McLeish Estate, a 16-hectare family-owned vineyard and winery on DeBeyers Road near Pokolbin in the Lower Hunter, has a global reputation for its semillon – the 2007 was named world best at the London International Wine Challenge. McLeish’s semillon has won more than 75 medals in Australian and international competition.
The effort is a tribute to Bob and Maryanne McLeish, who planted all of the vineyard’s 18,000 vines (six grape varieties) and built the vineyard from the ground up over the last 33 years. And, of course, it’s a nod to their contract winemaker, Andrew Thomas, who has a reputation far and wide.
But awards and all, wine doesn’t sell itself. Semillon is favoured by a particular audience – certainly by those who know it’s one of the best food matches with oysters and seafood. Yet its acidic taste when young turns away wine drinkers looking for something light and fruity that can be taken on its own, without food.
So it’s completely understandable that McLeish Estate has a few other semillon variations in its portfolio, no doubt influenced by Jessica McLeish, the only child of Bob and Maryanne.
Jessica, who turned 28 earlier this year, is operations manager at McLeish Estate, responsible for operational management and business development. She holds a masters of wine business from the University of Adelaide, and is also in her final year as an associate wine judge, on her way to earning full judge status.
Although Jessica was born when the McLeishs still called Sydney home, she was raised since the age of two on the Hunter Valley vineyard that has been the family’s permanent home for the last 26 years.
“We would all be out there in the vineyard,” recalls Maryanne McLeish. “The dog and the cats would be out there with us, she would fall asleep under the vines.
“She loved going out there with mum and dad and muck around.”
As Bob and Maryanne learned the industry from nearby McWilliam vineyard vigneron Noel Martin, little Jessica learned, too. She learned how to prune a vine early, and took part in picking grapes at vintage with mum and dad, too – to this day the McLeishs take part in the handpicking of their vines.
“A lot of owners don’t go out and pick,” Maryanne says of the family passion for its vines. “We pick beside the other pickers. It’s only a short period of your life.”
The McLeishs have always been committed to running their business as a boutique family vineyard – about 60 per cent of their wine is sold to the 2500 members of their wine club.
“We always said from day one we wouldn’t go into Dan Murphy or Liquorland. Our wine club is our strongest part,” Maryanne says.
The wine club is built to last as well – members can choose their wine. “You get what you want,” Maryanne says. “They know the quality.”
The wine club is like a family, a clan if you will, for the McLeishs. The relationships become personal, with dinners, tastings, functions and events throughout the year.
And lots of wine talk. Now, Jessica is often the one who gets up to talk about the McLeish brand before the members.
“If we didn’t have a child like that, it wouldn’t be so successful,” Maryanne says. “I think a lot of people are jealous of us having a daughter so passionate about wine.”
The wine industry is a tough. The competition is relentless, the weather can be your worst enemy. The wrong investment at the wrong time can put you out of business.
That said, it’s also full of poker players, willing to test new varieties, outwit the weather and gamble on new markets.
Jessica McLeish is bringing new energy to the McLeish name. Among the first challenges: finding a new way to invite consumers to try semillon.
“We always try to do things a little bit more innovative with semillons,” she says. “We’re not just all about the classic dry style.”
“The way I found the introduction to semillon – if you’re an ‘acid freak’, we all love semillon. The Auld Killie, our best seller here, is definitely a style that brings people into the zone of semillon, gets them started on a path, and then eventually they will go into the more classic styles of semillon.
We always try to do things a little bit more innovative with semillons. We’re not just all about the classic dry style.Jessica McLeish of McLeish Estate
“I just love the experience of [trying] the older semillons, the younger, for tastings and see people’s first reaction.”
The Auld Killie is an off dry semillon, named after township where the McLeish family was from in Scotland. It is a fruit-driven, moselle-riesling style semillon. “It’s almost like a cool Granny Smith apple, really fresh,” Jessica offers, “a point of difference. It has a different mouthfeel.”
The Auld Killie is in another world than traditional semillon.
