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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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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.
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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.      
Two Blues Sauvignon Blanc 2014
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