion vineyard is thought to have occurred in 1892 by brothers Walter and Clement Philipson, who then sold to Thomas Wigley in 1893. In colonial South Australia, there was much interest in grape growing. The government viticulturist of the time, Arthur Perkins, was espousing the virtues of shiraz due to its high-quality fruit, decent yield and low susceptibility to black spot fungus.
Wigley owned the shiraz vineyard together with a larger landholding. His eccentric, cricket-loving brother Robert ‘Bob’ Strangways Wigley managed the estate and founded the winery Wirra Wirra. His death in 1926 saw the winery fall into demise and it was abandoned until it was revived by Greg Trott in 1969.
When Thomas Wigley died in 1933 the estate was sold, and the land subdivided. Jack Sparrow, who was a manager at Wirra Wirra, purchased a small allotment in 1935. This parcel was acquired by Burton Wyndham Hamilton in 1947. The whole block became known as the Hut Block, due to a small building erected in World War II for training soldiers. Hamilton referred to the ‘old block’ section as the ‘Creek’ due to its proximity to a tree-lined watercourse along the property border.
The grapes from the old shiraz vines were sold to Hamilton’s Ewell Vineyards and were made into ‘Claret’ and ‘Burgundy’.
Twenty-five years on from when Burton Hamilton purchased the vineyard, his son Richard graduated from medical school in Adelaide with aspirations of being a winemaker and a doctor. There was a considerable family history in wine, with numerous extended family members working in, or owning part of, Hamilton’s Ewell Vineyards.
Dr Hamilton recalls time spent as a child in his father’s vineyard. He also had an uncle, Sydney Hamilton, who was chief winemaker at Hamilton’s Ewell Winery, who later went on to establish Leconfield Wines in Coonawarra. Furthermore, Dr Hamilton’s great-great-grandfather, with whom he shares his name, was one of Australia’s early winemaking pioneers.
Dr Hamilton’s first wines, from 1972, were made using fruit purchased from his father’s vineyard and this marked the birth of Richard Hamilton Wines.
The ‘old shiraz’ block was used to produce the early versions of Richard Hamilton Shiraz. In 1981 Dr Hamilton purchased the Leconfield winery from his uncle, and in 1993 he bought his father’s vineyard holdings.
In the 1990s, there was renewed interest in wines made from old vines, a contrast to the decade prior where many old vineyards were destroyed in the South Australian vine pull scheme. Grapes from the old vineyard were used to make Richard Hamilton Old Vine Shiraz. It became ‘Centurion’, a name suggested by famed viticulturist Richard Smart, in 1998.
The vines are grown in grey loams over old river clay with underlying limestone. Sea breezes from the Gulf St Vincent temper warm conditions and the grapes consistently have a good acid balance. The vineyard may be harvested all at once, or in sections, depending on the year. And as expected with old vines, the yield is extremely small, sometimes cropping as low as two tonnes per 0.4 hectares.
When Harding began looking after the vineyard in 2001, he found it in amazing condition. “There were very few gaps and misses.” Harding and a small hand-selected team prune the vineyard themselves, taking extra time and care. Around five years ago, they took the drastic step of cane-pruning the vineyard for two years to manage eutypa dieback, which gave the vineyard a burst of life. They have now resumed spur pruning, though with the fresh fruiting wood on the two cordons, the vineyard has been reinvigorated, ensuring its productivity well into the future. The shoots on the top cordon are positioned vertically to allow extra sunlight onto the bottom cordon which promotes evenness of ripening. It is a resilient, healthy, hardy vineyard.
At harvest, hand-picked grapes are divided between small-scale fermenters and large oak vats, with the inclusion of some whole bunches. Gentle pumping-over occurs during ferment. After pressing, maturation takes place in a mix of French oak barrels and vats, with only a small proportion of new oak - water-bent Burgundian oak is preferred. At several intervals during maturation, the wine in barrels is exchanged for that in the vats.
Gordon downplays his role in the winemaking, stating that the wine is a product of the vineyard. “It makes itself,” he says. “It is not the biggest, richest wine in the range. It’s got more elegance, and has nice pedigree and style.”
Dr Hamilton, and his wife Jette, have continued to expand their vineyard holdings in McLaren Vale and Coonawarra. Furthermore, they have captured the family’s extensive wine heritage in two documentaries: ‘Wineline – The Hamilton Story’, and ‘Wineline 2 – Odyssey’. The latter is a multi-award-winning short film about Burton Hamilton.
Centurion is a single vineyard wine with an extraordinary pedigree, made from vines that span three centuries. Due to the hard work and dedication of its custodians, its remarkable history is preserved in every bottle.
Along with improvements to the vineyard, small refinements in the winemaking in recent years, such as the use of large format oak, have had a positive impact. Centurion today has richness, and a respectful reserve. There is politeness to the fruit, a quiet confidence and authenticity.
The 2018 release is magnificent. It has a core of dark cherry and satsuma plum accented by red rose petals and licorice. The flavour intensity is phenomenal, and it has a plush, velvety nature supported by fine-grained tannins. It is unmistakably an old vine red, and despite its youth shows beautiful grace and restraint.
The 2017 has characteristic depth and palate generosity, with a structural frame conducive to ageing. 2016 has fruit juiciness plus, and delicious chocolatey richness, while 2015 is ageing beautifully, with impressive succulence, length of flavour, elegant fruit and stylish savoury tones. Meanwhile, the palate of the 2013 is just starting to loosen, with decanting revealing layers of nutty complexity and rich fruit.