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Fingerprints on history: The McWilliam’s story

At the heart of the history of McWilliam’s Wines is a culture of innovation that’s not only ingrained in the company, but has rippled out through the wider industry.

Taste aside, why is wine so special? Is it because it’s the accumulation of much more than just simple liquid in a glass? Is it just where it came from and who made it? Or is it the sum total of its many essential components?

However elusive the answer to that question is, one thing is clear; when it comes to wine, history will always have a significant impact on the future.

Few families that have shaped the Australian wine landscape like the McWilliam family. The pioneering spirit that built the past has translated through six generations and has shaped a wine business that has innovation, drive and legacy stitched into its DNA.

Samuel’s Fate

The first steps of the McWilliam’s path were taken by Samuel McWilliam when he set foot on Australian soil from Northern Ireland in 1857. At that time, wine in Australia was well on its way, but it was all about fortified wine, and as there was no electricity or refrigeration, it was a tough and labour intensive way to survive.

However tough, wine became the future for the McWilliam family when Samuel travelled up the Murray River with his wife Martha and family and settled in Corowa. He called his property ‘Sunnyside’ and his neighbours just happened to be another famous Australian pioneering wine family, the Lindemans. 

“The family’s fate was sealed,” describes Samuel’s great-great-grandson, Jeff McWilliam. “Samuel took what learnings he could from his neighbours and set about making fortified wines on his vineyard.”

Second Gen Pioneers

Around this time, the fortified industry was under threat, with phylloxera decimating Victorian vineyards. Two of Samuel’s sons, John James (JJ) and Thomas had the foresight to move from Corowa with the intention of establishing disease-free vineyards.

Just before the turn of the century, the brothers established ‘Mark View’ a vineyard and property in Junee, just north of Wagga. A few years later, Samuel passed away and his three daughters, Eliza, Rose May and Mary, returned to make wine at Sunnyside, becoming among Australia’s first female winemakers, further cementing the family’s passion for wine.

JJ and Sons Blaze the Trail

In 1913, JJ and one of his four sons, Jack, took 50,000 of their vine cuttings and headed to Griffith and became the first in the region to plant and establish grapes. This move solidified the McWilliam name as true pioneers and innovators, as such, the Riverina is now an undisputed wine powerhouse, growing 15% of Australia’s total production.  

When asked in a newspaper interview why he’d chosen this region, JJ said, “The Riverina offers all a man has ever dreamed of – sunshine, great soils and water.” 

Here’s the thing, when JJ and Jack arrived in Griffith, it was pre-irrigation, yet the father and son team was so determined that this was the future of Australian wine, they spent months carting water to quench their nursery vineyard. 

Growth and Innovation.

As the McWilliam family grew and set deeper roots in NSW, the business evolved and the innovative nature of the family flourished. JJ and Jack toiled away establishing their vineyards and building the winery, which was completed in 1917.  The winery became known as Hanwood and remains today as the family’ primary production facility and is still the beating heart of McWilliam’s.

Hanwood was built next to a planned railway, so the wine could be easily transported to Sydney, but after the state failed to follow through on construction, Jack’s brother Doug decided to build another winery at Yenda, where the railway was eventually built. With a direct route to the Sydney market, further innovation was around the corner.

“With the growth of production came the need to sell more wine. Jack and Doug’s brother, Keith believed the family needed to build their brand, so Keith, a bit of a self-taught marketer, decided to take on the job,” says Jeff.

“He worked with wine merchants, opened our Sydney cellars, he had trucks with our name on the side, going over the top to build the brand and promote what is now packaged, branded wine.”

Keith also opened wine bars in Sydney close to the city and transport hubs.

“People tell me they remember the wine bar at Strathfield station,” says Jeff.
“They actually got off the train, changed to another train and had a port or a sherry on the way through.”

Jack’s youngest brother Glen also contributed to the family’s innovation by designing and building ‘The McWilliam’s Drainer’, wine equipment that separates the juice from the skins and is still used today in wineries all over Australia.

