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Neil McGuigan in White Shirt with Glass

When wine runs through the family veins, it’s not surprising that a brand like McGuigan’s Wines is achieving spectacular international success. So, other than a good grape, what makes a wine the best drinkable drop here and overseas?

Neil McGuigan, third generation winemaker, is passionate about his plonk. While other vineyards or brands might be simply chasing the Chinese Yuan in order to meet their export targets, McGuigan is far more focussed on ensuring that he creates the best drop in the ocean of Australian made wines.

Growing the grapes

For McGuigan, there never was much of a question as to whether or not he’d get into the wine business. Growing up on a vineyard, McGuigan’s grandfather tended vines in the Hunter Valley region and sold to some major labels. But it was his father, Perc McGuigan, who really got the McGuigan name behind the vines. He ran the Penfolds vineyard from 1941-1968, purchasing it from the company and creating the label Wyndham Estate. But it was in 1992 that Neil’s brother Brian started McGuigan Wines, joined not long after by Neil. After a few years, Neil left the company to pursue roles with other winemakers but came back on board in 2004. After his brother retired, by 2010, he was asked by the board to take over as CEO.

Despite claiming position as top dog, Neil isn’t the businessman type. “I’m not the corporate public company guy,” he explains. “That’s not me. I’m a wine guy. I tell everybody in our business, I run a wine business that happens to be publicly listed. We are in the wine business. We are not in a business that makes wine. There is a big difference. We have a passion for wine, and we love wine, and we understand wine.”

This passion has led McGuigan Wines to spectacular international critical acclaim. “In 2009 we won international white winemaker of the year at the International Wine Challenge in the UK and then three months later at the International Wine and Spirit Competition in the UK, we won international winemaker of the year. Last year we won it again. At the International Wine Challenge in 2012 we won more gold medals than any other Australian company,” McGuigan says.

Recipe for success

But what makes one winemaker stand out against the rest, especially when Australian wine has seen lofty international heights in recent years?

McGuigan explains that it’s all about what the winemaker is aiming for. “I said to our guys we’re going to make a $100 bottle of wine. And they said Neil, we’re entry level, we’re $7-to-$10. But if your aspiration is to make a $10 bottle of wine with all the kit and all the investment that we give our winemakers, complacency sets in and your $10 bottle of wine starts to taste like an $8 bottle of wine very quickly,” he explains. While McGuigan acknowledges that they do need to be growing the right fruit, as well as having the best operating procedures in place to even dream about creating a $100 bottle of wine, he insists the desire to create a $100 bottle is one of the most important aspects in winemaking. “Because all of a sudden your $10 bottle of wine starts to taste like a $12 bottle of wine, and that’s what we’ve done.”

Creating the best wine possible is obviously the goal of every winemaker, however McGuigan has put in place a clear series of processes to ensure that’s exactly what the label achieves. “I’ve got five pillars to success in our business. Firstly: quality. We must make quality wine, and by quality I mean to over deliver at every price point. The second thing we’ve got to do is have wine show success. We’ve got to make the classic varieties, put them into international wine shows and win. The third thing we’ve got to do is embrace new varieties. The fourth thing that we’ve got to do is evolve the existing varieties and finally, the last thing we’ve got to do is put personality back in the wine industry.”

With the last three ‘pillars’, McGuigan explains that these need to be put in place in order to deal with a complacency that has set in in Australian viticulture. “Australia internationally has lost its mojo. In the 80s and 90s, everyone wanted Australian wine because the Australian dollar was 50 US cents. We delivered American and English consumers rich, flavoursome wines at a price that was very attractive. Then the old world cottoned on to how we make full flavoured soft wines, our dollar got much stronger and other countries introduced varieties which are a little more exciting.”

Setting international sights

This need to introduce new practices and varieties will evolve the industry to be ready to compete with international players in the market, such as the very popular New Zealand sauvignon blanc. “We can’t create that same character they do from our varieties in Australia,” says McGuigan. “So instead, we’ve created a semillon blanc which people can turn to when they’ve had enough of the New Zealand sauvignon blanc. It’s a wine style which is an evolution of NZ sauvignon blanc and a name which is new and unusual. You’ve got to be creative and doing things like this, embracing those new varieties.”

McGuigan also knows the value of pushing Australian wine overseas. “We’re the biggest selling Australian wine in Ireland, we’re the second biggest selling wine in Ireland and we want to be number one. More McGuigan wine is sold per capita in Ireland than in anywhere else in the world so we want to capitalise on that. In order to do so, we’re all going to Ireland in September and we’re planting a vineyard in Meeting Place Square in Dublin, opening it up to Irish, UK and European trade and media, but also we’re opening it up to consumers.”

Knowing that there’s a current downturn in the export market, McGuigan has made sure that the company’s international markets are kept safe during the slow times. “People say your margins are tight in the UK, and yes they are, but we’re building our brands and our distribution in a very tight market. And you know what? The dollar will change. And when the dollar changes we already have our distribution set up and so we will have instant profitability.”

By building the brand at international trade shows as well as selling through popular channels such as Tesco, McGuigan is ensuring that people are at least drinking, even if Australian wine is on the expensive side. “We’re getting it down people’s throats, so people say, ‘gee this Aussie wine is very good, that’s McGuigans, don’t they win lots of awards? I really like that wine, a little expensive, but gee it’s good.’ And then when it changes bingo, you’ll be away.”

But how does one deal with not only a temperamental market, but also a constantly changing dollar value and a product that to some extent is completely susceptible to the changing weather? “I drink a lot,” McGuigan laughs.