He’s one of Australia’s most awarded winemakers, with a family legacy that stretches back to the 1880's. But after a lifetime surrounded by wine, Neil McGuigan is stepping back from the industry he has always been passionate about to concentrate more on the other great love of his life – his family.
The third generation of one of Australia’s most well-known wine families officially stood down from his position as CEO of Australian Vintage Limited (AVL) following the company’s annual general meeting in November 2019.
Neil had spent the past nine years in the top role at one of Australia’s leading wine producers, having been appointed General Manager for Wine Supply in 2004 before taking over as CEO from Brian McGuigan when his older brother had, in his turn, stepped down from the job.
During his tenure, Neil’s immense passion and wine industry knowledge transformed AVL from a bulk wine supplier to a globally-respected producer of quality branded wine. McGuigan is now the second-largest selling wine brand in the UK and home to Australia’s number one branded bottled red wine.
Neil’s resignation effectively means the company, which grew out of the successful McGuigan brand established by Brian, his wife Fay, and Neil in 1992 before being merged with Simeon Wines in 2002 and rebranded as AVL in 2008, is now being led by someone outside of the family for the first time.
But just as Brian never really left the family business – he remained a director of AVL until 2015 – Neil isn’t straying too far from the brand either, taking up a new, and far less time-consuming role, as the company’s Technical Advisor. This will see him consulting with the winemaking team and continuing to forge relationships with customers globally for ten weeks each year.
Neil’s incredible award-winning legacy will also live on through the company, where his winemaking skills saw him recognised at the world’s most prestigious wine shows, setting several global records.
He was named International Winemaker of the Year four times at the International Wine and Spirits Competition in London (2009, 2011, 2012 and 2016) as well as White Winemaker of the Year on four occasions at the International Wine Challenge, which is unprecedented for an Australian producer.
To celebrate his association with the winemaking industry, which officially began in 1978 when he graduated with a degree in oenology but had clearly been in his blood from birth, Neil sat down to answer a few questions about his earliest association with wine, his thoughts on the industry and the legacy of the McGuigan family.
You grew up surrounded by and immersed in the Hunter wine industry – what is your earliest memory associated with wine?
My earliest memory goes back to when I was about four-years-old, and I was put in a 750-gallon cask with my brother Brian to help scrape off Potassium bitartrate. Apparently, I was really good at it, so Brian kept me doing it until I was 19.
Did you always feel as though you were going to become involved in the industry because of your family background – or did you ever consider a different career path?
Williamtown air base is close by, and when I was at school we had dealings with senior management of the air force and I did seriously consider a life as a pilot. However, I can’t handle fast rollercoasters, so flying a jet fighter was probably out of the question.
What is it that you love about the wine industry?
The diversity. You are exposed to agricultural, science, marketing, product innovation, customer and consumer needs. But, of course, at the same time, you must love and respect the product. Wine is such a great beverage – it is a living thing and is also very varied depending on where it’s from around the world. The more you know you suddenly realise there is so much more to learn.
What do you think sets the Hunter Valley apart in terms of Australia's wine-growing and making regions?
The Hunter produces atypical Australian wine. Our Shiraz is more savoury than most Australian regions, for example, and more European in style, which is the reason why Hunter reds perform very well in European wine shows. Hunter Semillons are also unique, not only to Australia but to the world. Our Chardonnays are outstanding and are arguably the reason for the great success of Chardonnay across Australia. The Hunter’s Chardonnay style has evolved over the years, with most producers delivering rich Chardonnays, but now with more elegant and refreshing palates.
We are also open to new varieties such as Verdelho, Vermentino and Tempranillo. We respect tradition, but at the same time, are aware that we need to stay relevant to consumers’ changing tastes.
What do you think is the biggest strength of the Australian wine industry – and its biggest challenge?
The Australian wine industry has two advantages over our world competitors. We are not restrained by tradition and can be innovative with our varieties, regions and blends across Australia.
Secondly, the uniqueness and diversity of our regions. Apart from the obvious differences between Tasmania and WA, just think about a radius of 80kms from Adelaide and think of all the regions covered in that area and how different they are – Barossa, McLaren Vale, Fleurieu Peninsula, Adelaide Hills, Eden Valley and Langhorne Creek. Nowhere else in the world would you see such diversity over such a very small area.
Our biggest challenge is water security. We must drought-proof the Murray Darling Basin not only to protect the wine industry but indeed to protect the food bowl of Australia. It is a national emergency.
You have been much-awarded throughout your career as a winemaker – what is your winemaking philosophy, and how has it changed over the years?
My philosophy hasn’t changed over the years, but hopefully, my ability has improved over time.
My Dad [Perc McGuigan] always told me that as a winemaker all we had to do was to capture in the bottle what was on the vine, which sounds simple. We need to ensure that we have the varietal definition in every bottle we make and have it in a pure and pristine form. The plan is to make clean, fresh, varietal distinctive wines that exhibit persistence of flavour.
You and your family have had an undeniable impact on both the Hunter and Australian wine industries – what would you say is the greatest legacy of the McGuigan family as a whole, and also yourself individually?
As a business, I think we have achieved a number of things. Firstly, we live by two one-liners in our company: ‘Make the wine the hero’ and ‘Over-deliver on quality at every price point’.
What that means is that quality is at the core of everything we do. That quest for excellence has enabled us to win International Winemaker of the Year four times at the IWSC and also International White Winemaker of the Year four times at the IWC, which are two of the most prestigious wine competitions in the world. These awards are unprecedented and I believe have helped the Australian wine industry regain its mojo in the UK, where they are held, and also created a lot of interest in Australian wine globally.
Secondly, our involvement with the consumer worldwide. We make very good wine but, at the same time, we also engage with the consumer to ensure we have a diverse range of wine styles. And, we also strive to ensure that everything we produce is best in class.
Thirdly, making wine inclusive to the consumer and embracing them into the world of wine and taking them on the terrific wine journey that our industry can facilitate. I think we have helped take the stuffiness out of the wine industry.
What are your predictions for the upcoming vintage?
It is going to be a great vintage but not as good as 2021! The season running into the 2020 vintage has been one of the driest on record, and it is quite similar to the season leading into the very good 1980 harvest. However, we have had quite a bit of wind during flowering, which seems to have resulted in lower crop levels than last year.
There is still a long way to go, and anything can happen, but, at this stage, it is looking good. That said, a significant rain event from now to the end of December would be most welcome.
Lastly, you have stepped down from your role as CEO of AVL - what will your new role entail and what will its more limited hours give you time for outside of your work commitments?
I am remaining with AVL as a technical advisor for ten weeks a year, which will mean that I will still be working with our winemaking team and also in the global marketplace identifying key trends and exploring what we can do to capitalise on those opportunities.
Personally, I will be spending more time with Debra, who has been very tolerant of my travelling agenda over the past ten years, and our children Margaux, Matthew and Marnie.
To check out McGuigan Wines further visit the McGuigan Wines website.