1788 to 1820s Australian Grape Vine Stories; A race to the other side of the world Ambitions for a wine industry in New South Wales were caught up in the British Government’s aspirations of expanding trade routes and wealth creation. From 1788 to the 1820s, colonial wine was a cottage industry but the pioneers from Sir Joseph Banks in London to John Macarthur and nurseryman Thomas Shepherd in Sydney believed that Australia could become the France of the Southern Hemisphere. But the first years of settlement were not without political troubles and serious economic challenges.
For many years, I have been living the story of Australianwine through old newspaper articles, diaries, transcripts and books. I have movedforwards and backwards through 250 years of time travel - trying to grapplewith the pastand to makes sense of what we are all about today.
It has become an obsession of sorts and I don’t know quitewhen will ever stop. But I am completely in awe of the story and wonder at thedepth and richness of the Australian wine ambition!
Wine of course is just a fragment of Australia’sextraordinary history, but I had no idea that this journey of research andlearning about the ambitions of our fore-fathers and mothers would reveal somuch about who we are and whatwe stand for as a country.
As a child I was fascinated by the great voyages ofdiscovery, Charles Darwin, natural history and fine art. Funnily enough I wasalso interested in Botany and studied it at school – although it was offered toboys who were generally abit thick and unexceptional
In fact I should say at the outset that I come from an artsrather than a scientific background. My understanding of physics and chemistryis pretty basic. But having gone through Roseworthy Agricultural College inSouth Australia andlived a life completely immersed in wine, I am really very interestedin winemaking and viticulture and understand the concepts extremely well.
But when I started to investigate the transmission of grapevine material to and within Australia Itook more of an artistic journey rather than a precise scientific voyage. Ithasn’t been a straight line and I have always returned back intime to link thedots together.
And what I found was a remarkable history that wascompletely interconnected to the aspirations and scientific enlightenment ofthe 19th Century. For me it was like unlocking a door and finding a cupboardfull of long forgotten hiddentreasures.
The Georgian and Victorian ages were a fascinating period ofinternational expansion and grand ambitions. While I am mindful of the darkside of colonialisation, which in itself is harrowing and difficult toreconcile, we should not writeoff or diminish the achievements - great orsmall – of the people – from all walks of life - who really gave their lives to this expansiveand beautiful country.
Many people will know that Australia possesses hundreds ofacres of very old vines dating back to the 1840s. There are still survivingvines from the 19th Century in New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia andWestern Australia.Considering the events of the last 200 years, it is amazingthat they have survived.
Almost everything has been thrown at these vineyards -drought, bushfires, botanic pandemics, economic slumps, depression, vine pullschemes bad marriages, divorce, family squabbles.
But Grape vines are generally quite hardy except whensubjugated to vandalism or neglect. Although it’s not the oldest vineyard inSouth Australia, that beautiful patch of vines at Gnadenberg in the Barossa’sEden Valley - for me -stands for something so much bigger than generations offamily enterprise. Henschke’s Hill of Grace Shiraz is living proof ofresilience and how we as an industry can build on the efforts and visions of our forefathers.
And it all goes back before Arthur Phillip landed atBotany Bay with his entourage of soldiers and convicts in 1788 to create aconvict settlement.
So, I am going to take you back a little earlier to the1760s and 1770s to give a bit of context.
This was the beginning of the Georgian age – well beforeKing George III fell into a state of madness. It was a time of enlightenmentnot seen since the renaissance 200 years earlier.
Sapere Aude – Dare to Think For your Self – capturedthe mood of the times. It ignited society and propelled the middle classforward at a phenomenal rate.
The Rights of Man – written by Thomas Paine was read by amillion people on both sides of the Atlantic and promoted revolutionarythoughts. The American War of Independence and later the French Revolutionchanged socialstructures but not without extraordinary turbulence, death anddestruction.
These radical thoughts also extended into Great Britainwhich saw a progression of parliamentary and social reforms includinganti-slavery acts.
But that did not stop transportation of convicts or the misery of the poor.
Behind all of this political argy-bargy was an obsession forwealth creation. The discovery of great riches in Africa and the East – Indiaand China particularly fuelled an arms race between the great powers of thetime – particularlyThe Dutch, France, Britain, Spain and Prussia. Behind everyscientific voyage of discovery there was an economic purpose of how new landsand materials could be harnessed.
Empires were built on economic, politicaland military power. And Britain had the most powerful and dominating Navythroughout the period. Not even Napoleon with his continental blockade coulddiminish this maritime strength.
