The pioneering Blue Mountains explorer Gregory Blaxland was Australia’s first wine exporter – and first award-winner. In March 1822, he shipped to London a “quarter pipe” (about 123 litres) of red wine produced from his Parramatta vineyard. Blaxland added about 10 per cent brandy to ensure a safe arrival. The Old Dart was impressed. The Royal Society of Arts awarded the wine a silver medal, likening it to a light, but agreeable claret that although was: “By no means of superior quality, it affords a reasonable ground of expectation, that by care and time, it may become a valuable article of export.” Prescient words indeed.
That early plantings of vines, however, belied the enduring success to come. The first plantings did not thrive in the sub-tropical clime at Sydney’s Farm Cove, succumbing to black spot disease and mildew. These first cuttings included Constantia (Muscat de Frontignan) and other local Dutch Cape Colony varieties collected by Captain Arthur Phillip’s First Fleet as it rounded the Cape of Good Hope in 1788 on the final leg to Port Jackson. Later that year, Tasmania’s first vines – just nine of them – were planted by Captain Bligh as he anchored the HMAS Bounty in Adventure Bay at Bruny Island. By the time Bligh returned a few years later, none had survived.
Blaxland’s Brush Farm Vineyard at Ermington on the Parramatta River owed its success to the more temperate climate and less sandy soils further inland – and to the early private vignerons who first moved to the area.
German settler Phillip Schaffer was the country’s first, planting in 1791 just an acre at Rose Hill and naming it The Vineyard. A pioneer, but no wordsmith.
So keen at the time was the British Government to promote winemaking in Australia that in 1800, it granted two French prisoners of war their freedom to emigrate here to work the vineyards.
Alas the “natives of Nantes” were no more adept as vignerons as they were as soldiers. Governor King lamented in a missive back to London at the time that although the duo tried to “make wine from some of the best grapes that could be collected, it has turned out so bad that I will not trouble your Lordship with the sample I intended sending”.
The country’s second private vignerons, John and Elizabeth Macarthur, were also merino moguls and among the most influential early farmers. Their Camden Park Vineyard on the Nepean River out west of Sydney initially included rootlings from the Governor’s official collection. Plantings were expanded and upgraded on John and his sons’ return from Europe in 1817 with cuttings from more suitable rootstock, thought to include Syracuse (shiraz), Little Black Cluster (pinot noir) and Miller’s Burgundy (pinot meunier).
During the 1820s, there was an influx of cuttings from overseas: Black Portugal for ports, Muscadelle for muscats, Palomino for sherries and verdelho for Madeira wines. This culminated in the massive Busby Collection of about 365 different varieties that the obsessive viticulturist James Busby amassed from travels through France and Spain, and brought home in 1832 to propagate. None were more special, as recounted in Busby’s 1834 Journal, than the Burgundian varieties from Clos Vougeut: pinot chardonnay and pinot noir and the Rhône varieties from Hermitage, ciras (shiraz), roussette and marsanne.
It was the vine collections of Macarthur and Busby that paved the way for the explosion of better quality vineyards and winemaking throughout the colonies. A beneficiary today is Australia’s oldest surviving vineyard, Dalwood near Branxton in the Hunter Valley, established in 1828, by George Wyndham. Wyndham’s early plantings are thought to have included shiraz and semillon, two of the powerhouse varieties of the Hunter Valley region to this day.
The semillon came from botanist Thomas Shepherd’s 28-acre nursery, located close to what is now Sydney University, near Vine Street, of course. Shepherd had planted about a third of Busby’s vine cuttings there. For a time, Hunter semillon was referred to as Shepherd’s Riesling, later to become Hunter Valley Riesling and finally its proper title, Hunter Semillon.
The diverse, agreeable soils and less humid climate of the Hunter Valley proved an ideal location that has spawned generations of dedicated vignerons.
In its day, for a long time under the care of cellarmaster Perc McGuigan, the Penfolds Dalwood wines were some of the best examples from the region. The 1930 Penfolds Dalwood Claret was, according to boutique Hunter winemaking legend Dr Max Lake, “the best wine I ever tasted”.
Lake claimed this wine inspired him to establish his Lake’s Folly Vineyard at nearby Pokolbin. The first small vintage in 1966 was pressed by bare feet – which included those of Len Evans – accompanied by Lake on the piano to the tune of ‘Zorba the Greek’. Busby himself established the Kirkton Vineyard between Cessnock and Branxton in the Hunter Valley around 1830, first from Macarthurs’ and then his own rootstocks. Kirkton was later bought by the Lindeman family, who then offloaded it to a teetotaller farmer, which unfortunately sealed its fate. The name Kirkton lived on for a while in the popular Lindeman’s Kirkton Chablis.
But even before Victoria, South Australia and Western Australia began their winemaking adventures, Tasmania – or Van Diemen’s Land as it was then known – was making and even sending its own wines overseas.
Tasmania’s first commercial vineyard was at Prospect Farm in New Town along Hobart’s Derwent River, established in the 1820s by embezzling ex-convict Bartholomew Broughton. His love for other people’s money was only matched by his love for making fine wine.
Broughton was not only the Isle’s first commercial vigneron, but the country’s first sparkling-styled winemaker: his 1826 vintage was marketed as “made in the imitation of Champaigne”. The wine was a success: one of the earliest recorded colonial tasting notes, from 1827 in Hobart’s Colonial Times, pronounced it: “Very little inferior to Champaigne; and have recommended him to distribute the produce … throughout the two Colonies, and in England.” And Bartholomew did just that, sending samples overseas to the other Little Isle.
Australian wine was climbing the steps onto the world stage and – along with gold – the grape rush was on.
Wines to Try
Lindeman’s Gentleman’s Collection Red Blend, South Eastern Australia
Like Blaxland’s 1822 blend, this red blend has a dash of fortified. Dr Lindeman started his own winery in 1843 in the Hunter Valley, setting his sights “on civilising a colony of hard-drinking ruffians” through the enjoyment of a “refined drop”. The vineyard is on the homeland of the Wonnarua and Geawegal people.
2019 Dalwood Estate Estate Grown Shiraz, Hunter Valley, and 2020 Dalwood Estate Estate Grown Semillon, Hunter Valley
These classic Hunter Valley varieties were among the first planted at the Dalwood vineyard back in the 1830s. Dalwood Estate is on the home of the Wonnarua people.
2020 Bruny Island Wine Schönburger, Tasmania
The Schönburger cultivar is a cross-breed of three varieties that Busby brought back to Australia in the 1830s: pinot noir, chasselas and black muscat. Bruny Island winery is on the homeland of the Nuenonne people.
2002 House of Arras EJ Carr Late Disgorged, Tasmania
This is also made in the “imitation of Champaigne” and was crowned World’s Best in London in 2015. The House of Arras cellar door in Pipers River, Tasmania, is on the homeland of the Pyemmairrener people.
Seppeltsfield 1922 Para Vintage Tawny, Barossa Valley
Made up of red varieties, this vintage marks the 100th anniversary of the first shipment of Australian wines overseas. Seppeltsfield is on the homeland of the Peramangk, Ngadjuri and Kaurna people.