Meet Scott McWilliam, sixth generation winemaker, Senior Winemaker for McWilliam’s Mount Pleasant, and wine show judge.
1. McWilliam’s Mount Pleasant dates back to 1880, and has a long and interesting history including that of the legendary Maurice O’Shea. How important is that for the current success and future of McWilliam’s?
Having vines that are 133 years old is a rare and wonderful thing and is a very big part of our past, present and of course future. Having excellent soils with the right varieties planted to them is of utmost importance going forward. In my opinion Mount Pleasant is the jewel in the McWilliam’s Wines crown, and is critical to the future success of the company as a whole. History brings legacy and that is so important for a family company.
2. Jim Chatto has recently been appointed as Chief Winemaker for McWilliam’s Mount Pleasant – as he is the only the fourth ever Chief Winemaker following from Maurice O’Shea, Brian Walsh, and Phil Ryan, he certainly has legendary reputations to follow and big shoes to fill!
Maurice O’Shea is certainly a legend in my mind. When I look at the photos taken back in the 1950s of how physical it was to make wine, it makes me appreciate how good the wines and vineyards really are. Being a successor to the legacy left from O’Shea is certainly an important undertaking. I am sure Jim will do well.
3. You were born into the Australian wine industry and you are a sixth generation winemaker – was another career path ever an option?
Despite working in the winery and vineyards on and off from the age of 14, I never had a true appreciation for wine until my early twenties. It took experience in all facets of the industry to make me appreciate how wonderful it really is, from working the vineyard to selling wine in bottle shops. Early in my life I wished I could become a professional racing car driver, I laugh when I say I still have that wish but that will never happen. I was always very good at science and engineering and at one stage thought about being an architect. I almost went down the medicine route as well, but realised I could never be a GP since I can’t deal with other people’s problems. I am very lucky to have found a passion for wine, a passion I can also say with my hand on my heart, is my own.
4. What’s the best part of being the Senior Winemaker at McWilliam’s Mount Pleasant?
I get to work with amazing vineyards and wonderful people within beautiful surrounds. But the best part is the reward of having someone love the wine and the experience it brings. I get to make something and share it with people and enjoy it – how cool is that!
5. In addition to your role as Senior Winemaker you have also completed the Winemaker’s Federation of Australia Future Leaders Programme and you’re an active member of Australia’s First Families of Wine (AFFW) – how do find these experiences?
These experiences have certainly been highlights of my career. The Future Leaders Programme has given me guidance and provided a network of like-minded industry peers. This program is very important for identifying people who will guide our future, and ensure the prosperity and health of the industry. The AFFW is an amazing collaboration of some of the oldest family wine companies, I am so very proud that my family is involved. Through the AFFW I have met so many wonderful people who are like-minded and have a huge array of similarities and history to myself. I treat them as extended family and love when we come together for events.
6. McWilliam’s Mount Pleasant has a world-class reputation especially for your stunning and award-winning Semillons and Shiraz, and you also make very fine Verdelho! What is it about the Hunter that lends it to this tasty variety?
Verdelho is an interesting variety that often sits in the shadows of Semillon and Chardonnay. The variety originates from Portugal and is used to make the famous Madiera wines. Coming from a Mediterranean climate means that it is well suited to the temperatures we experience here in the Hunter Valley, however, my experience with it is that it is susceptible to humidity and hence disease. It’s fortunate that it ripens early and usually it beats the rain periods, it is normally the first fruit into the winery too. What makes this variety tasty is the lively tropical melon flavours which I describe as a fruit salad combo.
7. The McWilliam’s Mount Pleasant Classic Verdelho 2012 is our Wine Selectors Wine of the Month. As the winemaker of this wine what is your favourite aspect of it and can you describe the vintage conditions that influenced its flavour and structure?
2012 turned into a wet harvest and most varieties suffered adversely. The picking decision for the Verdelho was a simple one, we had to get it in early, in fact it was mid-January. We did this for many reasons, firstly the flavour had matured and the sugar was already good, secondly, we were watching the radar nervously and saw a lot of disease pressure. We were also facing an avalanche of Semillon due to the impending rain and fruit condition, so there was no time for dilly dallying, the Verdelho had to come off. As a result, the 2012 Verdelho is more restrained and elegant, the way I best describe it is it’s more of a green honeydew melon than a ripe rockmelon character.
8. As a wine show judge what do you look for in a good Verdelho?
Like any wine I judge I look for balance, complexity, and concentration of flavour. For Verdelho in particular the wine needs to be clean, fruitful with a good acid balance, not alcoholic or phenolic. If the wine has these attributes then the wine that gets my top gold will also express intense aromatics and great length of flavour on the palate. I don’t like oak in this variety, but that is a personal thing.
9. There is always stiff competition for “the Tiara” (the nickname for the Verdelho Trophy) at the Hunter Valley Wine Show – how did your Verdelho fair this year?
Due to Jim Chatto recently joining our team, McWilliam’s Mount Pleasant did not exhibit this year, since he is the chair of the show. I was very happy that my 2010 Verdelho won the trophy; in fact it was the only Verdelho to be awarded a Gold medal. Jim Chatto had won the trophy the previous year and was happy to present me with the Tiara, however I think my two- year-old daughter appreciated it more than I did. There is a bit of jest surrounding the Trophy and the Tiara that comes with it, it is all in good fun and shouldn’t take away any of the seriousness of the wines.
10. The 2012 Maurice O’Shea Award (which was initiated by McWilliam’s in 1990) was awarded to the Australian Screwcap Initiative. How has this technology affected the ageing of your wine particularly the Semillon?
To be honest, I haven’t seen the wines under the modern versions of the closure for long enough to have a definite answer, so I will only speculate that the wines will age better and longer. Sadly, I think I will be dead before that question can be fully answered with regards to cellaring potential. What I have seen in the last decade is that wines under this closure, especially Semillon, age more consistently without random bottle variation that we see under cork. Since the closure is fragile, it is not perfect, but it is the only closure I want my wines under.
11. How was vintage 2013 for McWilliam’s Mount Pleasant and how did it compare to recent years?
2013 was amazing, for Mount Pleasant anyway. In the last decade in the Hunter Valley the odd years have given the best results, the only difference is that vintage 2013 had drastically reduced crop yields due to a very dry growing season. We picked all our fruit in really good condition just at the right time, but it was knife-edge stuff due to the rain events in early February. Some producers gambled and regretted it since the rain event ended up being a deluge.
12.What can our Members look forward to tasting from McWilliam’s Mount Pleasant in the next few years?
Glad you asked! We have some very new and exciting projects in the pipeline, including high-end single block offerings as well as contemporary new styles. Those who have visited the winery lately may have noticed we have ripped out our Merlot, and we are working on planting some emerging varieties. I can’t give away too many secrets just yet, so watch this space.
13.What is it about the Hunter Valley that keeps you and your family inspired to continue to produce premium wines?
Where do I start? I guess the Hunter is so unique, and as Australia’s oldest viticulture region still in existence we continue to produce some of Australia’s best wines. Some people say that if the pioneers of the region had today’s understanding of viticulture science they may have overlooked the region for grape growing due to the difficult conditions. This has created what I call the Hunter paradox – when the Hunter has a good year, our wines are Australia’s best. We have a unique style of Semillon that has been described as Australia’s gift to the wine world, and a medium-bodied, complex style of Shiraz that is hugely appreciated by wine lovers these days
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