McWilliam's vies with Rosemount Estate for the title of Australia's largest family-owned wine company, and also its fifth-largest winemaker, crushing around 33,000 tons (30,000 t) annually. The sixth-generation company grows about a third of its total crush itself, a figure kept relatively low by the large volume of fruit it purchases in the Sunraysia area near its Robinvale winery in Victoria. Its largest export markets are the UK, the USA and New Zealand, with encouraging growth in Germany, Singapore and Japan.

Until recently McWilliam's focused on huge volumes of fortified and relatively uninteresting table wines from its traditional home of Griffith in the Riverina, plus some less-than-outstanding, but very affordable old-fashioned red and white table wines from Mount Pleasant in the Hunter Valley. Through a series of mergers, most of which ultimately became acquisitions, McWilliam's now boasts regional bases in Coonawarra, the Yarra Valley and Hilltops (New South Wales) and is sourcing fruit from Margaret River in Western Australia. The McWilliam's winemaking team headed by Jim Brayne has developed fine and very affordable wines from these new areas, and has refocused on its traditional strengths in the Hunter and Riverina, greatly improving the quality and of its entire range.


McWilliam's 2,050 acres (830 ha) of vineyards are in the Riverina, Hilltops, the Hunter Valley, Coonawarra and the Yarra Valley. Its largest holdings are 800 acres (325 ha) in the Riverina, mostly planted with shiraz and chardonnay. Shiraz, semillon and some chardonnay make up most of its 257 acres (104 ha) of Hunter plantings, while cabernet sauvignon and shiraz are the main grapes at Coonawarra with 690 acres (280 ha) and Barwang's 252 acres (102 ha) in the Hilltops region.

McWilliam's small number of prestige labels are relatively recent introductions to its range. The company is instead staking a strong claim in the middle of the premium bottled market with clean, lively and approachable wines that don't require long cellaring periods. The jewel in its crown is the classic old Mount Pleasant property in the Lower Hunter Valley. These vineyards, some of which date back to 1880, are the backbone of the Mount Pleasant range, providing the grapes for some limited-release runs like OP & OH (Old Paddock and Old Hill) Shiraz, Rosehill Shiraz and the Maurice O'Shea Shiraz. The Lovedale Vineyard is the basis for the Elizabeth Semillon and the Lovedale Semillon. Its purchase of Brand's and its subsequent expansion has made McWilliam's the third largest vineyard owner in Coonawarra, while the company has reworked its relatively small plantings at Lillydale Vineyards in the Yarra Valley, where it still purchases most of its fruit.


Northern Irish immigrant Samuel McWilliam planted his first vines at Corowa, New South Wales, in 1877. His son John James McWilliam planted the first grapes at Hanwood in the Riverina in 1913 and built a winery there in 1917. Another followed at Yenda in 1920. The family acquired the Beelbangera winery in 1944 and built another at Robinvale in 1961 to handle its ever-increasing production, which peaked in the late 1970s. The Hanwood winery became the company's center for white wines and fortifieds, where McWilliam's really made its name.

Mount Pleasant was originally developed by Charles King in 1880 on the area's excellent red volcanic soils. It was bought by the O'Shea family in the early 1900s, and son Maurice, having studied viticulture and oenology in France, assumed winemaking responsibilities in 1925. In 1932 he sold half the company to McWilliam's, which bought the entire company in 1941. As Mount Pleasant's winemaker for four decades, O'Shea was one of Australia's greatest. Brian Walsh took up the reins after O'Shea's death in 1956, and the present incumbent Phil Ryan arrived in 1978.

McWilliams began to move into new wine regions in 1989 with its involvement with Barwang, first established in 1969. A year later it purchased half the Brand family's Laira operation in Coonawarra, which it bought entirely in 1994, the same year it bought Lillydale Vineyards in the Yarra Valley.

In the mid-1990s, McWilliam's chief executive Kevin McLintock brought renewed energy to the company, and the family put many millions of dollars into infrastructure. It has greatly improved packaging and marketing, creating a new and contemporary feel to its steadily increasing range. Its wines are better than ever, and most are exceptionally affordable for their quality.

Key Wines

The best known of McWilliam's quality wines is Mount Pleasant Elizabeth, a rich and deliciously flavorsome version of the classic Hunter Valley semillon. At its price there is no finer white wine in Australia. The Lovedale Semillon is a much creamier, more concentrated version of this wine, with extraordinary palate length and tingling fresh acids. The complex and gamey OP & OH Shiraz with suggestions of chocolate and spice. The more modern the Rosehill Hermitage, enunciates the raspberry and red currant expressions of shiraz. The very best of Mount Pleasant's shiraz crop is kept for a label dedicated to O'Shea himself, an oakier, but polished and fine regional wine.


Some of McWilliam's very best wines are the Barwangs, which are full of character, long-living and very distinctive. The Yarra wines of Lillydale, the Margaret River wines under the Samphire label and the Brand's Coonawarra wines are good, honest and reliable and around half the price of many of their competitors. The McWilliams Limited Release Botrytis Semillon from Griffith fruit is shaping up exceptionally well. The Hanwood range of table wines delivers good value for money, and the old McWilliam's fortifieds, led by the classic Show Reserve label, are habitually brilliant.

The McWilliam family is keen to pursue further expansion plans, especially in Clare and McLaren Vale. Meanwhile, it continues to increase and improve its own plantings, notably with petit verdot, pinot noir, shiraz and the new hybrid tyrian, in the Riverina. It plans to release a new premium range featuring shiraz and grenache from the Barossa Valley and an Eden Valley riesling.


From "Encyclopedia of Wine"
Global Book Publishing Pty Limited 2000