A family affair

Family lies at the heart of the Australian wine industry. From boutique beginnings to layers of expertise passed down through generations, family remains the tie that binds our fledgling past to our flourishing winemaking future.

As one of the oldest wine producing regions in Australia, the Hunter is littered with iconic familial reminders of our rich viticultural heritage, from Australia’s first wine families to some of the industry’s oldest vines. The story of Hungerford Hill – past and present – is no different. Established during the second wave of vineyard plantings that spread across the region in the 1960s and ’70s, Hungerford Hill is renowned as one of the Hunter’s older wine brands. And just like many of its predecessors, family enterprise lies at the heart of its journey. Long before the first vine was planted in the rich volcanic soil at Pokolbin, the plot on which Hungerford Hill was founded had spent years as a family-run cattle farm. After being put up for sale by the Hungerford family in 1967, it was purchased by Sydney businessman and entrepreneur John Parker, who set about establishing the Hungerford Hill vineyard.

The beginnings

The first vines were planted in 1967 and by the time his initial vintage was ready in 1970 John had also built a winery on site. Two years later the accountant turned wine industry innovator had opened Australia’s first wine tourism complex, incorporating a restaurant, underground cellars and function centre, with a motel and children’s playground later being added. The 1970s saw John extend the Hungerford Hill brand beyond the boundaries of the Hunter, buying a property in South Australia’s Coonawarra region where he planted vineyards to produce a range of Hungerford Hill Coonawarra wines.

The brand quickly became renowned for its award-winning varieties, but in 1985 the family-owned enterprise hit a serious roadblock after John lost control of the Hunter-based business in a hostile takeover. With the new owners selling off the winery, tourism complex and vineyards, the Hungerford Hill brand was left homeless for five years until being acquired by South Australian-based industry powerhouse Southcorp. Under their ownership, the brand itself continued to expand, introducing wines from New South Wales’ emerging cool climate wine regions of Tumbarumba and Hilltops, however a lack of promotion by Southcorp left it languishing with stagnant sales in an old church on Macdonald’s Road, Pokolbin.

It wasn’t until it returned to a family-based ownership structure that Hungerford Hill’s fortunes were really turned around, thanks to the clear vision that third generation Sydney industrialist James Kirby provided. James, who was a regular visitor to the Hunter, saw the potential of the Hungerford Hill wines and convinced his family, owners of the James N Kirby engineering business, to acquire it in 2002 before he set about revitalising and reinvigorating the brand.

Rebuilding the future

Investing heavily in the future of Hungerford Hill, the Kirby family purchased and completed the eyecatching complex then known as One Broke Road, with its unique cellar door designed by noted Sydney architect Walter Barda to resemble a wine barrel with the lid raised. James spent the next 14 years building on Hungerford Hill’s proud reputation for distinguished wines, with a string of chief winemakers, initially led by Phillip John, adding their own layers of knowledge and experience to help create a portfolio of wines that continue to win national and international acclaim today.

In 2016, Hungerford Hill started the next chapter in its story, after Kirby sold the brand and its Hunter, Tumbarumba and Hilltops vineyards to Iris Capital, a family owned business established by Sydneybased panel beater turned publican Sam Arnaout and his wife Christie. Hungerford Hill’s acquisition came in the midst of a string of other Hunter-based purchases by Iris – which stands for Independently Rising in Strength – with the Arnaout family also taking control of the renowned Sweetwater vineyard and property near Belford, and the former Wyndham Estate property including the vineyard and winery buildings at Dalwood, which have been renamed Dalwood Estate. With a vision to build the premium wine brands from all three vineyards, Sam is committed to continuing to successfully grow and develop Hungerford Hill as a family-owned business.

Currently celebrating its 50th vintage with a special release of anniversary wines, Hungerford Hill General Manager and Senior Winemaker Bryan Currie said it was an achievement for the brand to have survived and thrived over the years. “There are some very longstanding family vineyard brands in the Hunter Valley, your Tyrrells, your Draytons and the like, but after their era there’s a big gap (of new vineyards being established),” he says.

Hungerford Hill’s Tasting Room is open daily from 10am to 5pm, closed on Christmas Day. www.hungerfordhill.com.au

Read the full story of Hungerford Hill in the Spring issue of Hunter&Coastal Lifestyle Magazine. Available in newsagencies or subscribe here and never miss an issue.
Story Michelle Meehan, photography courtesy of Hungerford Hill