We recently came across an incredibly interesting article on Maurice O’Shea from the Daily Telegraph in 1954.
The commentary is an amazing insight to this great man from a contemporary newspaper.
The below article by Zelie McLeod is copied ad verbatim from the Daily Telegraph, October 9 1954.
Maurice George O’Shea is a short, sturdily built man in his late 50s who produces some of the most distinguished table wines grown in Australia.
These wines come from his 200-acre vineyards in the Hunter Valley, just outside Cessnock, and a goodly proportion of his choicest products are always earmarked for the Australian Embassy in Washington, D.C.
I’d heard about Maurice O’Shea for years, ever since I made the acquaintance of his fine wines, but I had never met him until a few days ago at a pre-Wine Week luncheon.
[Wine Week opens next Monday.]
He is not at all as I had imagined him. He looks rather like a merry gnome. His cheeks are pink and polished, his brown eyes glint mischievously behind his thick-lenses spectacles. He has the short-fingered hands of an artisan.
Producing fine wines is his life, his passion, his delight, and he has done more, perhaps, than any other vigneron in Australia to pioneer the growing and marketing of vintage wines in this country.
“I love being alive and I love the good things of life. When I was a youngster in France I learned that good wine and good food are among the best things in life,” he told me.
“There is something about the combination of food and wine that is very agreeable. Each complements the other. The wine assists the assimilation of food, and the flavour of the wine brings out the flavor of the food.”
He twirled the claret round in his glass with an expert wrist, inspected its colour, sniffed its “nose,” and sipped it appreciatively.
“There’s a vitalising quality in wine- some rare extract which the scientists have not yet isolated yet, that has a building effect on the body, probably a vitamin,” he remarked.
A few days later Mr O’Shea showed me over his storage cellars in his Newcastle office.
There, sheltered by the cool old bluestone walls, were 240 000 bottles of wine, dusty and unlabeled, lying on racks quietly maturing.
We tasted some of them while Mr O’Shea told me how 33 years ago, he started off to pioneer the production of vintage wines in Australia.
There seems to be a dynastic quality about the people who make fine wines. It’s a craft, a way of life, that gets in a family bloodstream and is handed down generation to generation.
“I knew a family in France called the de Vines, whose ancestors were making wine in 1016- that’s 50 years before William the Conqueror landed in England- and the de Vines are only 11th on the list of the oldest wine-makers in France,” said Mr O’Shea, reflectively tasting one of his own light dry white wines.
The O’Shea dynastic relationship to wine does not go back as far as that. It dates from 1896, when Maurice O’Shea’s father, John Augustus O’Shea, founded the New South Wales Wine and Spirit Company.
John Augustus came to Australia from Ireland in the early 1880s as a tutor, but soon realised that his interest in, and knowledge of, European wines equipped him to earn a more lucrative living. So he started importing wines from Europe for the tables of the wealthy 19th century gentlemen of Sydney.
By 1912, when John Augustus O’Shea died, he had already foreseen a good future for Australian wines and had arranged for his son, Maurice, to go to France to study agriculture and winemaking.
In 1914, just before World War 1 started, the 16 year old Maurice arrived at the Lycee Montpellier, in the south Of France, to continue his secondary education and learn the language before going on to Grigon Agricultural College, near Paris, then back to the University of Montpellier to do a science course.
When he returned to Australia in 1921 his family had already acquired the (now renowned) Mount Pleasant vineyards near Cessnock.
A branch of Governor King’s family originally settled and established the Mount Pleasant vineyards in the early 1870s, and many of the original vines still bear.
“Some of our best reds comes from these vines in one block of what we call the Mountain vineyard,” explained O’Shea.
King Paddock, a 40-acre block, was the first land to be made freehold in the Hunter Valley region in the eartly days of settlement. Products made from these vines are still labelled “King Paddock” and are well known to connoisseurs of Australian wines.
When Maurice O’Shea took charge of the Mount Pleasant vineyards in 1921 members of the King family continued to work with him. His present cellar manager, Mervyn King, is a descendant of the original owners.
“My first job was to begin to keep vintages separate, which gave them an identity they had not had before,” explained O’Shea. “I wanted to get away from the practice, then general in the Australian wine industry, of putting all the products from one vineyard together, which meant that any good wine lost its identity in the general blending.”
“I also wanted to get away from using words like claret, burgundy, and so on, to describe our wines, because none of Australia’s products really resemble these wines except by an occasional fluke.”
“Australian red wines are heavier and more fruity than those grown in Europe because our grapes grow in a lusher climate and experience a longer period of warm weather. This affects their character and the character of the wine they produce,” he explained.
Instead of giving his wines European names Mr O’Shea calls them after the grapes from which they are made, such as Hermitage, Shiraz, Riesling, and so on.
All the time we were talking we were wandering among the racks of maturing wines.
I asked him how long the wines took to mature.
“I try not to let my reds out under three years,” he said, laying his hand affectionately on a dust-encrusted bottle. “The whites mature more quick,” he added.
“Wines grown in the Hunter Valley have a peculiar character, a natural softness that causes them to mature more quickly than European wines. In France a Bordeaux takes 16 years or longer to mature, and the whites are rarely sold before they are six to seven years old.”
There is an old-world atmosphere about the Mount Pleasant vineyards. Mr O’Shea works them with seven men, some of whom have been with him for nearly 30 years.
The grapes are crushed in old-type hand presses like the presses used in Europe. The bottles are labelled by hand, and a small hand machine is used to press the seals over the corks.
“This almost individual handling give us complete control over quality, and over the products of each separate part of the vineyards,” said Mr O’Shea. “We can do this only because our wineries are so small.”
I have a feeling that Maurice O’Shea hopes there is a special sort of hell for those who serve wine badly- at the wrong temperature, in the wrong sort of glass, or handle the process of uncorking roughly.
When he showed me his little hand machine to press the foil on the bottle tops he told me a story to illustrate the evils of slip-shod uncorking.
Some years ago when he was dining with a wine-loving friend, the watress dragged part of the foil from the neck of the bottle of wine as she removed the cork.
“Good heavens,” thundered his host. “How would you like someone to pull off your corsage and expose you! This foil is part of the wine’s dress!”
When Maurice O’Shea is not making fine wines he likes to try his hand at cooking- “I can feed a starving man”- or roam the Newcastle beaches fishing for bream.
The name O’Shea will have a special niche in the industry of Australian wine-making because he has encouraged other individual wine-growers to market vintage products.
Hector Tullock and Robert Elliot, both Hunter Valley vignerons, also product vintage wines which are essentially Australian in character.
They pave the way. Now many other wine-growers are starting to follow their path.