Glen’s many achievements include bringing new table wine varieties to the region and making Australia’s first botrytis wine in 1958, a style that is now synonymous with Australia’s identity.

Investing in the industry 

At the turn of the 20th century the Australian wine engine was fuelled by fortified wines, but there were small pockets of table wines being made. One was in the Hunter Valley. At Mount Pleasant, winemaker Maurice O’Shea was crafting distinctive wines that Keith McWilliam saw great potential in.

As Maurice had little means of selling his wines, and needed finances to continue, Keith invested in Mount Pleasant.

Maurice O’Shea went on to produce some of Australia’s greatest table wines, inspiring winemakers to this day. McWilliam’s maintains O’Shea’s legacy by making wines that carry his name and in 1990 initiated the Maurice O’Shea Award. Presented to an individual or group that has made a significant contribution to the industry, it is regarded as the most prestigious award in Australian wine.

It is a rare thing that a company will actively reward and promote its competitors. But the O’Shea Award openly reflects McWilliam’s commitment to an industry they have helped shape for over 100 years.

 Events

+ McWilliam’s Dinner Series
McWilliam’s, in partnership with Selector, is hosting a series of special dinners reflecting its iconic history and the wines creating its future. Canberra in October, then Brisbane in November with more cities to follow. Visit wineselectors.com.au/events for more info.

