Q&A with Scott McWilliam, Chief Winemaker at McWilliam’s Wines

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By Butterboom Writers  /  July 28, 2016

For Scott McWilliam, winemaking is a vocation. He is a sixth-generation winemaker and started working in the family business from the moment he was big enough to help out (age 14). Armed with a Post Graduate degree in Oenology from the University of Adelaide, McWilliam has established himself as one of Australia’s most promising young winemakers and belongs to the Winemaker’s Federation of Australia Future Leaders program. He is the Senior Winemaker at McWilliam’s and brand ambassador of one of the biggest independently owned wineries in Australia, and travels the world as an international wine judge to broaden his experience with wine.

We caught up with McWilliam to find out more about winemaking and the Australian wine industry, as well as some tips on how to keep wine. 

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Tell us more about your childhood among the vines… 
As a young child I remember visiting my great grandparents – I called them Nana and Pop – they lived next door to the winery. I was always fascinated when I was taken into the cellar among the tanks and vat of wine.

At the age of 14 my dad gave me my first job. I had to clean out the fermentation lees (yeast) from the bottom of the tanks, I was the only one small enough to fit through the opening in some of the tanks. At the age of 15 my job was to smash bottles of Fortified wines. Pop made too much Tawny, and the market fell away so we had a surplus of stock in comparison to demand. So it was decided to reclaim the product for distillation so we could reuse the alcohol, so I had to smash 50,000 bottles in all. From then on I had many experiences in the vineyards and the winery, and my love for wine and the industry grew over many years. I eventually decided to become a winemaker like my father and his father, and his, and so on. Today I am a senior winemaker and I have been lucky enough to work around the world, making delicious wines of all types.

What’s is the McWilliam’s mission in a nutshell?
McWilliam’s is a family-owned winery with 140 years of bringing quality and innovation to winemaking in Australia. Maintaining the vision and knowledge imparted by our founders, McWilliam’s is built on a passion for winemaking and a deep love of the land. Pioneers of Australia’s Riverina wine region, McWilliam’s helped shape the Australian wine industry. With this long-term view to winemaking we believe that the role of the winemaker is to nurture and protect the vines for the best quality grapes and the best product.

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Made by six consecutive generations of family winemakers, family values greatly influence the McWilliam’s philosophy toward winemaking and the business. We invest in people at McWilliam’s because we see everyone – from employees to growers – as part of the family. 

McWilliam’s is one of Australia’s most-awarded wines at an approachable price. Incredible value for money, we are one of Australia’s most popular and iconic wineries with accolades from wine critics and at wine shows across the world. McWilliam’s offers finely crafted Australian wine that are creative and authentic, emphasising freshness and simplicity. We make wines that are friendly and representative of the nation’s sunny disposition.

What are your most important tasks as a Family Ambassador?
I get to meet many people and develop a relationship with them. I’m not just a winemaker, I’m also by default an educator of wine and wine production. Also as my father always says, “We are in the entertainment business,” which is so true because with our wine and through our stories we give people an experience to remember.

What is a typical working day like for you? 
In this profession there is nothing typical. One day I might be in the vineyard assessing the growth of the vines and development of the season’s grape, like a farmer. Other times I’m in the cellar making the wine, especially during the harvest period. On any other day I might be showing the wines in a wine tasting. There are so many other activities like wine show judging, selling to customers and consumers, assessing wine blends and various administration duties. The hours can be long, but when you love what you do, it’s a labour of love, and not work.

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What are the key ingredients to McWilliam’s success?
1. Family passion and legacy
2. Historic vineyards
3. A fantastic professional team

What are some common misconceptions about Australian wine?
There are a number of misconceptions regarding ‘old-world’ and ‘new-world’ wines. There’s a perception that old-world wines are more sophisticated, traditional and reflective of their region, whereas new-world wines are more modern, approachable and fruit-driven. In reality, the influence of globalisation on wine has diluted the concept of old-world and new-world wines. Technology, innovation and consumers trends are far more powerful in defining the style of wine.

Although McWilliam’s is technically new-world wine, we have the history and heritage of a 140-year commitment to quality winemaking and innovation. We have been pleased to see that the market for wine in Hong Kong is growing and consumers are branching out from the old-world wines. Today, they want to explore a variety of wine experiences from new regions. McWilliam’s is an excellent example of a new-world wine, which customers in Asia are more and more interested in exploring. McWilliam’s celebrates Australia’s diverse winemaking regions, highlighting their unique characters and flavours to bring a quality experience of new-world wine to customers around the world.

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What do you eat for breakfast?
Vegemite on toast, every day!

Which books, movies and TV series are you reading/watching at the moment? 
Book – A New Earth by Eckhart Tolle
Movie – Star Wars
TV series – House of Cards

How do you view wine?
Wine is like a piece of art, but an alive artwork. A wine is born, grows and eventually dies. Wine is made to be enjoyed, either through consumption, collecting or gifting.

What’s your favourite place in the world?
On the boundary of our family farm we have a private beach on the bend of a river, it is very remote and just magical.

How long does white wine, sparkling wine and red wine keep once open?
I believe all wine should be consumed within 24-48 hours from opening.

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Best way to keep wine for as long as possible? 
The fridge is good, argon and nitrogen gases are good. Don’t use vacuum devices, and always use a stopper or cork.

How can you tell when a wine is off? 
Assessing wine is a learned skill, and unfortunately there are many ways a wine can be ‘off’; learning them all takes time and practice. Basically, if it looks and smells unpleasant then it is likely to taste off. Your nose will tell you if you like it or not.

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