23 November 2022

Great-great-granddaughter of Griffith wine pioneer JJ McWilliam wins Canberra gong

| Oliver Jacques
Start the conversation
Mel McWilliam standing in front of wine barrels

Mel McWilliam is proud of her family’s legacy. Photo: Supplied.

The great-great-granddaughter of John James McWilliam – the man who pioneered winemaking in Griffith – has started her own legacy.

Mel McWilliam’s Tumbarumba Single Vineyard Chardonnay 2021 won the prestigious ‘Champion Wine of Show’ award at the annual Canberra and Region Wine Show on the weekend of 19-20 November. The sixth generation winemaker worked alongside the company’s senior vintner Russell Cody to produce the winning drop.

“This wine was made in the midst of the McWilliam’s business finding its new home at Calabria Family Wines. There was a mix of excitement and optimism among the team following a few challenging and uncertain years in the business,” Ms McWilliam said.

“This wine, in particular, was an important bit of work between myself and senior winemaker Russell Cody. We have been fortunate enough to have regular access to exceptional fruit from the Glenburnie vineyard in Tumbarumba, enough to keep it aside as a single vineyard parcel for this wine. It’s been recognised as ‘Best Chardonnay’ or ‘Best White’ at this show for many years, so it’s great to see it break through and be recognised as ‘Best in Show’ this time around.”

“It was handpicked … it spent nine months in a barrel … it is made from the three pungent barrels. You’d want to have it with white meats. It’s got balanced subtle oak.”

Wine next to food

The award-winning McWilliams Single Vineyard Chardonnay 2021. Photo: Supplied.

The McWilliam family were early pioneers of winemaking in Australia. In 1877, Irish immigrant Samuel McWilliam planted his first vines on the outskirts of Corowa. His son John James established the Hanwood McWilliam estate in 1917, the first winery in the Griffith region. Mel explained her place in the famous lineage.

“John James had four sons. One of them was my great-grandfather, Keith. My grandfather was Don. My father is Chris [all of whom worked in the winery],” she said.

An old family photo of McWilliam winemakers

John James William (seated on the barrel) with his family in Hanwood in 1935. Photo: McWilliam Wines.

READ ALSO New tour boss targets Canberra in Griffith wine tourism resurgence

Mel was part of the Sydney-based wing of the family and grew up in the northern suburb of Lane Cove. But she’s now left the big smoke to return to her family roots.

“I came to Griffith to work for a vintage in 2018 at McWilliam and never went back. I started out in the lab and then moved into winemaking … I prefer the relaxed quiet life of Griffith, I’m not a huge fan of Sydney traffic.”

After more than a century in the business, the McWilliam winery went into administration in 2020. But the following year, the Griffith-based Calabria family took ownership of the brand and its Hanwood vineyard, allowing the famous name to live on and remain in the Riverina.

The most distinguishing feature of McWilliam Wines was the Hanwood Big Wine Barrel, a giant replica of a wine barrel built into a cellar door, which was built in 1973. Griffith’s version of the Big Pineapple was sadly closed in 2020, but as Region announced in July, there are now plans to reopen it.

READ ALSO Bill Calabria to reopen Hanwood’s Big Wine Barrel

“It was one of the few things I did know about Griffith,” Mel said. “It’s such a symbol. We don’t have a presence here without it – to see it open would be very good.”

Bill Calabria at Big Wine Barrell

Bill Calabria is painting the Big Wine Barrel himself. Photo: Oliver Jacques.

The Calabria family had hoped to revive the barrel by the end of 2022, but a number of conflicting priorities and supply chain challenges meant it was more likely in the new year.

Other major winners at this year’s Canberra and Region Wine Show include the Mount Majura Vineyard 2021 Shiraz for ‘Best Red Wine of Show’, the Linear 2022 Gruner Veltliner for ‘The Chairman’s Trophy’ and the Barton Estate 2022 Riely’s Riesling for ‘Wine of Provenance’. This year’s judging panel featured 10 judges from across Australia and was chaired by wine buyer and Len Evans dux Adam Cotterell.

The McWilliam’s Single Vineyard Chardonnay 2021 is available from select fine wine retailers and online from the McWilliam website.

Further information about the Canberra and Region Wine Show can be found on the show’s website.

Start the conversation

Daily Digest

Want the best Riverina news delivered daily? Every day we package the most popular Riverina stories and send them straight to your inbox. Sign-up now for trusted local news that will never be behind a paywall.

By submitting your email address you are agreeing to Region Group's terms and conditions and privacy policy.