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Hunter Semillon - Members tasting
Words by Deb Pearce on 13 Sep 2018
When James Busby and William Kelman planted the first Semillon vines in the Hunter Valley in 1832, no one could have predicted what a stroke of vinous genius that would be. Since then, the Hunter Valley has made Semillon its own, producing a style that is so distinctive Jancis Robinson has called it Australia’s gift to the world. Of course, the Hunter is not the only wine-producing region in the world to produce Semillon wines, but it is rare in its production of a Semillon single variety dry white wine that is revered.  Semillon is grown in other regions of Australia, but its true home is in the Hunter Valley. This is where it creates true wine magic. Its generously fruited, delicately aromatic, waxy textured style, coupled with its amazing ability to age in the bottle, wins the hearts and minds of wine experts globally.  However, despite this, Semillon tends to polarise the wine-drinking public and is sadly under-appreciated. There seems to be a general feeling that Semillon is hard to match with food (unless it’s freshly shucked oysters) and that young Semillon is far too acidic to enjoy more than one glass. Mature Semillon appears to be much more palatable, but at a time when wine consumers seem to like their wines young and fruity to drink now, not everyone wants to wait for a wine to be more approachable.   So, with this in mind, 12 enthusiastic Wine Selectors Members and guests together with wine experts, including senior winemaker at Tyrrell’s Wines, Andrew Spinaze and Selector’s Paul Diamond, got together at Regatta Restaurant in Rose Bay, Sydney, to test these thoughts and see what public opinion actually was of Semillon. It turned out to be a highly interesting day.
Poured and explored Twenty Semillons were on show, ranging in price and reputation, with noted producers alongside rising star winemakers: Brokenwood, Drayton’s, Tyrrell’s, Tulloch, Lindeman’s plus Peppertree, Andrew Thomas, Comyns & Co, Glenguin, Tamburlaine and Usher Tinkler. Of course, to sample Semillon’s ability to age, the line-up included a spellbinding mix of vintages with wines from the current 2018 vintage right through to 2017, 2015, 2013 and even a bracket that included 10+ year-old Semillons: namely the Mistletoe 2007 Reserve Semillon, Drayton’s Reserve Vineyard 2006 and the Gold Medal-laden Tyrrell’s Vat 1 Semillon 2005 – a veritable legend in the Semillon world. Chef Logan Campbell prepared a four-course menu designed to highlight Semillon’s food-matching ability. The courses were: Seared Atlantic scallops, crisp chicken skin, cauliflower puree and saba followed by squid ink gnocchi, grilled bottle squid, edamame and mussels. Then came Cone Bay barramundi, steamed warrigal greens, garlic, lemon and smoked pork jus, with a tasting plate to finish of lemon and lime sorbet, nuts, Le Marquis and Saint Agur cheese. As we took our seats, the first bracket of five 2017 and 2018 Semillons was poured. A wave of excitement and seriousness came over the room as everyone swirled and sniffed with gusto, furiously scribbling notes. Around the room were differing facial expressions from raised eyebrows to wrinkled-up noses and the odd smacking of lips. The first course of seared Atlantic scallops proved young Semillon can be great with foods other than oysters! The 2017 and 2018 Semillons were at their light-weight and lip-smacking best. The citrus fruits were vibrant and the acid line ensured the wine was mouth-watering. The light weight made them a great partner for the delicate nature and gentle sweetness of the scallop, and the creamy cauliflower purée provided the perfect foil for the bright acidity. When asked for comments, Wine Selectors Member Elena Sabag remarked that she was amazed how much the young Semillons benefitted from food. The 2018 Thomas Synergy was the big hit, with and without food. 
Coming of age The second bracket saw some slightly more mature Semillons come out to play, with vintages ranging from 2015 to 2013. This is around the ageing level where Semillon can be a bit closed, or as Paul Diamond put it, “Semillon can go into stasis before moving to its next stage of evolution.” He also talked about this being the developmental stage, which he sees as the “magic of Semillon.” The squid ink gnocchi matched perfectly. The Semillons were still vibrant and very fresh. The trademark acidity giving that mouth-watering finish, and citrus was the dominant fruit. The wines had more fruit weight than the current vintage and one-year-old wines. This enabled them to complement the creaminess of the dish. As bracket three was poured, we saw a definite change of colour in the wines and knew we weren’t in Kansas anymore. The vintages ranged from 2013 to 2011 and proved to be the most popular bracket for drinkability, in particular, with Members Anthony and Jessica Ward saying that they would happily sit around with their mates and drink a bottle of mature Semillon, whereas the young Semillons they felt benefitted more from food.  Another very interesting comment from Jessica was that tasting Semillon in this context made her realise that while the young Semillons all seemed pretty similar, as the wines got older, she became more definite in what she liked and didn’t like. She didn’t expect that kind of difference. The Cone Bay barramundi proved once again the food-friendliness of Semillon. The older wines exhibited the classic citrus characters the variety is known for. They also started to show notes of lanolin, beeswax and lemongrass. The acidity was upbeat, but started to play a more background role to the core of fruit. They had more weight and could handle the stronger flavours of barramundi and pork jus. In describing Semillon and its ageing potential, Andrew Spinaze made an enlightening comment:  “The affordability of Semillon is very underrated. You can pick up a Semillon for $15 per bottle and keep it for 10 years. Wine consumers can pick a wine they like and taste it over a few years. There’s not many varieties you can do that with at that price.” On acidity, he added: “I’d like to think that winemakers these days concentrate more on natural acid wines that are more balanced and approachable that you can drink early or age. You don’t need high acid to age. You need moderate soft acid. Over-adjusted or high acid Semillon will be acidic when the wine is old and probably not in balance.” Furthermore, he felt winemakers sometimes concern themselves too much with the measure of total acidity than the overall fruit, structure and mouthfeel.
