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Profile: Neil McGuigan

McGuigan Wines has just been acclaimed World’s Best Winemaker for an unprecedented third time. Christian Davis talks to the man who makes it all happen
I have often wondered what it must be like to be in the presence of greatness. I met Neil McGuigan, the World’s Best Winemaker recently in London. How did it feel? Well, OK. He may be wine deity but he is really nice guy, a bonzer bloke as his Australian compatriots would say. There was no discernable aura. No scrolls or head dresses made of laurel leaves. No white gowns or golden slippers. Just a smart, well-cut business suit, actually.
So how does it feel to be the greatest winemaker on the planet? Well, Neil McGuigan seems pretty relaxed about it. McGuigan Wines, of which he is general manager production and wine supply, has just been voted World’s Best Winemaker for the third time in four years by the International Wine & Spirit Competition.
McGuigan himself is White Winemaker of the Year, according to the International Wine Challenge. Both competitions are prestigious and respected. But it has to be said that both awards are based on companies entering .
The key to winning the trophy was McGuigan Wines’ performance across the IWSC competition, with a 100% success rate – 39 wines entered, 39 medals received. McGuigan Wines was awarded the International Semillon Trophy in addition to nine gold, 22 silver and eight bronze medals including, eight best in class awards.
The backbone of the success was the McGuigan Bin 9000 Semillon, with the 2004 vintage taking home the  International Semillon Trophy. In addition the 1997 and 2011 vintages won gold best in class while the 2003 and 2005 vintages of the Bin 9000 Semillon were awarded gold. The 2009 vintage of McGuigan Farms Shiraz from the Barossa Valley also won gold best in class, as did the 2007 McGuigan Shortlist Semillon.
Apart from the fact that Neil is one of the McGuigan dynasty – they are to Australian wine what the Kennedy or Bush families are to American presidents, although the McGuigans have had nothing to do with Marilyn Monroe or Iraq (Editor: as far as we know). He represents the latest generation of high-profile Australian winemakers and producers telling benighted wine drinkers how “bloody good” Aussie wine is.
Neil follows in the giant footsteps of his 70-year-old brother Brian, who is one of the modern Australian wine trade pioneers, along with the likes of Len Evans, Peter Lehmann, Wolf Blass, Murray Tyrrell, Brian Croser, James Halliday and Bill Hardy.
Asked how old he is, this Aussie giant of wine shoots back: “Twenty-six.” Then there is a pause and the characteristic McGuigan twinkle in the eye: “Well, 54.” ‘Young’ Neil comes from a long line of “Pommie baiters”. One minute you can be getting riled at what he is saying, then too late you realise he is just winding you up. Beware: this man has a serious sense of humour.
Passion and knowledge
But behind that bluff Aussie good bloke exterior is a serious, driven man, passionate about Australian wine. On the McGuigan website, asked which wine he would be, McGuigan says: “I would be a flat champagne – an old, tired brut.”
Cheeky, matey – a top bloke all-in-all – McGuigan is everything Australian wine needs. Knowledgeable and passsionate about wine but relaxed and affable with it. Not intense, boring and self righteous as some are.
Neil is married to Debra and they have three children – Margaux (yes, really, 24), Matthew (20) and Marnie (15). 
His grandfather was a struggling dairy farmer in the Hunter valley who laboured in the vineyards to make extra money. Father Perce started in the milk industry but became winemaker at Penfolds Dalwood winery in the Hunter and ended up buying it.
With wine well and truly replacing milk in the McGuigan veins, big brother Brian founded Wyndham Estate. In 1970 Wyndham was sold to a group with Brian remaining as MD. It was floated on the Australian stock exchange in 1984 and taken over by Pernod in 1990.
Neil joined the company in 1978 after studying at the famous Australian university, Roseworthy. In 1992 the McGuigans started McGuigan Wines. It was a publicly listed company.
McGuigan says: “I was there until 1994. I said to Brian: ‘I need to do what I want to do.’ I was in my mid-30s and I needed to see if I could do it myself. Otherwise, I would always be Brian’s little brother.”