When the explorer Captain James Cook sailed into the Pacificin 1769 to witness the transit of Venus and to find new lands, he took with hima young rich baronet – the botanist Sir Joseph Banks and an entourage ofartists andscientists, including Daniel Solander a protégé of the greatbiologist, zoologist and taxonomist Carl Linnaeus to observe, describe andcatalogue thousands of plant and animal specimens. This was the golden age ofdiscovery andthe linneaen classification system. And the world was opening upto new possibilities and uses for raw materials. When Australia was reached forthe first time by Captain James Cook in 1770 it created great excitement amongthescientific world.
But Sir Joseph Banks was also a mercantilist. Asides fromhis Presidency of the Royal Society, he was a member of the Royal Society ofArts and Manufactures which was established to "embolden enterprise, enlargescience, refineart, improve manufacturing capabilities and extend Britain’s commerce."
This was of course interlinked with ambitions of a British Empireand establishing secure trade routes with India and China.
The foundation of a convict settlement in 1788 was a means to anend but it was not the prime object.
In the late 1780s it was unthinkable that well-heeled Britishfamilies would consider settlement in New South Wales. This strangeinhospitable country promised very little except certain isolation, unbearablehardship and early death.The place really had little attraction except formilitary careerists and general opportunists on the take.
On the other hand - Australia’svast agricultural and mineral resources would become more obvious as a sourceof wealth - with the invention of steam engines and the industrial revolutionwhich was starting to take place in the early1800s.
Although the big picture is endlessly fascinating - I need tobring your minds back to the planning behind the settlement of New South Wales.
The provisioning of the first fleets was meticulously planned.Because sending a large population to the other side of the world was likesending a man or woman to the moon.
Sir Joseph Banks was intimately involved with the provisioning thefirst fleet – which comprised six convict transports, three store ships and twonavy vessels, including the flagship HMS Sirius. All up the first fleetcarried 1300 peopleincluding convicts, marines and various family membersincluding children. The undertaking was enormous.
The vessels were stuffed with supplies including plantmaterial – notably shrubs, vines, citrus, fruit trees, vegetables, grains andseeds. And hemp, flax, rhubarb, tobacco maize and even acorns were providedwith the aim of startingfarms to feed the settlement. Among the supplies alsoincluded a prefabricated Government House, where it was assembled near farmcove – where Australia’s first vitis vinifera grape vines were plantedin 1788.
Historians have long written about the first fleet and its journeyout to New South Wales. And we know that Captain Arthur Phillip brought vinecuttings with him.
Most narratives suggest that vines were only picked up along theway including Rio de Janiero and the Cape Colony. Whether this is the case ofnot, it is certain that vinestock material from England was provisioned veryearly on andpossibly as early as early as the first fleets.
For instance it was reported in December 1790 that 600 vinecuttings from his majesty’s garden were planted at Norfolk Island - a satellitesettlement 1673 kilometres north east of Sydney in the Pacific ocean.
What does this mean? Well it means one hell of a lot! It meansthat Australia’s early vineyards were also based on English grown plantmaterial
His Majesty’s Gardens at Kew – west of London was King GeorgeIII’s - Royal Botanic Gardens and it was the engine room of Georgian economicbotany.
The gardens which comprised the most diverse collection of plantmaterial in the world were enriched by the garden’s superintendent WilliamAiton and his patron Sir Joseph Banks. Amongst the collection was vinestockmaterialincluding black cluster (pinot meunier) and the burgundy grape (PinotNoir).
These were in fact common wall garden type grape varieties andcould be found in many gardens around England. Almost every wealthy landholderhad collections of exotic plants. Walled gardens, arboretums, or hot houses.
Among them was the Earl of Coventry’s Croome Park inWorcestershire – designed by Lancelot Capabilty Brown the great Englishlandscape Gardener and Charles Hamilton’s Painshill Vineyard in Surry whichalso comprised twosorts of Burgundy grape.
It is known that Sir Joseph Banks and his botanist Daniel Solander visited Painshill in 1781. And they would not have returned to London withoutcuttings for the Royal Botanic Gardens.
Theseguys were serial economic botanists after all. So there is a compelling threadthat links this vineyard with the collection at Kew.
So asides from grape vines sourced from Madiera, the CanaryIslands, Rio de Janiero and the Cape, I am in no doubt that England is a source of vinestock material – whether by seed or by cuttings and was carried out by Australia’s earliest settlers.
Other early varieties that came from England included Stillward’sSweetwater – which was named after Mr Stillward from the Barely Mow Tavern nearTurnham Green in England – believe it or not!