Final thoughts The final bracket was poured and here we saw the big guns of Semillon appear, in what proved to be a fitting finale. The 2006 Drayton’s Vineyard Reserve and the 2005 Tyrrell’s Vat 1 were the winners, with people running out of superlatives to describe the complex layers, flavours and balance of these beauties. But the tasting plate proved a polarising match. Both cheeses matched well, with the creamy texture of the Le Marquis in particular combining beautifully with the acidity and complex layers of the wines. However, the sorbet proved to be too zesty and tangy, swamping the wines’ delicate layers. It seems everyone took something away from this experience, with the general consensus being that the least appealing wines of the day were too acidic. The big surprise was that Semillon is more food-friendly than originally thought, especially young examples. Another revelation was that it is not necessarily very mature Semillon that was the big hit with the Wine Selectors Members. Most agreed that they liked their Semillons with fruit and freshness, but also with balance and interest.
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Vine Change for the Good Life
Words by Jackie Macdonald on 27 Nov 2017
Ever dreamed of making a vine change? Meet some daring individuals who took a leap of faith to embrace the good life – vinous style. We’ve all been there. Visited a winery, wandered through the vines, dreaming of days spent pruning tips and tasting wines straight from the barrel. Of course, this romantic picture glosses over the constant stress of too much or not enough rain, grape-eating pests and the changing tastes of fickle consumers. But for a special selection of wine producers, the challenges were never too great. Their dream of a life on the land was enough motivation to pack in their career and take up the secateurs for a life dictated by vines, veraison and vats. For Todd and Jeff of Belford Block Eight in the Hunter Valley , it was love at first sight of their property’s driveway. As Jeff explains, “Todd and I turned off the car, listened to nature, admired the olives, turned to one another and said, ‘this is it.’” Jeff gave up his job in the finance department for CanTeen and Todd left Ebay, where he’d worked for 12 years in strategy, marketing and analysis. Neither knew anything about winemaking. But on their property were around 12,000 vines, so, as Todd describes, “Jeff and I tracked down a bottle of 2006 Brokenwood Block Eight Semillon, a single vineyard release made only using our grapes and it was truly remarkable. So, we thought, maybe there’s an opportunity to make some nice wine from these grapes, let’s give it a go!” And given it a go they certainly have with their first ever wine, the 2014 Reserve Semillon now an award-winner. It hasn’t been all plain sailing, though, and they’ve learnt some valuable lessons. Apart from the vagaries of harvest, the necessity of tractor headlights and that their deckchairs are just for show, they also know that un-neutered piglets turn into boisterous 150kg boars and goats can be as loyal as dogs. But regrets? “No bloody way, mate!” is Jeff’s answer, “One day we’ll sit on those deck chairs, sipping on a 20-year-old Block Eight, admiring what we’ve built.” Healthy vines
Back in 1997, while Jeff and Todd were still slogging away in the corporate world, over in South Australia’s Clare Valley, medical professional, Anura Nitchingham planted his first vineyard. He’d chosen Clare because, he says, “The region is really an unsung hero in the world of viticulture. It’s unique and has some really great producers in a very small, but beautiful region.” That first planting has grown into Claymore Wines , one of Australia’s most unique wine brands. While Anura hasn’t left his medical career, he says that winemaking provides something medicine can’t: “Vines don’t complain! And there’s wine!” The medical theme is also part of the story of Hobbs of Barossa Ranges . Allison Hobbs was a nurse and her husband was a former policeman turned firefighter when they bought their vineyard in the Barossa. Their decision to make a vine change was borne of a desire to provide a rural lifestyle for their children. Like Jeff and Todd, Allison and Greg knew very little about making wine, but the stars aligned, providing them with some strokes of good fortune in the early years. Foremost was they happened to buy the property next door to local winemaking expert, Chris Ringland, who provided invaluable advice and made their wines. While being a nurse, police officer or fire fighter might be worlds away from making wine, Allison and Greg feel they brought vital skills from those professions to their new endeavour. As Greg says, “attention to detail is very important to both nursing and winemaking”, and Allison adds, “the observation techniques you learn in nursing, the police and fire brigade are important as we wander through the vineyard and take note of what’s right and what’s not.” Livin’ in the 70s
