Phil Ryan and Saddler’s Creek launch wine range

It was an occasion heavy with the themes of birth and re-birth, life and survival – and just in passing, wine. Phil Ryan, long-serving chief winemaker of McWilliam’s Hunter Valley winery Mount Pleasant (tastings), who retired two years ago, has launched a new range of wines in collaboration with Saddler’s Creek winery (tastings). Called Ryan’s Reserve, the wines are a Hunter semillon (tastings) and a Langhorne Creek cabernet shiraz (tastings), both produced in very limited quantities.

The launch, at Doyle’s at the Quay, was the last event at that restaurant before it closed, as a result of the port authority resuming the space for its Overseas Passengers Terminal.

A large crowd of Ryan’s old friends, many from the Hunter winemaking community, included his identical twin brother, Stephen, who caused more than a little confusion.

“We first met each other at the splitting of the egg,” said Phil Ryan. “Dad likened it to the splitting of the atom. Stephen is my oldest mate. We were resting in the womb trying to decide who was going first, and Stephen had a Greg Inglis moment: he saw the gap and went for the opening, and from then on he bragged that he was the older brother – but only by 20 minutes. He left me in there with a sore head, so a I took a few minutes to follow.”

He said he and Stephen had been mistaken many times for each other. “Many times people have seen him in the distance with his wife, who is not Sylvia (Phil’s wife) and decided ‘We won’t say hello because he’s not with his wife’.”

The launch was billed as a re-birth: Ryan had worked for 48 years at McWilliam’s, 35 of them as chief winemaker at Mount Pleasant. Far from lying down in his retirement, Ryan is going again with the Ryan’s Reserve wines, produced with his friend of 35 years John Johnstone of Saddler’s Creek. The two have been neighbours for 25 years and Saddler’s Creek’s reserve chardonnay (tastings) uses grapes from Ryan’s vineyard, which is across the road. Johnstone said he’d been fortunate to be able to call on Ryan for advice, mentoring and a second opinion for many years.

Ryan explained the establishment of his own vineyard, evidently not a popular move within the family: “In 1988 we decided to plant our vineyard, but I had to convince our daughters that this was a contribution to the bicentenary.”

Johnstone explained the genesis of Ryan’s Reserve. “Phil and I have been friends for 35 years. We were sitting on a beach in the Cook Islands, where I spend half my life, and hatched a plan for winemaking in Phil’s retirement.” It would always be small quantities and would fit with Saddler’s Creek’s philosophy of selling most of its wine direct. Saddler’s is not in supermarkets and has limited retail distribution. Similarly, Ryan’s Reserve wines will be available through Saddler’s Creek cellar door, where pricing is $38 for the 2012 semillon (a 2014 will be released soon), and $48 for the cabernet shiraz. The Ryans’ daughter Vanessa works at Saddler’s Creek, and the wines are made at Saddler’s Creek by winemaker Brett Woodward.

The semillon is a typical 2012 Hunter: slightly grassy and snow-pea scented; delicate, crisp and understated in the mouth. (89 points) The 2010 cabernet shiraz has a touch of smoky oak in its chocolate, vanilla, bouquet and turns rich and fruit-sweet in the mouth, with black-fruit flavours, the tannins soft and gentle and framed by a fleshy, rounded structure. (91 points)

The label features the white rose of Yorkshire, where the Ryan brothers were born. The motto is “Malo Mori Quam Fodere”, which roughly translates as ‘death before dishonour’, and echoes the Ryan motto of ‘wines without compromise’.

I tasted two very good Saddler’s Creek wines at the launch: the 2013 Reserve Chardonnay ($36; 90 points – tastings) is an understated modern style, lightly oaked and finely textured, with 13 per cent alcohol. There are subtle traces of the barrel, and citrusy fruit leads the charge. The 2010 Bluegrass Cabernet Sauvignon ($42; 88 points) is another Langhorne Creek red and is a very distinctive house style, strongly oaked and opulent with lots of chocolate flavours and a warmth of alcohol to finish.

At the end of the launch, Ryan dedicated his new wines to Sylvia, who went through a very difficult time in 2012, first surviving a blood clot on the brain and then a cancer scare. A life-sized picture of the couple stood behind Phil as he spoke at the lectern.

It was a family affair as the couple’s daughters attended. Daughter Stephanie and her husband David Assef will be the main retailers of the wines, through the six Spicers Retreat and Spa outlets, of which David is managing director. There are four in Queensland along the Sunshine Coast and Great Dividing Range; one in the Hunter Valley (Botanica) and one under development in Potts Point, Sydney.

First published in Sydney Morning Herald, Good Food – 8 Jul 2014.

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