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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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Australia's Wine Identity
Words by Campbell Mattinson on 17 Sep 2018
Heaven help Australia. All that fretting over the growing and making of our wine; all those trips by all those winemakers to all parts of the world to learn various tricks; all those decades of winemaking experimentation, invention and development; all that and then the gatekeepers – holding baseball bats, you’d reckon – tell us that Australian wine doesn’t have a strong identity, and it needs to develop one. Pronto. To illustrate the problem, I was sitting at a table in Italy’s Valpolicella wine region recently with a collection of international wine folk when someone asked where Australian wine is at. “It’s in the healthiest state imaginable,” I said, proudly.  “The offering is astonishingly diverse now,” I continued. “Low fi, hi fi, old school, new school, classic varieties, obscure varieties, everything. Twenty years ago there was a planting boom; 10 years ago there was a lot of good wine being made; combine those two and you have lots of mature vines across all sorts of varieties and the quality has moved from good to very good, if not higher.” Self-praise is no praise, but I thought I’d done pretty well at encapsulating Australian wine. The response, though, to my surprise, had the brightness of three-day-old sunburn. “Australia’s problem,” someone cut in, or cut down, “is there’s no clear message. It’s like a tasting plate where everything’s good, but you can’t remember any of it afterwards.” Baseball, bat, time. The view to down under The wine world, it turns out, hasn’t been sitting around waiting for us to out-do it. No matter how good our wine is, the wine world is a brutal place, determined to protect or extend its patch – not to mention its pre-conceived world view.  Two things are important to note here: a) the fight for international market space is not just about the wine in the bottle. It’s about the message, how it’s told, and who’s telling it. Wine is both the most symbolic drink in the world and the most emotional. Out in the big bad world, therefore, a clear wine identity matters enormously. b) The wider wine world could burn in hell, for all we’d care, if Australian wine production was based around domestic consumption only. But that boat sailed a long time ago. Australia produces far more wine than it could ever domestically consume; what the world thinks of our wine matters, and matters a lot.
A usual suspect The irony, of course, is that for a time Australia did, internationally at least, have a clear identity and message. Australian wine was either sunny and cheap or big and melodramatic. These messages were brilliantly clear and effective. But the majority of Australia’s wine community has spent the past decade either trying desperately to expand on these messages, or trying to tear them to shreds. Why? Because they sell Australian wine too far short. “You can’t generalise about Australian wine for over a million reasons,” Sarah Crowe of Yarra Yering says. Virginia Willcock of Vasse Felix is of the same view. “Wine is so complex and so is Australia. We need to break it down.” This is the thing – simple messages don’t really fit Australian wine anymore. They don’t because, to state the bleeding obvious, Australia is so large, and therefore geographically diverse. Our wine, when it’s good, reflects that. It’s not the tyranny of distance, it’s the tyranny of size. To make matters worse, perceptions of Australian wine in world markets can go to infinity and beyond. “Each export market,” Sarah Crowe says, “would have a different response (if asked of Australia’s wine identity). Having just been in the USA, it’s frightening to read (wine writer) Joe Czerwinski’s Facebook feed when he was asked what would make people buy Australian wine. “The comments are stuck in the 2000s for the most part. Export market perception is largely mono-dimensional South Australia or South Eastern Australia, which maybe they think is one and the same thing. It’s nowhere near a representation of what’s happening across this vast country.” Jeff Burch of Burch Family Wines agrees, and then widens the lens.  “It depends where in the world,” he says. “Asia – particularly China – has a very high acknowledgement of Australian wine, right up there with the top French. Much better recognition than Spain, Italy, Chile. USA though – poor recognition, not on the radar, a lot of work to do for quality Australia wine.  “UK/Europe, very Euro-centric for the top end, they’re only interested in value wine from Australia. Hard to see a future for quality Australian wine there.” Sue Hodder, senior winemaker of Wynns Coonawarra Estate, is more up beat, though cautiously so.  “Perceptions of, and knowledge about, Australian wine has pleasingly shifted upwards in the last two years. Younger, better wine-educated, and more widely-travelled trade professionals have helped. In the first instance though, we’ll be happy if international consumers just know that Australian wine is a diverse offering.”
