O’Shea Award symbolises McWilliams transition from sandals to Reeboks

The Australian wine industry dispenses endless diplomas, trophies, medals and awards (gongs, for short) to its wines. Adding a little twist, in 1990 McWilliams came up with the idea of awarding one, annually, to a person or group for making an historically significant contribution to the Australian Wine Industry.

The Award, named after the extraordinary Maurice O’Shea, founder of Mount Pleasant Winery and wine maker there from 1921 until his death in 1956, has been won in the past by the late Max Schubert (Grange and red-wine making techniques); Len Evans (everything); Ron Potter (wine-industry engineering innovations); the late David Wynn (Coonawarra, Adelaide Hills, flagons, the wine cask); and Jacobs Creek (Australia’s first large-scale global wine brand).

Last Friday, in front of 450 guests at Sydney’s Regent Hotel, James Halliday, (former lawyer, founder of Brokenwood and Coldstream Hills Wineries, wine maker, international wine-show judge, columnist and prolific author) accepted the 1995 Maurice O’Shea Award from Don McWilliam, Chairman of McWilliams Wines.

Halliday’s contribution speaks for itself, and the standing ovation he received with the award dismisses the need for further comment. What intrigues me, though, is how awarding the award highlights enormous changes at McWilliams over the last few years.

Only a few years back, the public face of McWilliams was an anachronism. In an era of burgeoning table-wine consumption, McWilliams continued to underpin its profitability selling ‘sherry’ and ‘port’ in a rapidly declining fortified-wine market. As late as 1990, McWilliams projected the values of the 1950s and 1960s. As James Halliday put it, everyone wondered when McWilliams chubby little Friar Tuck might kick off his sandals and strap on the Reeboks.

For what the trade knew, but consumers at large did not, was the great depth of winemaking talent within McWilliams, not to mention the tremendous wealth of top-quality table-wine grapes at its disposal.

By 1990, the inaugural year of the Maurice O’Shea Award, McWilliams vigorous table wine making culture within, aided by a thirsty market, appeared on the brink of sweeping aside the old order.

Five years on, under Chief Executive, Kevin McKlintock, the old fortified customers are being serviced quietly in the background, but the public push is where the market is: with table wines.

The wine makers walk around as if they can hardly believe their own good luck. Like anyone, they enjoy recognition.

Wine makers Jim Brayne and Phil Ryan presided over a tasting on the morning after the O’Shea Award, presenting a phenomenally good, diverse range of wines from the company’s vineyard holdings in the Yarra Valley, Young, the Hunter Valley, the Riverina, and Coonawarra.

Such geographical diversity ensures a wide spectrum of wine flavours, especially as the wine makers seem determined not to impose a house style across all districts. Tasting the wines confirmed Jim Brayne’ s view that not only is quality improving thanks to improved vineyard-management and wine-making practice, but that flavours inherent in grapes from different areas lead the makers to appropriate wine-making methods. This, in turn, tends to heighten regional characteristics in the wines.

Lillydale Vineyards wines (Yarra Valley), for example, deliver flavours akin to summer berries grown in cooler areas — strong but exquisite and delicate at the same time. Watch for the 1995 Sauvignon Blanc, a wine of dazzling freshness and wonderful fleshy vibrance.

The warm but overcast lower Hunter makes wines like nowhere else on earth. Semillon-based whites from the area need no introduction, but watch in future years for McWilliams Lovedale Semillon 1995, sourced from a vineyard, near Cessnock airport, planted by Maurice O’Shea in 1946. Low in alcohol, concentrated but steely-austere at the same time, it is wonderful. So is the Maurice O’Shea Shiraz 1994, a few years from release yet. And I also recommend Mount Pleasant Rose Hill Shiraz 1991 as a fine example of a great regional specialty.

Hilltops Cabernet Sauvignon 1993 and Shiraz 1993 from the Barwang vineyard at Young show a rich and fleshy charm not unlike the area’s cherries.

But when it comes to red wine, McWilliams biggest winners in the future are bound to come from Coonawarra. Given McWilliams recent move to full ownership of the Brand family vineyards and winery, and substantial vineyard expansion, we can expect easier access to these most attractive, reasonably-priced wines, The current-release 1993 Brands Coonawarra reds share a lush, irresistible richness that seems to be a hallmark of the vintage.

This sprint through only a few highlights of the tasting doesn’t’ do justice to McWilliams. But as a consumer as well as a commentator, it is all good news seeing one of the few remaining independent wine makers making such exemplary wines. Let’s hope they, too, don’t get gobbled up by the giants.