John Gladstones wins Maurice O’Shea Award

Dr John Gladstones is a bright-eyed, smiley imp of a man, small of stature but large of intellect. If anybody could claim to be the father of Margaret River as a wine region, he could. He probably wouldn’t, though, because he is a modest man. He was the one who first identified Margaret River as a place with strong potential for producing high-quality table wine. And he is the 2008 winner of the wine industry’s most distinguished accolade, the McWilliam’s Wines Maurice O’Shea Award.

The award recognises Gladstones’ many wine-related achievements during his career in science, which spans five decades. He is a Western Australian scientist with a distinguished career in plant science and breeding. He was working on lupins when he first hit upon the idea of grapegrowing in Margaret River. But it was a visit to a winery in the Swan Valley during his undergraduate years that first stimulated his interest in viticulture and wine.

Back in the early 1950s Gladstones had passed through Margaret River several times and had grown lupins there for one of his trials. He later investigated the Busselton-Margaret River areas’ suitability to vine growing and published two papers in 1965 and ’66 which advocated these regions. This gold-plated tip was swiftly acted upon by a handful of people who have long since found their place in history: Dr Kevin Cullen and his wife Diana were the first to plant (tastings), while Dr Tom Cullity’s vineyard Vasse Felix (tastings) was the first to survive, as Cullen’s initial planting was accidentally poisoned by spraying and then uprooted. The third of a medical trio, Dr Bill Pannell, then planted Moss Wood (tastings). Soon afterwards, David Hohnen of Cape Mentelle (tastings) and others followed suit.

The wines were impressive from the start. Cullen, Vasse Felix and Moss Wood all won major awards in wine shows in the early to mid-1970s. Margaret River wine had arrived with a bang.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Despite coming from an ‘abstemious’ family, John Gladstones developed an interest in wine quite early in his life. While still a university student of agriculture in Perth in the early 1950s, Gladstones happened to accompany a student friend to the Houghton winery in the Swan Valley (tastings). They bought wine and maintained an illicit cellar in their shared luggage locker at the uni. He got to know the legendary Houghton chief winemaker Jack Mann, and after completing his uni course Mann allowed him to use a hectare of land opposite his house to plant lupins for a trial. Lupins, at the time, were widely used as a cover crop between the vine rows. At the same time, the distinguished American viticultural researcher Professor Harold Olmo spent several months in Perth in 1955, on leave from the University of California, during which time his great enthusiasm influenced many people. Olmo investigated southern areas of WA for winegrowing potential and hit upon the Mount Barker area, with the result that trial plantings were established by the WA Agriculture Department at Forest Hill. But Olmo considered Margaret River too wet!

In fact, Gladstones’ investigations, which were no doubt more detailed and leisurely than Olmo’s, led him to think the winter-dominant rainfall of Margaret River was ideal, as it replenished the subsoil moisture levels in time for the growing season and left the growing and ripening seasons relatively dry and attractively disease-free. He also believed the area seemed relatively frost-free, the climate had many similarities to that of Bordeaux (although a touch warmer and drier, which was no disadvantage), and it was home to the marri tree, a local red-gum species, which had long been used as an indicator of ideal grapegrowing environments. A key part of this was that the marri love well-drained ironstone gravel soils, which also happen to be great for wine. Since his youth, Gladstones had also enjoyed the intense flavour and aroma of the stone-fruits grown in the south of the region – much richer than fruit grown in the hot Swan Valley. “And if stone-fruits, why not grapes?” he reasoned.

Gladstones’ next professional involvement with Margaret River came in 1994 when the move to establish Geographic Indications for Australian wine regions kicked off. Gladstones was asked to propose a boundary for the mooted Margaret River wine region. This forced him to think deeply about the pros and cons of parts of the locality, including the Jindong area, which David Hohnen scathingly branded the Entre-Deux-Mers of Margaret River. Gladstones finally decided to be inclusive rather than exclusive, and admit all of the land in the Busselton and Margaret River Shires west of the 115 deg 18’ parallel of longitude. It included all the land between Margaret River township east to the state forest, and included the low-lying, alluvial soils of Jindong and Carbunup to the north. Gladstones reasoned that these areas already had plantings and it made practical sense to include them. He believed the GI needed an area large enough to enable it to create a substantial impact in the wine market. His plan was adopted and is now the official boundary of the wine region.

Subsequently, Gladstones was also asked by a group of local winemakers to investigate possible sub-regional divisions, and although there is no hurry to make a decision on such matters, he came up with six sub-regions, and well-argued justifications for them. His starting-point was the drainage basins of the region’s rivers and creeks. The sub-regions are, running roughly north to south: Carbunup, Yallingup, Wilyabrup, Treeton, Wallcliffe and Karridale. Time will tell if they will ever be adopted.

While the regional name Margaret River is by now established world-wide as a sign of high-quality wine, there’s always a chance that this good, strong name might be eroded if wineries start to use sub-regional names in preference to Margaret River. It could risk confusing the average wine buyer. But, as Gladstones himself has acknowledged in print, sub-regional distinctions in the wines have become increasingly apparent as time has passed. The south, especially Karridale, has proved itself outstanding for white wines, especially chardonnay and the famous semillon-sauvignon blanc blends. The gravelly soils of Wilyabrup have emerged as a source of great cabernet sauvignon.

Perhaps Dr Gladstones’ greatest contribution to wine is his book, “Viticulture and Environment – A Study of the Effects of Environment on Grapegrowing and Wine Qualities With Emphasis on Present and Future Areas for Growing Wine Grapes in Australia” (1992). This has become a classic and is widely referred to. As the O’Shea Award citation said, this book “reviewed all facets of the environment and grapegrowing, examining and explaining the factors which influence both. He concluded that Australia’s coastal or near-coastal areas were the areas with the greatest potential for quality and commercial success.”

Dr Gladstones was presented with the award in front of more than 450 guests at a gala dinner in Sydney on November 12. McWilliam’s Wines chief executive offer, George Wahby, said the award recognised Dr Gladstones’ pioneering research into grapegrowing and the environment… “research that presented the industry with incredible insight into this important partnership.”

The Maurice O’Shea Award honours the memory of legendary McWilliam’s Mount Pleasant winemaker Maurice O’Shea, and is presented to an individual, institute or corporation that has made a historically significant contribution to the Australian wine industry.

Dr Gladstones said he was both astonished and humbled that his work, which had started as little more than a hobby, should have proved successful and ultimately been recognised with the award.

“I’m proud to stand in the company of the award’s previous recipients, and most of all in that of the great Maurice O’Shea,” he said.

Dr Gladstones lives in Western Australia and continues his research into viticulture. He is working on a new book which examines the concept of terroir and possible effects of climate change. Its working title is “Terroir and Climate Change: the Shaping of 21st Century Viticulture”.

First published in Gourmet Traveller Wine – Dec-Jan 2008-2009.

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