A dirty word Diverse. This has become the most commonly used word to describe Australian wine. It’s the word we’re hoping will become our identity, because it’s the most accurate. The problem is that a lengthy explanation is usually required as a follow up; diversity can be a hard sell. It’s not snappy and all-encompassing in the way, say, of the gold-standard identities of French Champagne, Barossa Shiraz or, indeed, mere mention of Burgundy. And wine identity is like humour; if you have to explain it, there’s a problem.  There’s an argument that use of the words ‘Australian wine’ has us trying to achieve ‘cut through’ with the broad side of the blade. Virginia Willcock is certainly of this view.  “The broad term ‘Australian wine’ drives me insane,’ Virginia says.  “While we have common varieties across the country, the diversity of regions is significant and shouldn’t be thrown into a generalised country.”  New world countries like Australia Argentina Chile, New Zealand and strive for a clear national wine identity. Old world countries more commonly lead with their regions; the country is a given. “Our winemaking styles have changed over the past 15 years,” says Alexia Roberts winemaker at Penny’s Hill.  “I remember when I first started out in McLaren Vale in 2004, whites were all made from Chardonnay, Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc. It would be difficult to find a regional McLaren Vale white made from any of these varieties nowadays. “International markets have welcomed these changes, (but) we are still struggling with the Australian image and key message. Our message is so diverse that I do think this could be diluting the key facts. The heroes are our regions.”  Virginia agrees.  “My theory about ‘Australian wine’ is that the best way to break it down is by region and regional strengths to give clarity for quality and diversity,” she says.  “Then, if someone loves a strong regional wine, they might try other varieties from that region.” No probs, really Of course, this is a nice problem to have. Australia’s wine identity or message basically is: we have so much to offer now, we don’t know where to start.  “What I produce is different from what my neighbours produce,” is Sarah’s way of putting it. “The diversity is why people want to discover more and engage with new wines and discover new producers. For better or for worse, it is a complex topic and should be spoken about as such.” There’s strength and comfort in numbers, but the time is fast approaching, if it hasn’t already past, where the notion of an Australian wine identity is shown the door and real one-on-one engagement, region by region, takes hold. After all, no one falls in love with a race; they fall in love with one clear object of their desires.
Wine
Meet Bruce Tyrrell from Tyrrell's Wines
Tell us about your back ground: How did you come to work for Tyrrell’s Wines? I was born into it, so have been here all my life, from chasing cattle and being a bloody nuisance until my teens and then working in all parts of the winery and vineyard. No school or university holidays ever. How is the 2018 vintage shaping up? We’ve started harvest earlier than last year, and the berries are smaller from the dry winter, spring and early summer. First real flavours coming the week of the January 8 th  and there looks to be a smaller overall crop, but it’s a bit early for a quality call. It might be another 2007. What varietal is looking ‘the goods’ for Tyrrell’s wine lovers? Semillon still runs in our blood stream and with the range of top vineyards we now own or control, we have a style for most palates. There has been a big jump in our Chardonnays in the last 10 years, so they are also worth a look. Do you have a favourite wine to make? Semillon, because it is all about getting the soil, season and maturity right in the vineyard. It is the most naturally made wine. Can you recall the first wine you tried? We used to be given a bit of wine with water from about the age of six or seven years old. As we got older the water became less and so we were weaned into table wine from an early age. When did you fall in love with wine? After the third bottle of great Burgundy…but I fell in love with everything that night! Do you remember that moment? What happened? I don’t really remember, but had lots of lawyers’ letters accusing me of all sorts of things. What is your all-time favourite wine memory (other than a wine itself)? Standing in the vineyard at Romanee-Conti and being part of sharing a double magnum of 1865 Chateau Lafitte. What is your ultimate food and wine match? Aged Semillon and fresh seafood caught locally. Can you cook? If so, what is your ‘signature dish’? Not really when the specialty is vegemite on toast! What do you do to relax away from the winery? I love to go to the beach or more recently, playing with my grandson and undoing all his parents’ good work. What do you think is special about the Hunter Valley region? Nowhere else is like the Hunter. The conditions can be tough, but that builds character and initiative. The styles are fine and elegant, but have the ability to live in the bottle which is the hallmark of a great area.
Favourites - What is your favourite… Book – why? Lord of the Rings – I read it every 10 years and read more into it each time. It’s the best adventure story ever written. Movie – why? The Pawnbroker starring Rod Stieger. I saw it in 1967 and reckoned it contained the best acting I ever saw. TV show – Vikings will take a lot of beating because of the little details being so accurate. Time of day/night – why? Night then everyone can see as badly as me, and it has an inherent quietness and peace. Sport – Earle Page College Armidale 2 nd Grade Rugby League which I coached for two years. Rugby League, Rugby Union and cricket. Beer – Light and cold and crisp, none of the over hopped craft beer rubbish. My all-time favourite is Anchor Steam out of San Francisco.      
