‘Nostalgia, boy,’ says Peter McMahon as we drive down the main street of Lilydale. ‘Nostalgia.’
It’s late 1998, and the doctor-turned winemaker is taking me on a tour of the Yarra Valley. I’m writing a book about wine in the region and Pete’s the perfect tour guide. Not only was he part of the new wave of vignerons who set up here in the late 1960s and 70s when he planted Seville Estate vineyard, but he also has direct connections to the first wave of winemakers who planted vines here a hundred years before.
We drive past the place where Pete’s father established a group medical practice in the 1940s; where Pete and three other GPs – including his friend and wine sparring partner, Dr John Middleton – worked from the early 50s to the early 80s.
He points out an olive tree near the service station where a 19th century wine tavern used to be – ‘My father used buy sherry there,’ he says – a cork tree near the railway station, the sites of the old Towers and Cooring Yering vineyards. We drive up behind the McDonald’s, to the area known as Deschamps Hill, originally named after early Swiss winegrowers who had a vineyard here, now covered in streets and houses. Pete had a few vines here, too, in the late-1960s, planted in the backyard of the house where he lived with his wife Margaret. And made a few bottles of experimental wine from those vines.
‘I always knew about the early history of wine in the Yarra,’ Pete tells me. ‘The de Pury family (of Yeringberg vineyard, established in 1863) were patients of mine. So was Simon Fraser, the last manager of Yeringberg; it was pulled out in 1922. Once, he and I drove around like we’re doing now, and mapped out the vineyards of the valley last century.’
We pull up outside a house where John Middleton also planted vines in his garden, in the late 1950s, when the two doctors were falling in love with wine. John would go on to establish one of the other most important 1970s Yarra wineries, Mount Mary.
There’s a vine still growing up over the back fence of the house. Pete looks at the leaves. Thinks it might be merlot.
‘We had some parties in there, boy,’ he says, eyes twinkling.
‘One of the things I loved about Pete,’ says grandson Dylan McMahon, ‘was his sense of humour.’
Now it’s mid-winter 2022 and I’m sitting in the bright modern cellar door at Seville Estate, talking to Dylan about the history of the vineyard. It’s half a century since the McMahons first planted vines here.
Dylan pours a splash of pinot noir into my glass, and the liquid flashes garnet.
‘I was scared of him when I was first growing up,’ says Dylan. ‘He had this pretty amazing presence in the room. As a young kid it was quite daunting. But he also loved taking the mickey out of everybody, which made you realise that, oh, there’s a softness here about this person, he’s not taking himself too seriously.’
Dylan hands over one of Pete’s old medical diaries from the 1960s. It’s full of his grandfather’s almost illegible GP handwriting, detailing the early attempts at home winemaking, in his cellar under the house on Deschamps Hill.
‘He was well connected with some of the little vineyards kicking around at that time,’ says Dylan. ‘He was buying some of that fruit or going into the market and buying boxes of grapes. And then he would, you know, try to make some wine out of them in his sink and whatever vessels he could get his hands on.’
The first few entries are from early 1964. Pete writes about the chasselas and hermitage (shiraz) grapes he’s bought from an Italian farmer named Reghenzani, a patient, who had an acre of vines and made his own wine for home consumption down in the southern part of the valley near Seville. He writes about some white muscat grapes, too: it’s hard to tell from the writing, but Pete says these were ‘picked’, so they these may have been the vines growing in his backyard in Lilydale.
‘Then he does this quite extensive journal entry,’ says Dylan. ‘Months of meticulous writing, all the detail about his winemaking. And, at the very end: “Wine buggered. 6 bottles of vinegar. Poured down sink”.’
Pete soon got the hang of it. In the mid-60s, he and John Middleton and others established the Lilydale Wine Show, and convinced prominent Melbourne wine merchant Doug Seabrook to come out and judge the amateur efforts of these wannabe vignerons. The tasting was held on the site of George McGowan’s old cider factory at Olinda Park – followed, no doubt, by a long lunch.
When Pete wins the Yering award ‘for local resident’s wine’ at the show with his home-grown chasselas, the pride is palpable: his diary entry is written in large clear capital letters, with lots of exclamation marks, and he has pasted in a news clipping about the award from the local paper. But when he records that his shiraz mataro, made from Reghanzani grapes, comes ‘second to John’s cabernet’, you can almost feel the seething sense of competition in the spidery handwriting.