“The acidity in 2017 semillon is based on 2 grams of residual sugar per litre,” Jessica says. “It is really dry, really textural and crisp.
“With the idea behind the off dry, if we have a lot of international guests [at the winery], how are we going to get them across the line with semillon. That was a great way to get them to start.
“Personally, I’ve grown up on classic semillon, so I love that nice tense, dry style. But the Auld Killie is a little bit more fruity …”
From the same 2017 semillon harvest, the winery has used the pressings of the semillon juice and fermented it to about 30 grams of residual sugar per litre to make the Auld Killie.
“It is all to do with the residual sugar left in there,” Jessica says. “It makes it a low alcohol white wine. On a hot day, it’s a good outdoor style wine, great with Thai food.”
Auld Killie, in Jessica’s words: “A bit of sweetness, without it being too cloying, it has to have that acidity to keep it clean. It’s Clean on front of palate, then it dries off …”
The best of the old and the best of new, that’s how semillon is working for McLeish.
“We make 20 pallets of classic semillon. We make about 10 pallets of Auld Killie [and it sells out],” Jessica says. “It’s good. It’s actually taken the pressure off our semillon. It’s from the same vineyard, it’s the same pedigree of fruit.”
McLeish also offers a semillon chardonnay blend, made from estate-grown grapes (they also have a semillon savignon blanc, with the sauvignon blanc grapes sourced from the Adelaide Hills).
McLeish’s Dwyer Rose (named in honour of Maryanne’s maiden name) is also a wine in the frame.
“It is the attraction of colour, tasting with your eyes. The less colour the better,” Jessica says of the rose. “The onion skin colour is on trend at the moment. It’s a big seller for us.”
Jessica says McLeish has been just ahead of the “rose revolution” that began about six years ago, which has seen the blend taken more seriously as a serious wine by the industry and most certainly by consumers.
“You want to see the natural fruit sweetness is always there,” she says. “It doesn’t have too much tannin, it’s all fresh and balanced.”
Later, over a taste, she offers: “It’s a bit more textural. It still has that richness, toffee apple finish.”
McLeish is certainly just as committed to its three red varieties – merlot, cabernet sauvignon and shiraz. If it was Jessica’s call, they would increase plantings of shiraz and cabernet on the property.
“I love the cabernet in the Hunter Valley,” she says. “I think it can work in challenging conditions. It can be tedious, late arriving, you have to give it more attention ... It has become very important. It is fresh medium-bodied, unlike from other regions. To have cab as a fresh medium-bodied style which shows well as a young red would be very good to see.”
As the climate has changed, with even more summer heat, the red grape varieties have been stressed. And, in Jessica’s eyes, the cabernet, for one, has changed.
“The reds aren’t that classic spicy, savoury style anymore,” she says. “They are being left out a lot longer, we’re not having to battle with the rain cycle so much.”
Instead, the reds “are a little bit more fruit-driven, a little bit more jammy – a complete change from what was the textbook Hunter Valley”, she says.
In that, there is an opportunity.
“The whole effort to change perception on reputation on the wine,” she says. “I really enjoy that discovery factor. I think everyone is out to show their friends something new. We want to be the people who have found something new, like a new way of producing cabernet.”
The quietly-spoken Jessica cannot be underestimated. She is one of Australia’s younger (associate) wine judges, which is testimony not only to her palate, but her studious nature. Through the judging circuit, she’s become friends with Jen Pfeiffer, another rising star from a family vineyard.
Sometimes, you just ride when the wind is at your back. McLeish’s sparkling range is called Culloden, in honour of a famous battle in 1746 where the Jacobite army of Bonnnie Prince Charlie fell to the overwhelming fire power of the Hanovarian troops led by the Duke of Cumberland.
With the rise of the British TV series, Outlander, about a British nurse’s time travelling journey from 1945 back to 1743, the winery has found great global interest in its Culloden sparkling range.
The McLeishs could fit into Outlander without missing a beat. The characters in the series include many brave warriors and bonny lasses.They are constantly drinking rhenish (wine) from gourds. Are those bagpipes I hear playing …