October 15, 2012


David Ellis

THREE British Army officers serving together in India seem an unlikely genesis for what would become one of the great success stories of the Australian wine industry.

Much the same as a young 16 year old simply under the guidance of his dad would go on to become one of the greatest winemakers this country has ever known.

And a wine he created in 1937 would make history just last month as the only Australian white wine ever to be made unchanged from its original style for an extraordinary 75 consecutive vintages.

Chuck in a bushranger for contrast, and you've a great yarn in Aussie corporate history.

It was in 1836, just a few years after the official founding of Western Australia, that those Army officers bought a block of land to grow wine grapes in the fledgling Swan Valley, after one retired in Perth. They named their property Houghton after the senior of their trio, Lieutenant-Colonel Richmond Houghton.

Strangely, however, neither Houghton nor another partner, Ninian Lowis ever ventured to their investment block, leaving it to the third of the trio, Thomas Newte Yule to run the place for 23 years and dabble in making wines for his own enjoyment. In 1859 the trio sold up to a Dr John Ferguson for 350 British pounds, the doctor immediately making Houghton's first-ever commercial sale – 114 litres to several Perth hotels.

And while it was to be another 21 years before Houghton Wines were to receive any kind of official recognition (an Order of Merit at the 1880 Great Melbourne Exhibition,) their haul of wins from Australian and international wine shows since then now tops 200-plus trophies and over 3,700 medals.

Go back to 1922 and 16 year old Jack Mann gets an apprenticeship at the Houghton Winery to learn winemaking under his dad, George who is Chief Winemaker. Young Jack has no formal training in chemistry, but his uncanny ability to understand the chemistry of winemaking, and hands-on skills he learns about handling the grape under his dad, quickly sees him go beyond the norm in winemaking techniques.

Such a sponge of knowledge is he that at just age 24 he takes over from George as Houghton's Chief Winemaker, and sets about creating wines that many consider ahead of their time – and remains at the company's winemaking helm for 51 vintages. One of his wines, based largely on the Chenin Blanc grape, is so different to others when entered in the "Dry White Table Wine" category of the 1937 Royal Melbourne Wine Show, that judges are taken aback by its boldness in flavour and character.

And when one likens it to the great White Burgundies of France, Houghton seizes upon the opportunity to label the wine Houghton White Burgundy.

Jack Mann meanwhile is striving to convince Australians to drink more wine, rather than beer which they had largely done back at home in England. "It is quite pardonable to drink beer where the grape doesn't grow to advantage," he once comments. "But where the wine grape does grow to advantage, wine should be the national drink."

Houghton White Burgundy is subsequently credited with seeing more Australians turn to the enjoyment of wine than any other, although in 2006 it had to be renamed as Houghton White Classic after European Union rules prevented other countries using such European regional names as Burgundy on their labels.

It proved only a minor hiccup for Houghton, and today its White Classic, still made basically to Jack Mann's 1937 style the biggest selling dry white table wine in Australia. And interestingly the company's Chief Winemaker, Ross Pamment somewhat followed Jack Mann up the winemaking ladder, having begun his wine industry career as a cellar hand with Houghton.

Certainly his and Jack Mann's careers were more fortuitous than that of gaol escapee and bushranger, Joseph "Moondyne Joe" Johns who broke into Houghton's cellars in 1869 to help himself to a midnight drink while on the run. But then-owner, Charles Ferguson (Dr John's son) had been helping police recover the body of a drowning victim nearby, and invited them to the winery for a 1am rewarding drink.

Hearing footsteps, Moondyne Joe bolted from the cellar – to his surprise straight into a policeman's waiting arms, and back to gaol.





[] HISTORIC picture captures Houghton Winery in its earliest days.

[] ORIGINAL home of Dr John Ferguson built like a Scottish crofters homestead from handmade bricks still stands today.

[] THOMAS Newte Yule – original driving force behind Houghton vineyards.

[] LEGENDARY Jack Mann, made 51 vintages of Houghton's wines from 1923 to 1974.

[] CLASSIC drop: Jack Mann's Houghton White Classic (originally Houghton White Burgunday) still made today to Mann's original 1937 critieria.

[] HOUGHTON Cellar Door today: bushranger "Moondyne Joe" Johns was captured here helping himself to a tipple in 1869.


(Images: Houghton Wines)



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