He started Briar Ridge boutique winery with someone else. Foster’s liked it and wanted to buy it. Neil says his co-founder did not want to sell so he went to another winery, Rothbury. After four years Brian said it was “time to come back”. So he went back to run production.
“We were making AUS$10 entry-level wine,” says McGuigan. “I said: ‘We are going to make a $100 bottle of wine.’ They said: ‘Are you on drugs?’ I said: ‘Yes,’ pointing at tablets for heartburn.
“We had all the equipment: processes, crushes, filtration, centrifugal, stabilisation. He says. “For a $100 wine you have to have the fruit but then you have to have the will. You have to have the will to get up every day to make a $100 bottle of wine. 
“Once you have the processes in place McGuigan says a “$10 bottle tastes like a $12 bottle of wine”.
He adds: “It took four years, until the end of 2008, and then McGuigan started to pick up awards.”
In 2003 the company McGuigan merged with bulk wine specialists Simeon. The new company then bought Miranda Wines, a specialist in cask and budget sparkling wines. The challenge was to bring bulk and branded together and bring out the best in both.
“I think we have achieved that,” says McGuigan.
There were nine wineries. Now there are three: a large one at Mildura, a medium-sized winery in the Barossa and a boutique operation in the Hunter.
In 2007 the company acquired Nepenthe, a brand known for more elegant, cool-climate varieties. The new enlarged company became Australian Vintage.
Talking about his brother’s current role in the company, McGuigan says: “Brian is still a director. He still sends me a list of things I am doing wrong – and that is considerable.” 
Asked about who is going to fill the shoes of past Australian legends, McGuigan cites Chester Osborn at d’Arenberg in McLaren Vale – he of the curly blond mane. McGuigan quips: “He may look as though he needs to tuck in his shirt and get a haircut but when you taste the wine, you know he can do it. He has substance and can deliver. We [Australia] need more of these guys.
“We need guys who make a difference, who recognise a style and can understand and take an opportunity. People who can go back and make it happen. People who have the vision and the ability to make it happen and deliver,” he says.
McGuigan, both the company and the man, are looking at the increasing popularity of lower-alcohol wines. So far McGuigan says he has not been impressed with many of the examples. The company has a carbonated Moscato brand, Vinnie, which McGuigan says delivers on aromatics.
But the next stage for the company is the installation of a new generation spinning cone column which will strip out the alcohol at 40°C rather than at 60°, which will mean fresher, more aromatic and more fruit forward wines.
Trials start this month and McGuigan is hoping to have a new white wine next year. He admits getting it right for a 5.5% abv red wine is more challenging.
“The wine has to be the hero. We have to get the production right.”
McGuigan says their US wines are going well as more Americans seem to be drinking more wine. With some 311 million people, if the population drinks one litre more wine per head, well that’s a lot a wine.
The Australian dollar continues to cause a problem but McGuigan says the Australian wine industry is in good shape. It has kept its costs down and now needs to get back to building brands and gaining distribution.
Secret of success
Asked what the secret of McGuigan’s success is, he says: “Build a brand, get out of cheap bulk wine business, overdeliver at the price point. That is the trick.”
He admits the company sells a lot of wine to the US but not branded. It also sells to China but it is traded. “There is no brand solution as yet. We have to get in with the SOE (state owned enterprise). There is no point in having 600 people in China. We need distribution and we are working on it.”
The UK remains important and McGuigan wines are in most of the major multiple retailers. McGuigan says there is still a lot of volume and there have been a lot of negatives but there are also opportunities.
After a meteoric rise and near-charmed progression, Brand Australia has had a rocky time in recent years. McGuigan admits there was over-optimism and that led to Australian having too many grapes – at the same time as the world having too many grapes. 
The strengthening Australian dollar has exacerbated progress and then there have been all the takeovers and mergers. Along the way, Australia has lost a lot of its personalities.
But McGuigan is adamant: “All Australian wine is quality. It started with easy-to-drink entry-level wines but we have then started looking for refinement and sophistication.” 
Looking for quality at every price plus the opportunities offered by the increasing demand for lower alcohol wines. That is where the world’s greatest winemaker is at the moment. 

This is not a man resting on his laurels. Neil McGuigan is trying to lead his troops to the promised land. Not milk and honey, though. More like wine and money