Muswellbrook winemakers making a big impression in the industry

John Hordern (centre) with his winemaker son Thomas and Muswellbrook-born winemaker Kiri Irving
John Hordern (centre) with his winemaker son Thomas and Muswellbrook-born winemaker Kiri Irving

ANTHONY Hordern and Sons was once the largest department store in Sydney with 21 hectares of retail space and today, half a century after it disappeared, John Hordern and sons are making a big impression in the wine industry.

Veteran Hunter winemaker John Hordern, a descendant of the family that established the Anthony Hordern retail empire, is a key figure in the transformation of the Muswellbrook Oak dairy factory into a major winery that produces four million bottles of wine a year, exports to 30 countries, is Australia’s biggest seller of wine to Russia and may soon become a distillery producing vodka, gin and whisky.

The factory shut down in 1994 after 50 years of Upper Hunter milk processing and the Oak sign still can be seen on the outskirts of town on the landmark art deco-style building – in which John Hordern now heads the Muswellbrook wine production and bottling operations of Hunter Wine Services (HWS) and is masterminding the development a distillery that will convert wheat, starch, sugars and wine into vodka, gin and whisky.

His wine expertise has been inherited by his two sons. 

Stuart, 35, is the influential Pokolbin-based senior winemaker at Brokenwood and was dux of the 2016 Len Evans Tutorial, which gave him judging positions at the Sydney Wine Show and the National Wine Show in Canberra and the business-class air travel and visits to the greatest European wine houses he is currently undertaking.

Thomas, 31, is doing a Charles Sturt University wine science degree and works alongside his dad at the HWS winery. 

Earlier this year, he won the Alasdair Sutherland Memorial Scholarship, which honours the memory of one of the Hunter Valley’s most admired and respected winemakers and provides entry to the intensive, four-day Australian Wine Research Institute Advanced Wine Assessment Course and also the opportunity to be an associate judge at the 2012 Royal Sydney Wine Show.

As a schoolboy, John Hordern worked in numerous Hunter vineyards and wineries and in 1977 went off to South Australia's Roseworthy College to do a wine production and marketing course – in which a classmate and great pal was Rex D’Aquino, the grandson of the founder of what has become the remarkably diverse Orange-based D’Aquino Group.

The D’Aquino portfolio includes the Highland Heritage Estate wine brand, a chain of liquor stores in Orange, Bathurst, Parkes and Wellington, a wholesale wine and spirits division, an expansive cellar door, restaurant and 130-seat function centre and even its own helicopter charter service.

And, it shares ownership of Hunter Wine Services with John Hordern.

He and his Muswellbrook winemaking team of son Thomas and Charles Sturt University wine science graduate Kiri Irving have made the Highland Heritage wines since 1993. 

A recent demonstration of their skill with Orange grapes came when the current-release $20-a-bottle Highland Heritage 2016 Orange Fume Blanc won the 2017 NSW Wine Awards trophy for the best young sauvignon blanc.

The transformation of the Oak milk factory into wine production began in 1995 when was leased by contract winemaker Simon Gilbert, who later moved his operation to Mudgee.

During the Gilbert leasehold, John Hordern worked on the site doing contract winemaking for such vineyards as Catherine Vale and producing his own-brand wines and in 2000 the Wine Services Pty Ltd company, formed by John Hordern and Rex D'Aquino, took over the lease and gave the wine production facilities a $2 million upgrade.

It now crushes up to 2000 tonnes of grapes from Orange, the Hunter, Mudgee, Nygan, the Hilltops area centred on Young and from other sources outside NSW.

John and his family also own the 7.5-hectare Pyramid Hill vineyard located on the banks of the Goulburn River, near Denman, which was purchased last year from respected Hunter viticulturist Richard Hilder.

Richard, the winner of the 2011 NSW Wine Awards’ Graham Gregory prize for outstanding contributions to the State’s wine industry, supervised the planting of many of the Upper Hunter’s best vineyards.

Thomas Hordern with his 2017 Alasdair Sutherland Scholarship Award at this year's Hunter Valley Wine Show presentation ceremony. Pic: ELFES IMAGES

Thomas Hordern with his 2017 Alasdair Sutherland Scholarship Award at this year's Hunter Valley Wine Show presentation ceremony. Pic: ELFES IMAGES