From the tasting team

Mitchelton turns 50

By Jeni Port

17 Aug, 2023

Mitchelton is celebrating its 50th birthday and its first year under the guidance of chief winemaker Natalie Cleghorn. Tasting Team member Jeni Port was at the winery for the special milestone tasting.

It was a Saturday morning in February, many, many years ago. We arrived at Mitchelton, a group of us, and started walking to the cellar door, when I spied a worker mowing the acres of lawn between the cellar door and the restaurant.

He looked familiar. He stopped the mower, smiled and waved.

Don Lewis was one of the most celebrated winemakers in Australia and here he was mowing the winery lawns on his day off. He wandered over and asked if we wanted a tasting of marsanne. He had a few back bottles that he'd opened the day before. 

That was Don.

MitcheltonMitchelton in Nagambie Lakes is celebrating its 50th birthday.

As Mitchelton celebrates its 50th birthday this year, Don won’t be there for the party. He would have loved it in his quiet, unassuming way. In many ways, the Mitchelton name resounds today due to his 31 years at the winemaking helm (1973–2004). 

So many of the wines we associate with the winery, especially the Blackwood Park Riesling, Print Shiraz and Rhône Valley specialist marsanne, can be put down to the groundwork of Don Lewis who was the right-hand man to inaugural winemaker, Colin Preece.

For incoming chief winemaker, Natalie ‘Nat’ Cleghorn, it’s probably both a comfort and a challenge to arrive at Mitchelton in such a milestone year. Ms Cleghorn, former Yalumba and Katnook winemaker, started earlier this year just in time for a difficult wet vintage accompanied by flooding which saw yields drop by up to 60 per cent.

As a South Australian, she admits that while she doesn’t know a great deal about Mitchelton’s history, she is willing to learn. And what a delicious sense of serendipity that both she and Mitchelton should turn 50 in the same year.

Natalie CleghornNat Cleghorn joined Mitchelton earlier this year.

It was, she noted, an ideal time to assess both the past and the future. Her winemaking mind was open. As we tasted through a selection of young through to old Blackwood Park Rieslings (a selection between 1989–2023), you could see that winemaking mind ticking over.

She noted the “genetic” quality to the rieslings that tied them together, the generosity in bright citrus intensity, and an acid profile that could easily bring great longevity over time together with an immediate energy in youth.

“The profile reminds me of Pewsey Vale riesling,” she said, a reference to the well-known Yalumba rieslings from the Eden Valley. Then there was the question of botrytis. Don Lewis didn’t mind – or sometimes simply couldn’t prevent – a little botrytis in riesling. Nat Cleghorn is less sure. “I’m not fearful of botrytis, but I don’t want to see it,” she said.

Mitchelton rests on rolling waves of beautiful land beside the Goulburn River, a few kilometres outside the town of Nagambie. Even if you have never visited, you will recognise its distinctive architecture – a 55-metre high tower crowned by a dark, slate-encrusted witch’s hat. It’s the Sydney Opera House of the Australian wine industry, a place that has turned its early critics – and there were many – around. It has stood the test of time. However, not too long ago the winery and vineyard’s future was uncertain.

After a number of family owners it was bought by the Lion Nathan group in 2001. Lion Nathan fell out of love with Mitchelton, and eventually put it up for sale. That’s when Gerry Ryan, the entrepreneurial head of the caravan group Jayco Australia and local Nagambie horse breeder, stepped up and bought the winery in 2011.

Jeni PortJeni Port.

“I must fess up,” he admitted during the recent 50th birthday celebrations. "It wasn’t a love of wine that led me to buy Mitchelton, it was the property. It’s just an iconic property. I’ve always loved this place. This is my happy place."

Mitchelton, like its near neighbour, Tahbilk, has always felt at home with, and best suited to, Rhône Valley grape varieties. None more so than shiraz.

Don Lewis didn’t need any convincing, and nor did the local wallabies. He once noted that they loved shiraz so much they often damaged the vines in their rush to enjoy the fruit.

The early Print Series Shiraz struck consumer gold when Mitchelton won the Jimmy Watson Trophy in 1991 for the (then) best one-year-old red at the Melbourne Wine Show with its 1990 shiraz.

The 1990 was undoubtedly one of the stars of the Print Shiraz line-up (a selection between 1985–2019) at the 50th birthday tasting. The original Print has changed form over the years. The swing to include a high proportion of Heathcote shiraz over the past 11 years or so, has had a major impact on the wine. It looks larger and deeper in the glass with Heathcote weight and colour a big factor. Heathcote offers a very different regional style to the earthy, medium-bodied, and relatively modest alcohol Nagambie Lakes shiraz.

Nat with the tasting flightNatalie Cleghorn leading the 50th birthday tasting at Mitchelton last week. Image credit: Jeni Port.

Ms Cleghorn can possibly see a role for middle-weight Nagambie fruit staking a place in the future against the heavyweight Heathcote shiraz, noting the arresting charm that Nagambie red fruits and spice brings.

Maybe this is an opportunity to re-define, broaden the scope of Print?

Certainly, in the past cabernet sauvignon was recognised as worthy of being a top red from the region.

“Cabernet has snuck up on me here,” she said. 

And then there is that planting of mourvèdre at the back of the vineyard. Maybe that has a bigger role to play in the future? And what about marsanne – once the legendary white flagship wine of the company? Watch this space.