2011 Hunter Valley Heritage Award recipient ….
Rhiannon Stevens steps back in Hunter history to the time of Maurice O’Shea
The Hunter Valley Heritage Award acknowledges landmark historical importance that has influenced or significantly contributed to the Hunter Valley Wine Industry. Previous recipients have included historical landmarks of physical heritage. This year the importance of printed works to the place making of the Hunter Valley region have been acknowledged. The Maurice O’Shea Mount Pleasant Labels are classic collateral heritage endemic to the Hunter Valley, and symbolise our fine winemaking reputation and identity.
At the unveiling of the Heritage Cairn in March 2012, Hunter Valley Legend and sponsor of the Cairn, Brian McGuigan explained “the Cairn project is designed to recognise the people, places or objects that have nurtured and been crucial to the development and stature of the district, so it is fitting that we salute Maurice O’Shea and McWilliams”. Maurice O’Shea founded his vineyard “Mount Pleasant” in 1921, and during the depression forged an enduring relationship with the McWilliam family. Whilst 2012 marks the 90th Vintage at Mount Pleasant in the Hunter Valley, it also honoured the 135th anniversary of winemaking for the McWilliam family.
Maurice O’Shea’s leadership was instrumental in positioning the Hunter Valley as a premium wine region. Brian McGuigan remarked “Maurice O’Shea did something special. He had something really outstanding in his capacity to recognise the certain traits of grapes and wine”. A pioneer of early Australian winemaking, Maurice O’Shea literally changed his field. Produced in a era where fortified wines were the standard – flagship styles of Shiraz and Semillon were championed without electricity, machine-driven cooling systems or any of the modern winemaking equipment used today. Maurice O’Shea’s wines were a testament to his vision and skill as a viticulturist and winemaker. Experimental blending, styles developed for the market and sophisticated wines with prudent alcohol levels were O’Shea’s specialties. The mastery of his craft is evident with the refined intensity and longevity of his wines, many of O’Shea’s wines outlived the man. O’Shea’s table wines showed creative artistry and have left a lasting impression on the world as icons of the Hunter Valley, and set the standard for Australian wines at their best.
The Hunter Valley Wine Industry Association has formed valuable links with the University of Newcastle to collect and share historical narratives of our region’s winemaking past. Julie McIntyre from the University of Newcastle presents the notion that “wine is a creative field in which art and science combine. As O’Shea blended his wines, he blended together the idea of wine and it’s place in history”. Julie’s representation of Maurice O’Shea provides insight into Maurice O’Shea’s daily work. Describing him as one of the true romantics of wine, Julie read from a letter penned by O’Shea on 15 February 1924:
“We expect to start the grape picking on Wednesday next though at this moment it seems hardly possible for us to be ready in time … We are having some heavy downpours of rain just now and it seems that we are to expect a wet vintage. This is a nightmare to look forward to as the ground is so soddy and heavy that the loaded carts often get bogged, or even overturned, and the horses constantly lose their foothold; besides it is heavy work for the animals and knocks them up terribly. There seems to be some trouble in securing grape pickers this year. It is really unaccountable as many pits [mines] are idle and there should be more children than ever”. The account lists the hardships and tribulations that we no longer face with modern machinery and vineyard practices – although wet harvests are still a challenge and mechanical harvesters have replaced child labour! It seems Maurice O’Shea’s romantic side didn’t end with his passion for wine. His diaries and letters have also provided a valuable account of O’Shea’s affections for Marcia Fuller, whom he later married. Maurice O’Shea on all accounts was a true romantic with the sign off from the same letter:
“My Dearest – I hope everything at home is quite satisfactory and that you are keeping your promise of looking after your dear little self so that I shall have lovely rosy cheeks and sweet red lips to kiss … Loving you more than ever – love always, Your Maurice”.
“History has made the Hunter Valley so important internationally,” said Hunter Valley Legend Brian McGuigan, “the wine that comes from here; it’s style and it’s quality has separated us from our peers in this country and abroad”. Maurice O’Shea produced remarkable and memorable wines during his lifetime, inspiring many in his industry. It is reassuring to note that many generations of the McWilliams followed in O’Shea’s footsteps. Don McWilliam, fourth generation in the McWilliams family and patron for the Maurice O’Shea Mount Pleasant Labels, joined O’Shea to learn the craft from the 1954 Vintage. Sadly, O’Shea passed away shortly after in 1956. Today, Scott McWilliam is senior winemaker at Mount Pleasant representing the sixth generation of this pioneering wine family.
Cheers for the next Century of winemaking at Mount Pleasant!
This article was published in Breathe Magazine Spring 2012, Breathe Magazine – Issue 34, Spring 2012.