‘They always tried to have a step up from each other,’ says Dylan. ‘It was that competitive thing.’
Pete McMahon and John Middleton were notorious for playing practical jokes on each other. Wine writer and fellow Yarra Valley vigneron James Halliday knew the two men well and tells a story of John – or perhaps it was Pete – hiding fish carcases and lobsters in the engine compartment of the other’s car.
‘The smell, of course, gradually became really terrible,’ says James. ‘Finally, the carcases were discovered, and as payback, Pete – or it could have been John – tied a big block of concrete onto the rear axle of the other’s car, hidden from view, so the car wouldn’t move when he put it into gear.’
In 1982 the Lilydale & Yarra Valley Express interviewed Pete and John about their retirement from medical practice to concentrate on their Seville Estate and Mount Mary vineyards. The article mentions the ‘good-natured competitiveness between the two men’ and ends with a typical quote from Pete: ‘“I planted vines just to stir John,” said Dr McMahon with a laugh.’
Pete wasn’t just hamming it up for the reporter. In his winemaking diaries, he writes about an early batch of Seville Estate riesling that was so bad he decided to get rid of the lot.
‘Took it to the tip,’ he writes. ‘Told the tip attendant it was from Mount Mary.’
In December 1971, Pete and Marg McMahon paid $26,000 for 10 acres of land just outside Seville. According to one of Pete’s diaries, Alec Reghanzani ploughed the land and helped with drainage and fencing. And the following year, the McMahons stuck 1,000-or-so vines in the ground, the first planting of what would eventually become 8 hectares of vines. The varieties are listed in the diary: chardonnay, riesling, shiraz, pinot noir and cabernet sauvignon.
‘Pete loved everything about wine and so he wanted to plant everything,’ says Dylan. ‘Riesling because he loved German rieslings. Shiraz because he loved northern Rhone. He wanted to make left bank Bordeaux blends, he wanted to make burgundy. He wanted it all, so he basically planted it all to see what worked and what didn’t. And remarkably, they all worked.’
In 1998 I asked Pete why he decided to take the plunge and become a ‘proper’ Yarra Valley vigneron – as opposed to a backyard hobbyist.
‘By 1970,’ he told me, ‘Graeme Miller (at Chateau Yarrinya), Fergie (Peter Fergusson) and Bailey (Carrodus at Yarra Yering) had all established vineyards that were commercially oriented. This made us (Pete, and John Middleton) realise we could get out of medicine. And the wines were getting a lot of accolades, which gives you a bit of hype.’
Guill and Katherine de Pury were also putting vines back in at Yeringberg around this time. Katherine remembers their wines were attracting a lot of attention, without the vignerons doing any promotion.
‘There was no publicity or advertising, nothing of that sort,’ she says. ‘We didn’t have those skills, anyway. But we didn’t have to: the press came to us. It made a good story to have all these resurrected vineyards and all this wine from this well-known old historical area.’
But why did Pete and Marg choose to plant in the cooler, red soil country, miles from where those other new vineyards were – and where the major 19th century vineyards like Yeringberg once were – near Healesville and Coldstream?
‘Pete talked about it as a necessity rather than anything else,’ says Dylan. ‘He wanted to plant grapes in that Coldstream area, but he didn’t have the money, so he had to venture further out. It would have been a gutsy move, to come out here, which was cooler than Coldstream, higher rainfall, less likely to ripen the varieties that everyone was planting, like cabernet.
‘Then when they stumbled on this place, I think it was Marg that basically looked at that view,’ he points at the window behind him, ‘and said, “This is it”. So, it’s more a testament to Margaret for the site selection. Pete probably liked to think that it was him and take praise for it. But we all know that Marg was actually the mastermind of a lot of things that happened in those early years.’
What also sets this cooler, wetter area of the valley apart is its deep red soils. Dylan says that his grandfather was attracted to those soils – they are a striking feature of the landscape as you drive or walk through it – but was nervous about them. Conventional viticultural wisdom is that, when it comes to growing grapes, the poorer the soils, the better. Would Seville be too fertile, too rich?
‘The beauty of the land was the soils,’ said Pete. ‘But there was no 19th century history of vines in the red soils that I knew of.’
It was only after he planted that Pete learned there was indeed once a major vineyard and winery in the southern part of the valley, where the soils turn from grey to red. Called Chateau d’Yves, it was established in 1897 by Auguste de Bavay, the Belgian chemist who had famously helped the American Foster brothers make their new-fangled lager beer a success.
