There is one constant, one central truth that lies at the core of the quality of the wines of Mount Pleasant. The vineyards.
Recognised as some of the greatest in the Hunter Valley, Mount Pleasant’s vineyards are testament to the vision of Maurice O’Shea and the McWilliam family, who saw in their gentle slopes and complex volcanic soils the potential for greatness, for wines that not only resonated with intrinsic quality, but that also truly spoke clearly of Hunter Valley terroir. Wines that spoke of the earth from which they came.
Scott McWilliam explains, “Mount Pleasant has always been seen as the jewel in the crown by the McWilliam family, and we are very proud to have had such a close relationship with the O’Shea family. Mount Pleasant and its world class vineyards survive today as an industry icon, thanks to the McWilliam family. However, it took the talents of Maurice O’Shea as innovator and pioneer, along with subsequent winemaking figureheads, to bring it to where it is today.”
“My family supported Maurice to continue bringing to life his vision in the region and in turn, Maurice taught the McWilliam family how to make and style ‘table wines.’ Given that my family only made fortified wines over 100 years ago, we had an evolution to go through and Maurice ultimately helped us on that journey. We are very proud of this relationship and our connection to O’Shea, so much so that McWilliam’s Wines introduced the Maurice O’Shea Award, which today is still the most prestigious industry accolade bestowed upon a wine industry entity.”
JEWELS IN THE CROWN
The much revered Mount Pleasant vineyard sites are the jewels in the Mount Pleasant crown. The Old Hill, Old Paddock, Rosehill, Lovedale and Estate vineyards offer deep insights into the nuance of site and sub-regionality and a range of wines that celebrate the diversity and heritage that is deeply woven into the tapestry of the Hunter.
While the quality of vineyards is a constant, wine styles tend to evolve over time. In the hands of Maurice O’Shea, those early Mount Pleasant wines were destined for greatness and were undoubtedly the driving force for the Hunter Valley establishing itself as one of the world’s great wine regions.
As Scott McWilliam describes, “Personally I have a huge love for Mount Pleasant, since I was the first family member to be employed as a winemaker there. I lived in the Hunter Valley near Mount Pleasant for 12 years, and when Phil Ryan retired as Senior Winemaker, I had the pleasure of crafting the wines from our iconic old vine vineyards.”
But he’s not about to play favourites, saying, “Whilst the 2011 vintage is the standout, it’s hard for me to have a favourite vineyard, they’re all so great.”
Medium-bodied with rich, earthy fruit and savoury nuance, the early Maurice O’Shea wines, produced under trying conditions, are a remarkable achievement, beautifully balanced with a fearsome reputation for longevity and drinking pleasure.
Group Chief Winemaker Jim Chatto agrees, adding, “I’ve been lucky enough to have had the opportunity to see the mature Mount Pleasant wines on occasions at dinners, at the Len Evans Tutorial, and through the generosity of Hunter winemakers, and I was transfixed at how fresh the wines look at 50-60 years of age. I could actually see the vineyard in the wine at 60 years of age and that is remarkable how they can look like the younger version of themselves.”
Chief Winemaker Adrian Sparks adds, “The incredible early wines off the Mount Pleasant vineyards were unashamedly medium-bodied with moderate alcohols and low in oak and extract. Wines that were honest to what our region does well and a testament to the pedigree of the vineyards and the foresight of the McWilliam family and Maurice O’Shea.”
A QUESTION OF STYLE
Wine styles tend to ebb and flow over the years for a variety of reasons. The prevailing and fickle winds of fashion, changes winemaking and consumer demand all play their part.
There was a time in the 1990s when consumers leant towards more opulent wines. Wines of concentration and heft, wines of concentration and latent power. Wines that, although delicious and of ‘a time’, didn’t accurately reflect the heritage of the Hunter Valley and the lineage of the renowned Mount Pleasant vineyard sites.
The McWilliam family made the decision to return to producing wines that were sympathetic to the region, wines that capture not only the history of Mount Pleasant, but also the essence and diversity of the Hunter Valley and what it does best. And that meant returning to the vineyards.
Jim Chatto describes it as “Not fighting the terroir and not imposing styles on a region,” and instead, “Listening to what the land has to say. If we were going to make wines that honoured the vision of Maurice O’Shea and the McWilliam family, we had to make some changes.”
Adrian Sparks continues, “We invested time and money into these great vineyards and began to separate the individual blocks to allow us increased flexibility and more winemaking options both in the cellar and during the blending process.”
“We pared back the winemaking, simplified it, mimicking what Maurice O’Shea achieved all those years before us. We dramatically reduced our use of oak and introduced larger format barrels. We’ve taken a gentler approach and to a great extent, winemaking is a secondary and intuitive process now we have gone back to the vineyards.”
“We have drilled down and looked at the great sites we had in the Hunter Valley, getting in touch with their individual rhythms, separating individual components and have returned to those beautiful and unique Hunter Valley wine styles Maurice O’Shea made famous before us. It is about honouring the legacy of the McWilliam family and Maurice O’Shea. To be honest, we’ve found these vineyards have an extraordinary ability with just a gentle hand on the rudder; they are a treasure.”
EVERYTHING OLD IS NEW AGAIN
The McWilliam family’s desire to produce wines that honour the traditional and much-loved wine styles of the Hunter Valley has provided an impetus for other producers in the region to do the same.
When asked whether he thinks the Hunter Valley is returning to its winemaking roots, Scott McWilliam remarks, “Absolutely, and especially at Mount Pleasant today we see winemaking styles mimicking those of the past. It’s great that the Hunter Valley winemaking community is conscious and respectful of the past and we are seeing wines from other producers which show this. But more importantly, it’s the consumers who are enjoying these styles today.”
The contemporary wine styles of Mount Pleasant have made that evolution, have re-focussed on the original vision of Maurice O’Shea and are producing a range of traditional wines whose diversity and bloodline is like no other in the Hunter Valley.
Wines that are true to their region, whose fruit weight, low oak, medium tannin and savoury lines make for a myriad of food/wine matching combinations from warmer weather dishes to the hearty fare of winter and wines that with careful cellaring will age gracefully for many decades.
The iconic Hunter Valley estate of Mount Pleasant is proud to move onward into the future, acting as custodian for some of Australia’s greatest vineyard sites, while showing a deep respect for the wine styles and pioneers who made the Hunter Valley so famous.
This article was originally published by Wine Selectors 15.5.19