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Hunter Valley Shiraz Member Tasting
Words by Jackie Macdonald on 31 Aug 2016
Hunter Valley  winemakers have embraced their unique style of Shiraz and it’s set to become a timeless classic Fashion is a strange beast. Whether it’s moulding what we wear, what we eat or the car we drive, it’s hard to escape its influence. Even winemaking is at the mercy of fashion with critics often the ones to set the trends. One of recent history’s greatest influencers has been Robert Parker Jr, a US-based doyen of wine who has been described in  The Wall Street Journal   as being “widely regarded as the world’s most powerful wine critic.” Parker has always shown a predilection for  Barossa  Shiraz with its bold, generous, full-bodied characters and during the 1990s he really helped put this South Australian region on the world wine stage. But where did that leave other regions whose Shiraz fell short of Parker’s preference for the voluptuous? According to Hunter Valley winemaker Andrew Thomas,  Shiraz  producers in his region attempted to emulate the Barossa style. “They left the fruit on the vine for longer, added tannins, used too much new oak.” That wasn’t the only challenge affecting Hunter Valley Shiraz at this time. Unfortunately, some of the region’s wineries were affected by a spoilage yeast called Brettanomyces, which led to the development of the ‘sweaty saddle or barnyard character’ you might have heard associated with the style. While it should be savoury, Andrew says, Hunter Shiraz shouldn’t have these characters. An Optimistic Outlook
This all added up to a crying shame because the Hunter has its own unique brand of Shiraz that’s very different to that of the Barossa, but with equal appeal. Thankfully, Andrew goes on to describe, around ten years ago, Hunter winemakers made a unified effort to rid the region of Brettanomyces. They also came to the realisation that they had something special to offer and embraced the Hunter’s distinct style of Shiraz. The key to allowing Hunter Shiraz to show its true beauty is “letting the vineyard do the talking”, says Andrew. Fellow Hunter winemaker and Hunter Valley Living Legend Phil Ryan agrees, calling the vineyard the “principle number one factor” in Shiraz success. Add to that vine age and site selection, where you’ve got red soils over limestone, and you’ve got a winning formula. The result is a style of Shiraz that’s vibrant, fruit driven and, as Phil describes, “more user friendly”. While in the past winemakers had to rely on bottle ageing to soften the wines, Phil says, today “they’re basically made to drink as they’re bottled.” That’s not to say that Hunter Shiraz has lost its capacity to age. “The great vineyards have the potential to mature for decades,” Phil says. So Hunter winemakers are excited about their Shiraz and success is rolling in on the wine show front, but does this equate to consumer appeal? Happily, contemporary Hunter winemakers now have fashion on their side. Having recently returned from a European sojourn, Phil experienced first hand the demand for fresh, flavoursome reds with a lighter tannin structure. “Hunter Shiraz with its medium body and fruit sweetness on the palate can compete with what people see as modern red wines – Sangiovese  ,  Tempranillo  or even  Pinot Noir  from various countries.” The Wines of the Tasting Peter Drayton Wines Premium Release Shiraz 2014 Tulloch Wines Pokolbin Dry Red Shiraz 2014 Allandale Matthew Single Vineyard Shiraz 2014 Brokenwood Wines Shiraz 2014 Pepper Tree Limited Release Shiraz 2014 Margan Shiraz 2014 Hart & Hunter Single Vineyard Series Ablington Shiraz 2014 Mount Eyre Three Ponds Holman Shiraz 2014 De Iuliis Shiraz 2014 Sobels Shiraz 2013 The Little Wine Co Little Gem Shiraz 2013 Andrew Thomas Elenay Barrel Selection Shiraz 2014 First Creek Winemaker’s Reserve Shiraz 2014 Usher Tinkler Wines Reserve Shiraz 2014 Tyrrell’s Wines Vat 9 Shiraz 2013 Mount Pleasant Rosehill Vineyard Shiraz 2013 Leogate Estate Wines The Basin Reserve Shiraz 2013 Petersons Back Block Shiraz 2013 Judge and Jury
When it comes to the attraction of Hunter Shiraz, the Tasting Panel needs no convincing. As our  resident Hunter expert Nicole Gow  describes, “there’s nothing overpowering about this style and its beautiful savouriness and medium weight makes it a wonderful food wine.” The question is, are Australian wine-lovers on board with the new face of Hunter Shiraz? To find out, the Panel decided to put a line-up of Hunter Shiraz to the taste test in the company of some Wine Selectors members. Joining the judging team of Nicole Gow and Trent Mannell were members Melissa and Tony Calder and Marilyn Willoughby, along with winemaker Andrew Thomas. The Tasting When the guests were asked what they liked in their reds, the resounding answer was smoothness. One of the smoothest Shiraz of the tasting turned out to be Andrew Thomas’ Elenay Shiraz 2014 , which Marilyn also admired for its lovely spicy appeal. The story behind this wine is a colourful one, so perhaps skip to the next paragraph if you’re sensitive to strong language. In 2011, Andrew found himself with some leftover barrels of two of his other premium Shiraz. These barrels became known as the ‘lips and arseholes’, but when they were blended together, they actually produced a standout Shiraz. So the label – Elenay (L and A) was continued and has enjoyed great success since. While the majority of the wines in the tasting lived up to the regional reputation for being medium-bodied, there were a couple of fuller styles among the standouts. The Little Wine Company Little Gem Shiraz 2013 was described as “a wine for the oak-lovers”, which Melissa and Marilyn both enjoyed. The other was the Pepper Tree Limited Release Shiraz 2014, which Nicole praised for its generous plummy fruit. The wine that really brought all the tasters together was the De Iuliis Shiraz 2014, which was described as having “beautiful balance with long, spicy elegant tannins”. Overall, our members left impressed with the Hunter Shiraz they tasted and will definitely be adding more examples to their collection. So let’s hope that now there’s a new found confidence in the style from local winemakers, wine-lovers will share in their enthusiasm and Hunter Shiraz will become a timeless classic in the world of wine fashion.
Two Blues Sauvignon Blanc 2014
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