‘This gave us heart that Seville Estate could work.’
In 1983, Pete McMahon took on a young winemaking student, Alastair Butt, to help him out at Seville Estate.
‘My parents knew the McMahons and the Middletons and the de Purys,’ says Alastair. ‘One of my first holiday jobs was chopping out thistles on the flats at Mount Mary.’
Alastair says Pete took him on because Marg’s health wasn’t good, and the vineyard was beginning to get on top of him.
‘We got on really well,’ says Alastair. ‘Pete had very high standards – you always felt he was watching over your shoulder – but I helped introduce some things I’d learned from Uni, like proper analysis of wine. I was young and enthusiastic.’
The wines Pete and Alastair made in the 80s and 90s cemented Seville Estate’s reputation. One of my earliest ‘a-ha’ moments as a young newbie in the wine world was tasting the 1985 shiraz, a wine with amazing seductive complexity – ‘That was a ripper of a year,’ says Alastair – and I was far from alone in being seduced by the bottles emerging from these red soils.
James Halliday remembers tasting pinot noirs in the 1980s from Seville Estate as well as Mount Mary and Yarra Yering and being completely seduced. So seduced, in fact, that a couple of years later he left Sydney, where he had helped found leading Hunter Valley, Brokenwood, and established his own Yarra vineyard, Coldstream Hills.
‘John Beeston (a partner in Brokenwood) had come down to Melbourne, found his way to the Yarra Valley and come back with these bottles of pinot noir,’ says James. ‘It was really quite a moment in my life. I was absolutely astonished at what I regarded as their varietal typicity. A whole new world opened out.’
The Brokenwood connection came full circle in 1997 when the Hunter winery became the majority shareholder in Seville Estate. Brokenwood took full control a couple of years later, expanding the vineyard, re-designing the labels, and introducing new wines to the range made from bought-in fruit.
‘At that stage Pete was getting older,’ says Alastair. ‘He loved Seville, it was his passion, but he used to complain about not being as young as once was.’
Just after Brokenwood bought into Seville, I visited the winery on one of those beautiful mid-winter days the Yarra Valley does so well: clear blue skies but freezing. Alastair eased a bung out of a barrel and poured a splash of bold new purple wine into my glass.
The wine was the 1997 shiraz. Raw, barely-finished-fermenting, it was something else, something truly thrilling. As I wrote at the time, ‘the flavours – of white pepper, spice, black cherry – leapt over themselves to get into my mouth and nostrils’.
‘I still remember that moment,’ says Alastair a quarter century later. ‘There was a patch of sunshine that used to come in the corner window. It caught the wine and made it glow. It was the first time I’d tasted it properly since vintage. When you’re in the middle of harvest, you’re so busy you don’t often think about how the wines are going to turn out. But when we were making the shiraz, I thought: “This one’s going to be good”. And it was. We made good pinot from that year too.’
Dylan says he often bumps into winemakers who tell him it was tasting Seville wines from the 1980s or 90s that inspired them to plant a vineyard in the cooler regions of the Mornington Peninsula or Gippsland.
‘They’re wonderful stories to hear,’ he says. ‘Now, of course, a lot of people are in those regions. But Pete was the one that actually took the risk and set the benchmark.’
Leading Gippsland winemaker Marcus Satchell is one of those people. Satchy was working in the Yarra Valley in the late 1990s when he tried the 1997 Seville shiraz at a tasting I’d organised for my book research. It was a pivotal moment, he tells me, that set him on the path to where he is today.
‘I tasted it and went, Holy shit, what is that?”. ‘I’d grown up drinking (warm climate) Penfolds shiraz and Wynns shiraz, so my head exploded, and light bulbs came on everywhere. And I just thought, Okay, now I’m home. You know? Like, I get it.’
Seville Estate gradually became a magnet for Dylan McMahon, too, in the late 90s.
As a kid, Dylan had been roped into picking grapes at his grandparents’ vineyard during vintage; he’d manage a couple of hours and then go inside and be fed ice cream and treats. In his mid-teens, Dylan and his cousin Charlie would work on harvest days, racing around on a little Suzuki ute, picking up heavy buckets of grapes and taking them back to the winery, ruining their backs but earning a bit of money. It was fun, he says, but it didn’t inspire any ambition to get into the wine industry. Instead, when he left school, he got into a course to do electronic engineering and deferred for a year, to travel. Then, when the money began to run out, around harvest time, he approached Alastair Butt at Seville Estate.