The multiple synonyms for grape varieties and selection’shighlight’s the chaos and difficulty of tracking down origins. On the otherhand many of the very early varieties like sweetwater (chasselas), green grape,pontac, chenin blanc,Muscat of Alexandria known as Hanepoot - were sourcedelsewhere – especially the Cape.
There is absolutely no question that grape cuttings were broughtfrom South Africa to Australia on many occasions during the first 50 or 60years of settlement. Sir Joseph Banks sent out one of his gardeners and planthuntersJames Masson to the Cape Colony to hunt for plant material – and hehelped Arthur Phillip and his officers – in procuring more suitableacclimatised plant material including vinestock on their way out to New SouthWales.
Many prominent settlers visited and recorded their visits to Capevineyards - especially the nearby Constantia Vineyard – a popular destinationfor visitors – and a supplier of wine for the St Helena island outpost in theAtlantic - where the exiled Napoleon Boneparteenjoyed its qualities. That property by the way was operated by a slaveworkforce until 1838.
Much of the vinestock that was first brought out to New SouthWales did not flourish and these including Pontac that’s tenturier . As the decades progressed and anorganised Australian wine industry developed the sourcing ofvinestock changed.
Recently the South Australian Vignerons Association celebrated 180years – but it erroneously declared that an 1841 importation of vinestock fromthe cape – kickstarted the Industry. This is probably not the case - thecuttingsarrived too late in the season after a cock up. It is doubtful theyplayed any great part in the establishment of the industry.
Although many early settlers arrived with Cape Colony vinecuttings, they discovered much better material was already in Australia. The Penfolds andReynells especially experienced this after arriving in South Australia.
But perhaps the most lasting successes of South African grape vinematerial in Australia are Semillon and Chenin Blanc – both white grapevarieties known as green grape and steen.
At this time around 93% of plantings in the Cape were actually greengrape or groendruif – also known as semillon.
Although there is a surviving vineyard in the Barossa going backto around 1848 that has semillon. Personally I think it is doubtful and morelikely material from New South Wales.
The story of semillon is particularly romantic. Somewhere in the late 1820s – after1827- Thomas Shepherd - a really important colonial nurseryman from Hackney inLondon. Who almost certainly collaborated with Loddiges Nursery also in Hackney near London, discovered a particularly juicy and richly flavoured grape growing in the back yard of a Pyrmont dwelling near Sydney Harbour.
Delighted with its greenness and health, he pulled out his pocket-knifeand stole some cuttings. This is the vinestock that became known as Shepherd’sRiesling or Hunter River Riesling and now better known as Semillon today.
This genetic material which was first sent to the Hunter Valley by Thomas Shepherd somewhere around 1830 was planted by James King at Irrawang - justas the Hunter Valley was taking off as a wine growing area.
Although those earliest vineyards have not survived because ofneglect or economic reasons, the genetic material has proliferated and HunterValley Semillon is an established and popular wine style. The oldest vineyards –ownedby Tyrrell’s goes back to 1908. But its early story shows that luckplayed a massive part in those early days.
By the way Chenin Blanc proved to be very successful in WesternAustralia and there are 1933 plantings in South Australia – so the SouthAfrican connection still remains. But this was only established in the 1950swhen the varietieswere properly identified
It is quite possible that genetic material of other varietiesstill exist – notably Muscat of Alexandria – which is also known as Hanepoot.This was first brought out apparently by Sir Thomas Brisbane in 1822 – butfrankly this could havebeen much earlier.
But the thing that gets me really excited with Australian vinestock transmission is how so closely it follows political and social events of the times.
When you consider that wine is hardly a British pastime, there was a very early recognition that wine could become a really important part of the colonial economy. Drinking wine was a much safer thing to do than drinking water but even so it took some imagination to see Britain as a nation of wine drinkers
It’s actually quite surprising how much wine did come into New SouthWales during the early days. Traders arrived in Sydney with Cape Wine which waspretty disgusting but at least less ardent than spirits.
And occasionally ships after the end of hostilities with France arrived from Europe with consignments of Bordeaux. Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah wineswere enjoyed in Sydney before either varieties were planted in Australia
But trade was strictly controlled and the East India Company had amonopoly, which really annoyed some of the early protagonists and settlers. Manylandowners and business people flouted these draconian controls and laws.
Among those was the Scot John Macarthur who arrived in Sydney withhis wife Elizabeth in 1790 as a young lieutenant in the New South Wales Corps –the military garrison set up in Sydney and surrounding settlements includingParramatta.