Although Allison, Greg and Anura faced challenges in the mid-1990s, things were even more basic in the 1970s. Having left successful careers in the emerging computer industry, Linda and Ian Tyrer bought a property in WA’s Mount Barker region to establish Galafrey Wines . Again, they had no experience, but, as Linda describes, she arrived at their new home four months pregnant, armed with a few thousand grape cuttings – “naive but starry-eyed, full of enthusiasm.” A lack of money meant a lot of back-breaking work, but by 1985, they had won their first Trophy and Ian’s tireless dedication saw him awarded the George Mulgure Award for outstanding service to the industry in 2003. Unfortunately, the same year, Ian lost his battle with cancer. However, his legacy lives on with Linda still at the helm, along with daughter Kim, who left her own career as an artist to return to the vines. One thing all these people would agree on is that a life among the vines is a hard slog. But is it the good life? Absolutely!
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An organic matter
There is little doubt the organics movement is sweeping the world, particularly in relation to food. The reasons for this are simple – the belief that organic food not only tastes better, but is better for you and for the environment given it is sustainably farmed. When it comes to the wine world, the same fervent push of the organic movement is no less forceful, it’s just taken longer to catch on. Mark Davidson, Managing Director and Chief Winemaker of Australia’s largest organic wine producer, Tamburlaine Organic Wines, reckons he knows why – a lack of understanding of organics in wine production, and a difficulty in breaking down long held practices in viticulture. While conventional viticulture uses chemical fertilizers annually to maintain grape yields, and pesticides to indiscriminately kill bugs, organic farming only uses natural biodegradable inputs and treats bugs with a range of beneficial biodiversity such as companion plants and good bugs. “At its heart, organic viticulture is about improving the health of soils naturally,” says Mark. “It’s about restoring organic matter, which is the home for moisture and microbiology in soils – that’s what makes soils and vines healthy.”
Conventional to contemporary While Mark is a flag bearer for organic farming, he hasn’t always been. When he first started in winemaking at Tamburlaine in the Hunter Valley in the mid 80s, he too used conventional farming. “I came in fairly naively, thinking the chemical providers to the wine industry must have identified what works and what doesn’t. But they didn’t always work and every time they didn’t, there was an excuse,” explains Mark. “We have some challenging soils in the Hunter and I’d made 14 years of chemical applications to improve soils, but without much effect. So what was the alternative? That’s when I started thinking organics. “After a long period of vineyard observation and trials, in 2002 we took the first steps toward organic certification for some of our Hunter Valley blocks. This meant a full management program which replaced synthetic chemicals, improved soil organic matter and simulated the vines’ natural defences.” It was hard work. While there was some limited information on organic farming, hardly any of it was in relation to the wine industry, so Mark’s work into organic viticulture was pioneering. And viewed as somewhat risky. “People thought I had lost it,” he says. “But it actually reminds me of the period when Australia changed to screw caps. Winemakers around the world thought we were mad. Nowadays, science and quality of wines aged under stelvin have proven we were right to ditch cork. I am confident it will be the same with organic winemaking. When you step back, it is really sound contemporary thinking.” Scientifically sound The other challenge to convincing people about organic wines is that it’s not just a bunch of hippies growing grapes and trying to make them into wine without any winemaking knowledge.   “Twenty years ago, what had been produced in the name of organics was not necessarily good stuff,” Mark says. “But that has got nothing to do with what we do today in terms of contemporary organics farming. There is a whole lot of background science to this – it is not just some ethereal feel good philosophy. “Science has moved quickly in our direction in providing biodegradable certified organic products for vineyards and wineries. So now there are many more tools at our disposal to make top class wine. “I know that, so does Vanya Cullen (from Cullen Wines) in West Australia, Chester Osborn (d’Arenberg), Prue Henschke and various professionals around the country, and the world, are moving this way. “We’re all enthused not only about the outcomes, but how practically and effectively we can farm using contemporary organic systems because science is providing improved solutions. “So we’ve got the answers now that we didn’t have 10 years ago, to prove what we know benefits the vines without using inputs that are potentially destructive to soil. As far as sustainable viticulture goes, we now have the answers.”
​ Better wines With 14 hectares of vines in the Hunter certified organic and 200 hectares recently certified in the Orange wine region, Tamburlaine’s award-winning wines are proof that organic winemaking is not only viable, but is the way of the future. Ultimately, consumers will decide by buying wines they love. But if you ask Mark two questions about his experience with organic winemaking at Tamburlaine Organic Wines, it is convincing. Are the soils better, now? “Yes, more organic matter and better pH –  they’re the two measureables.” Are the wines better? “Absolutely. The wines we are making are better than ever. And, they are of consistent quality, and that’s really important.”
Two Blues Sauvignon Blanc 2014
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