‘Dylan came to me and said, can I come and work vintage with you?’ remembers Alastair. ‘So, he became my assistant winemaker, helped out in the vineyard, did a vintage at Brokenwood.’
‘I thought, this is great,’ says Dylan. ‘As a winemaker you’re doing all types of things, going out picking fruit, coming in getting your hands dirty, stomping, jumping into vats. And there seemed to be this work-hard-play-hard type of ethic that resonated with me. So I ended up switching degrees and switching careers.’
Pete was still involved with Seville at the time. Dylan has memories of his grandfather standing over his shoulder, watching him clean a drain or wind up a hose, telling him that’s not the correct way to do it.
‘My first impressions of working with Pete were diabolical,’ says Dylan. ‘I just thought, this man’s a lunatic. Little did I know that he was actually trying to teach me about attention to detail. Back then, I didn’t give a shit about attention to detail. I was trying to get the job done.’
Pete may have been a hard taskmaster, but he also supported his grandson in unexpected ways.
‘The wine industry can be very intimidating as a young kid,’ says Dylan. ‘Seeing all these old guys tasting wines blind and trying to guess what they are. This happened once, at a Viticultural Society meeting. Pete just turned to me and whispered, “Don’t worry about it. At the end of the day, wine’s just a drink”. That taught me a lot about enjoyment in this industry. If you’re not enjoying something that you’re doing, you’re not going to put the energy and time into it.’
Dylan learned fast, and by 2004, became Seville Estate’s winemaker after Alastair Butt left to start something else. There were a few bumpy vintages after that, he says, but from 2008, he started to feel comfortable in the role.
‘I realised that attention to detail actually does make a difference,’ he says. ‘Cleaning things properly does make a difference. Getting picking days right does make a difference. It was one of those things where you had to make some mistakes on your own to really understand what’s going on.’
By 2008, Seville Estate had changed hands again, after Brokenwood sold the business to a wine-loving Brisbane couple, Graham and Margaret Van Der Meulen. The new owners brought back the old label design and re-focused on the estate vineyards, investing in the winery and building a new cellar door and restaurant.
Dylan was also developing strong relationships with other young winemakers in the region. They would get together often, taste each other’s wines, and question the prevailing trend at the time for picking grapes as ripe as possible, chasing ‘bigger’ flavours and fuller body – especially as the older Yarra wines they all revered were lighter and more elegant. So, they started picking earlier, and discovered the fresher acidity and more detailed flavours in the grapes produced much better wines.
‘I thought, God, I understood exactly what Pete was talking about all those years ago,’ says Dylan. ‘That gave me a lot of confidence to change direction. I felt I knew a little bit more, that I was doing the right thing.’
The search for finesse also inspired Dylan to make a special batch of shiraz in 2010, as a tribute to Pete, to be released a couple of years later to coincide with the 40th anniversary of the vineyard. Dylan says he wanted to make a wine that expressed Pete’s attention to detail – but in a way that would also gently take the mickey out of his grandfather.
‘Making it the most absurd way seemed appropriate,’ he says, smiling. ‘Hand-picked, and then 100 per cent whole bunches, hand-loaded into barrels for fermentation. All techniques he would have hated.’
Dylan let the wine ferment naturally, too, using wild yeasts, which Pete, being a GP and understanding the microbiology, would have considered ‘the devil’s work’. He knew his grandfather would disapprove of all this, so Dylan kept the wine secret. But eventually, once it was safely in bottle, he showed it to Pete.
‘And he loved it,’ says Dylan. ‘Then I told him how it was made. And his eyes were wide open, and he thought it was extraordinary. But I think the biggest thing that touched him was the fact that we named the wine after him.’
The 2010 Dr McMahon Shiraz was launched in 2012, at the 40th anniversary celebration dinner in the winery restaurant. I remember tasting it that night and feeling much the same as I did when I tasted that unforgettable 1997 shiraz: it was – still is – a remarkable drink, sturdy, sinewy and spicy, with a long, lingering finish.
Margaret had passed away the year before and Pete was looking frail that night, every bit his 87 years. But he was in fine form. The gathering of friends and family and supporters of Seville Estate clearly made him happy: he was chuffed and twinkling, recalling the early days, making jokes.
Eighteen months later, Dr Pete McMahon, GP-turned vigneron, died.
