Maurice O’Shea’s remarkable Hunter heritage

A tasting of wonderful Hunter reds last week brought home what an amazing winemaking heritage we have in Australia. It also served as reminder of how terribly slow we’ve been at taking this message to the world.

As we reach the end of a tremendous boom that took our wine exports from a few hundred million dollars to about $2.8 billion in a little over a decade, our winemakers now face the reality that few of the millions of people enjoying Australian wine have any awareness of our wine-growing regions.

Even less known are the intriguing wines made from small plots of very old vines sprinkled throughout our best wine-growing regions.

Some of these date to the mid nineteenth century – the surviving free settlers or, perhaps, refugees if you like — from the great vineyards of Europe that perished in the phylloxera vine louse invasion of the 1870s, 80s and 90s.

These vines and the wines made from them have a fascinating story to tell and will hopefully play an important part in the next phase of marketing Australian wines as we take our individual regions to the world.

Phylloxera-ravaged Europe has few stories to match the 1840s vines shirazes of Langmeil and Turkey Flat in the Barossa; of wines from Tahbilk’s and Best’s 1860s and 1850s vines in Victoria’s Goulburn Valley and Great Western region, respectively; or of McWilliams Hunter Valley 1880s vines Maurice O’Shea Shiraz or Brand’s Coonawarra Stentiford’s Block 1890s vines shiraz.

And these are just examples of wines drawn from individual vineyards. So much of the best material coming from, say, McLaren Vale and the Barossa, and going to high quality blends comes from extremely old vines dating from the nineteenth and earliest twentieth century.

How each of these vineyards survived across a century more has its own story. The common thread, of course, is that the soil and climate proved hospitable. Then come all the variations based on successive owners, economic swings and suitability of the grapes to wine styles.

That so many of the oldest vines are shiraz may owe more to versatility – it makes good fortified wine as well as good table wine – than to the durability of the vine itself.

In the case of McWilliams 1880s Old Hill Vineyard, ownership passed through two generations of the King family before Maurice O’Shea bought the vineyard, at Pokolbin, in 1921. Shortly afterwards O’Shea planted nearby the still-surviving Old Paddock Vineyard.

Who knows what may have become of the vineyards had O’Shea been forced from the land following financial difficulties. Fortunately, the McWilliam family bought an interest – and later full control — of Mount Pleasant and encouraged O’Shea, a brilliant winemaker, to remain for the rest of his working life.

Upon O’Shea death in 1956, his assistant, Brian Walsh assumed control. And Walsh, in turn, passed the mantle to current winemaker, Phil Ryan, in 1978.

Though winemaking practice has changed considerably since O’Shea’s time, Ryan still relies on fruit from those old vineyards – one selected by O’Shea the other planted by him – to make McWilliam’s Mount Pleasant property’s flagship shiraz, named after O’Shea.

It’s a great example of the idiosyncratic regional style – rich and earthy, but refined and soft, with tremendous ageing ability. When we drink these, we savour a little history. And, as the 1957 vintage showed in last week’s tasting, it’s a pleasure we might share with our grandchildren.

McWilliams Mount Pleasant Maurice O’Shea Shiraz 2003 $60
As a taste of history or simply as a Hunter red, O’Shea Shiraz offers fair value at around $60. Sourced principally from McWilliams Old Hill Vineyard (planted 1880s) with a component from the Old Paddock vineyard (planted 1920s), it’s a higher alcohol, oakier red than Maurice O’Shea made from the same vines from the 1920s until 1956. However, with a few caveats about the oak and alcohol, the heart of this wine remains the very concentrated fruit flavours delivered by these old, low-yielding vines. Over time these should assert themselves as the wine reveals its mellow, soft, idiosyncratic Hunter character.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2006 & 2007