In actual fact he landed up being granted 100 acres of land in1793 near Parramatta and planted a small vineyard. Argumentative and ruthless in ambitions hewas severely disliked by the Government – especially after dueling withhiscommanding officer William Patterson in 1801.
John Macarthur was sent back to England for a court-marshal – and he used that opportunity to promote his ideas of establishing a wool growingenterprise. During that time he met and fell out with Sir Joseph Banks, who bythis timewas New South Wales defacto administrator. This would cause all sortsof problems down the track.
But Macarthur’s fearless energy and energetic ambitions capturedthe attention of Lord Camden – who was the Secretary of State and War in the enlightedWilliam Pitt Government.
And he was granted a large tract of land in a richly fertile areaknown as Cowpastures – some 67 kilometres south west of Sydney. He wasinitially granted 10,000 acres, but this was scaled back to 5,000 acres to put Sir JosephBanks andGovernor King’s unjointed noses back into place.
Asides from bringing back a flock of merino sheep he also broughtgrape vines including grizzly frontignac – a variety that was extensively grownin English wall gardens including Sion House. Camden park – would later becomethecentre of Australia’s 19th Century wool growing merino bloodstock and later the most important vineyard and nursery in the colonies.
But by 1806 the enriched powerful maverick Macarthur was in trouble again with authorities/ particularly Governor William Bligh, a brilliant naval officer, and a protegé of Sir Joseph Banks.
Best remembered for his role in the Mutiny of the Bounty and his remarkable story of survival and navigation skills in an open row boat to Batavia, he was also overly hard-nosed and cold-hearted.
He loathed John Macarthur and everything he. represented. He was keen to end the rampant corruption in the News South Wales Corps which was based on trading monopolies and a bartering system based on the currency of distilled spirits – known broadly as Rum.
From the standards of today John Macarthur was tough and corrupt.He was at the centre of this trade and had managed to accumulate significantwealth at a rapid rate. Despite his visionary energy he was also a gangster-typewhose wealth, power and webof influence protected him – even when the Government came calling for hishead.
When John Macarthur was arrested on the 26h January 1808 for breaching port regulations it triggered off a coup d’état – known today as the Rum Rebellion. Governor Bligh was arrested and John Macarthur was installed ascolonial secretary with Major George Johnston the self-appointed New SouthWales defacto Governor.
The rebellion caused a massive uproar and many people believed themain protagonists would lose their lives for it. When John Macarthur was recalled back to London to account of himself he took with him his Australian born sonsJames and William – so that they could be educated at Rugby School in England.
It took a while to become exonerated but John Macarthur used thistime to secure new patronage and friends. Conveniently Macarthur’s wool growingbusiness was sufficiently large enough to start sending bales of wool back toEngland with great success. The continental blockade highlighted the need foralternative sources for England’s woollen mills.
Among those contacts was Hugh Percy, the 2nd Duke ofNorthumberland – a former General in the British Army whose was an importantfigure in the American War of Independence. He had a great interest inagriculture, woolgrowing and economic botany.
He had actually followed the political fallout from the Rum Rebellion and openly supported its leader Major George Johnston, who served under him during theAmerican War of Independence.
His extensive landscaped gardens around Syon House near the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, were filled with exotic plants and this would further expand with the development of heated glass houses.
In 1815, Just before heading back to Australia - John Macarthur nipped across the Channel with his sons on a mini-grand tour. They headed to Paris and arrived on the same day as Napoleon Bonaparte’s return to power – known as the 100 days – shortly before the Battle of Waterloo.
They actually witnessed the commotion and excitement of Napoleon’s triumphant return to Paris - before heading off down to Burgundy to observe farming practices. But sensing personal danger for his family, he soon after crossed with his sons into Switzerland at Vervey to sit out the political unrest.
After Napoleon’s defeat, they the Macarthur family travelled through the south of France picking up vine cuttings and other plant material to plant out at their property in Camden. A nursery business could be a greatsource of wealthback in New South Wales.
Although the cuttings were fully loaded up into a specially made green house on the convict transport The Lord Eldon, and then taken to New South Wales and planted out at Camden park, the vines proved not to be the same cuttings sourced by the Macarthurs.
The collection had been given to a nurseryman in London, whoobviously stuffed up or some other skull-duggery happened. According to WilliamMacarthur the only new vines to come into Australia in 1817 were Black Hamburghand Black Frontignan.
It’s hard to imagine the disappointment and anger after thisdiscovery was made in 1820 after the vines came into full bearing - but it spurredthem on to support – in fact sponsor - James Busby’s mission to Spain andFrance in theearly 1830s.