‘It was really special to be able to show him that tribute wine before he left us,’ says Dylan.
In 2018, Dylan picked up the phone and heard the voice of James Halliday, informing him that Seville Estate was going to be named Winery of the Year in the next Halliday wine guide.
‘Well, obviously, I was ecstatic,’ says Dylan. ‘But I was completely surprised. I didn’t know if I was being pranked: whether it was in fact James on the phone. But it was. Which was pretty remarkable.’
James explains what it was about the Seville wines – particularly the shiraz – that particularly impressed him.
‘It’s the brightness,’ he says. ‘The length of flavour. The subdued but terribly important role that tannins play in the overall balancing structure of the wine. The vivid nature of the aromas and flavours mean you don’t have to work on a glass of shiraz from that vineyard to start smiling.’
For Dylan, this award was a testament to the ‘gutsy move’ that Pete and Marg made in choosing the site in 1971, and all the hard work that had gone into it over the decades. For the current owner, Yiping Wang, who had bought the business a year before, the accolade was also a huge vindication.
And it encouraged Dylan to make another tribute wine in 2020, to honour his grandfather’s vision. This time he chose pinot noir, because as much as the shiraz became the prime focus at Seville Estate over the years, the pinot always held a special place in the older winemaker’s heart.
Pete wrote with particular pride in his diary about his second vintage of pinot noir, the 1977. It was tasted in 1984 by the winemaker from leading Burgundian negociant, Louis Jadot, who pronounced it a ‘lovely wine’. And when he drank his last bottle in 1989, Pete gave it his highest praise possible: ‘excellent booze’. He felt it showed the true potential of the vineyard.
‘We had the thought of making it with 100 per cent whole bunches again,’ says Dylan. ‘And I knew Pete would be slapping me over the back of the head if we did, so, you know, we thought that was perfect: we’ve got to do it. Anything to take the mickey out of Pete.’
In 1998, the end of my tour of the Yarra Valley finishes back at Seville Estate, where Pete opens a couple of his older bottles, including a fabulous cabernet from the ‘ripper’ 1985 vintage. As we sniff and sip and savour the earthy, undergrowthy characters of the wine and reflect on all the history we’ve just driven past, I ask him whether he ever thinks about his legacy.
‘The thing you look back on,’ says Pete, ‘is that you and your friends showed the wine industry that there were other places in Australia to grow grapes, not just the warmer climate areas. The production of high-quality wines proved that cool climate is really the way to go.’
Twenty-four years later, in 2022, on a crisp winter’s day at Seville, Dylan opens another well-cellared cabernet, the 1991, to share with me and the estate team: winemaker Jarrod Johnson, vineyard manager Chris Beard and sales and marketing manager, Samantha Isherwood. As we all sniff and sip and savour the old wine’s elegant, undergrowthy characters, Dylan reads notes about the vintage and winemaking from one of the old diaries – or, as Dylan calls it, ‘reading from The Book of Pete’.
‘“Due to the prolonged hot dry conditions, practically no rain, excellent, small fruit, high sugars, high acid. Picked 19th March.” That’s remarkable, to be picking cabernet on the 19th of March. Must have been very dry year. And ‘91 was considered a great vintage, a benchmark for the Yarra Valley. Pretty classic. Thank you, Book of Pete.’
I take a sip of the old wine and ask Dylan about his legacy. He’s quick to shift the focus away from himself, referring instead to the others involved in the business.
‘The quality of the wines and the success of Seville Estate is a team effort,’ he says. ‘And we’ve got the best team that Seville has ever had at the moment. Everyone’s really passionate and shares the same vision for making the best wines that we can from this site. The idea that there’s only one person at the centre of it all – for me, that’s bullshit. If you surround yourself with really good people, good things will come out of it.’
He talks about all the work the team are doing in the vineyard, taking cuttings from the original vines, grafting them onto rootstocks to ensure the style and quality of the wines is maintained.
‘The big focus will be on the vineyard for the next ten years, to ensure the longevity of Seville Estate,’ says Dylan, ‘And I’d hope that in 50 years’ time, people are talking about what we’re doing here now.’
Max Allen is an award-winning author and journalist. He is wine and drinks columnist for the Australian Financial Review, contributor to JancisRobinson.com, and honorary fellow in history at the University of Melbourne. His book, Intoxicating: Ten drinks that shaped Australia, is published by Thames and Hudson.