Julie McIntyre retells the forgotten histories of early Australian winemaking in her book, First Vintage: Wine in colonial New South Wales. Julie shares the stories of our past with Rhiannon Stevens…
Julie McIntyre, has brought the histories of Australian wine to life with her book, First Vintage. Wine in Australia has paralleled the colonisation of the continent with vines, barrels, and bottles travelling to Australia in 1788 with the First Fleet. Julie believes that the history of wine should be told in our national story – yet wine has had a different role as compared to early staple industries like wool, tobacco, grain and mining. “It’s a story about wealthy risk takers, convict workers, German migrant workers, land selectors, confusion over vine varieties; experiments with wine making equipment; phylloxera and much more”.
The idea of a colonial wine industry was primarily driven by a New World vision for a highly civilised, affluent and cultural nation. First Vintage describes when in the nineteenth century, the ruling class wanted create an Australian wine industry that would lead to eventual export income but also as a means to fashion sobriety and cure tempestuous drinking behaviours across the colony!
Wine, as opposed to the preference for beer or spirits offered a lighter alcohol alternative for colonial labourers and at the time was often a cheaper alternative. Yet, comparative consumption during these times shows a distinct preference for the latter. Rich and ambitious colonists held the philosophy that their vineyards and wine would have a civilising influence over the populous; an ambitious notion especially during a time when beer and spirits dominated and rum had even been used as currency. “It wasn’t drinkers driving the need for a wine industry, it was producers.” confirms Julie.
An important part of achieving the vision for colonial wine growing was the supply of cuttings. One key player in this was James Busby. Busby had carefully assembled grape vine stock from across Europe which could provide further cuttings for the wine growing colonists. Busby’s collection was planted at the Sydney Botanic Gardens and at Busby’s sister Catherine Kelman’s property in the Hunter Valley (known as Kirkton). Julie highlights that before Busby returned to England in 1830, he had brokered the distribution of as many as 20,000 vine cuttings across the colony; including to George Wyndham in the Hunter Valley.
By 1832, George Wyndham had a well established vineyard, maintained by convict labour. Some of Wyndham’s ealiest plantings was Hunter River Riesling or as we know it today – Semillon. But this was a time of experimentation, with limited understanding of the science of wine, during a time without modern machinery or reliable equipment. Julie McIntyre believes the biggest change in the industry since these times has been in how little was known about wine production when early colonists first began experimenting. “How amazing to think that these people were making the Hunter Valley’s first wine; trying to create something completely new, from scratch. I imagine that they had a sense of humour about their first attempts at wine making, George Wyndham certainly did”. First Vintage depicts George Wyndham using blankets to keep ferments warm and removing them to cool. There would have been many trials with fermentation along with frustrations with untried grape varieties. Early wine styles imitated those from the old world, borrowing from French and European styles such as Claret, Burgundy, Madeira, and Tokaji.
“In the Hunter, the relationship between wine growing and the land has been unbroken since 1830”. In the 1820’s through to the 1860’s plantings extended to Pokolbin in what we now know as the centrepiece of the Hunter Valley region. Some of the more recognisable names included Joseph Drayton who first planted vines in the late 1850’s; Edward Tyrrell’s first vintage was in 1864; Frederick Wilkinson planted vines in 1866, and John Younie Tulloch joined the wine industry in 1895. In 1847, the Hunter River Vineyard Association inaugurated.
Julie also shares some of the forgotten names and notable characters who assisted in pioneering our Hunter Valley wine industry. For instance Maria Windeyer from Tomago won a certificate for her wine at the 1855 Paris Exhibition, where James King’s Irrawang (near Raymond Terrace) wine was also judged. “James King really was an outrageously competitive figure” remarks Julie, “One of my favourite stories about him is almost impossible to believe, that he had intended to send his Irrawang wine to the 1851 London Exhibition. This was the huge, posh event in the purpose-built Crystal Palace where the wonders of the British Empire were being lavishly showcased for the first time. King was furious that his wine somehow missed the Great Exhibition, and he sold the wine he had planned to send to London. Having a change of heart, he bought it back from the buyer and sent it directly to Queen Victoria’s husband. No mucking about; straight to the top!” This incredible anecdote of early Hunter Valley wine paid off for King, as some time later a royal response arrived in New South Wales declaring Jame King’s wines to be excellent
Other early Hunter Valley winemakers were also recognised for the quality of their wines. In 1867, a wine from George Wyndham’s Dalwood property was awarded a silver medal at the Paris International Exhibition – the highest accolade given to any Australian entrants. Dalwood continued to prove its credentials by being one of the most awarded Australian wineries between the 1860’s and 1880’s. Dalwood was later renamed to Wyndham Estate and the integrity of this heritage asset remains today, just outside of Branxton.
It was these early successes and the efforts of our pioneering families of winemaking that the Hunter Valley owes its title of Australia’s oldest surviving wine region. By the time Maurice O’Shea established operations in the Hunter Valley in the 1920’s, he had inherited a gift from his colonial predecessors of a range of suitable grape varieties for varying success.
“I was very surprised when I began my doctoral research”, says Julie McIntyre, “it is alarming at just how much original material there is to read on early Australian wine history including the Hunter; so much yet to explore.” Julie McIntyre’s book is a refreshing and entertaining window into the remarkable history of wine in Australia. “I’m thrilled to be collaborating with the Hunter Valley Wine Industry Association and Newcastle Museum on a proposal to spend several years specifically researching Hunter wine history. We hope project can go ahead so that we can unearth more yet untold stories”.
This article was published in Hunter Valley Breathe Magazine, Issue 36, Autumn 2013.