Wine Conversations by Andrew Caillard

Grapevine Stories - Part 2 - Convictions & Transportation

Episode Summary

1820s to 1855 Australian Grape Vine Stories; Convictions and transportation There were many new importations of vitis vinifera during the 1820s to 1855. The most famous was the remarkable collection of grape vines imported into New South Wales by James Busby in 1832. William Macarthur of Camden Nurseries becomes a highly influential figure supplying many of Australia’s earliest pioneers with vine stock material for planting in the Australian colonies. This was also the dawn of the steam age, the beginning of the gold rush (1851) and the Universal Exhibition in Paris (1855).

Episode Transcription

During the 1820s the explorer and wealthy English settler Gregory Blaxland wasmaking wine at Brush Farm. He rather unpopular cantankerous, entitled and untrustworthy individual who eventually committed suicide.

But during this time  - on two occasions - he sent samples of his wines back to England where his Brush Farm Claret –actually made from little black cluster – or pinot noir were awarded silver and gold medals by the Royals Society of Arts in 1823 and 1828.

The wines had been fortified with 10% French Brandy to preserve the wines on their long voyage to England, and they were the first international medals ever awarded to Australian wine.

An important early wine figure in New South Wales was a scot called James Busby who arrived in Sydney in 1824 with his dad who had been appointed mineral surveyor of New South Wales.

Some people suggest that it was James Busby who lobbied for his father – a very respected engineer – associated with the likes of Robert Stevenson, the famous lighthouse builder, Thomas Telford and George Rennie.

While travelling out by ship he wrote a “Treatise on the Culture of the Vine and the Art of Winemaking.” This work was really just a translation of a work by Jean Antoine Chaptal and completely irrelevant to Australian conditions.

The book caused a local uproar in Sydney because it was deemed as being a rather arrogant thing to do. But after working as the farm manager at the Male Orphans School in Parramatta where he also taught viticulture – Busby went back to Europe to find a new more lucrative position.

On his was back he stopped off in Spain and France where he collected one of the greatest 19th Century collections of grape vine material in the world. According to some reports he took with him ten gallons of New South Wales wines from the 1829 and 1830 vintage.

He was also partly sponsored by the Macarthur Family which explains why duplicates of his collection were planted out at Camden.

This story is well known by Australian wine people but of course this is not so well known by outsiders. James Busby picked up 437 varieties from the Montpellier Botanical Gardens and 133 varieties from the French national collection in Paris.

Through his Macarthur connection James Busby also picked up 44 cuttings from the Percy Family – The Duke of Northumberland – at Syon House in London. The figures are not necessarily accurate but by all accounts roughly between 334 and 362 cuttings arrived healthy and alive.

The collection comprised not three but four parts

First James Busby’s Private Collection which was planted out at Kirkton in the Hunter Valley, Sydney’s Botanic Gardens, and the Macarthur Family’s Camden park. This presumably also comprised vine stock from the Duke of Northumberland’s Syon House.

The Montpellier or Principle collection which was transferred to Sydney’s Botanic Gardens

The Luxembourg Collection – which was known as a supplementary selection

The fourth part – was a collection of cuttings from Jerez and Malaga in the South of Spain. But these all perished on the voyage to New South Wales.

Nonetheless according to James Busby he secured the best varieties available at the time from the best wine districts of France and Spain.

This included crucially shiraz cuttings from the Hill of Hermitage and pinot noir cuttings from the Clos Vougeot.  He also brought out mataro, grenache, carignan and dolcetto, pinot gris, pinot blanc. He certainly brought cuttings from champagne and it is certain his pinot blanc – was chardonnay which I will explain later.

Soon after James Busby returned to New South Wales he was appointed New Zealand’s first resident – the equivalent of a Governor’s role. His involvement with the Australian wine industry faded from then on but he enjoyed a stellar career in New Zealand.

While James Busby’s collection forms a crucial foundation of Australian wine, in my view the Macarthurs played a much bigger and more profound role in establishing a colonial wine industry.

Despite the early excitement the Sydney’s Botanic Garden Collections did not prevail. If it wasn’t for duplicate collections at Kirkton and Camden Park, our vinestock history might be completely different. Although it should be pointed out that some settlers did secure cuttings from the Botanic Gardens and these included John Pascoe Fawkner in the Port Phillip District

By the 1830s the Macarthur family were rich powerful and well-established. John Macarthur. Was now going insane and his sons took over the farming and business enterprises.

Brothers James – who eventually married - and William Macarthur – a bachelor all of his life - were inseparable friends and lived at their 5000-acre Camden Park south of Sydney. Asides from their wool growing activities, they also established a vineyard and a nursery comprising grape vines, plant material and ornamental trees.

William Macarthur – later Sir William Macarthur was particularly energetic and was the most influential expert on vinestock material.

He was a marvellous man of extraordinary generosity and vision. He was a horticulturist of immense wealth and scope. Although based in Australia he was well known all around the world for his extraordinary energy and interest in plants especially grape vines.

As the steam age progressed and travel and postal correspondence became more frequent and safer Macarthur became acquainted with the great scientists of the day including Charles Darwin and Sir Joseph Hooker.

And any notable visitors to Sydney would visit Camden Park. These included the great botanical illustrator and traveller Marianne North. You can still see her camden paintings along with hundreds of other botanical landscapes from around the world at Kew Gardens. 

The Camden nurseries became the engine room of vinestock transmission from the late 1830s onwards. Many of the great early vineyards were stocked with Camden vines – including Yering Station in the Yarra Valley, Joseph Gilbert and Reynella in South Australia.

The failure of some Busby imported material – because of miscataloguing, neglect or availability was something of concern by the mid 1830s – although cabernet sauvignon – catalogue no 55 – was a part of the 1832 importation.

William Macarthur was sufficiently motivated to order new vinestock material around 1836 and it arrived in 1837 – perhaps using Wardian cases to ensure safe passage from Bordeaux. Given that the import material was accompanied by Didier Numa Joubert – an employee of Barton and Guestier, this consignment could have comprised rooted vines.

Didier Numa Joubert was an interesting character and quite entrepreneurial. And he also stayed in Sydney. In fact he was the first person in Australia to use the daguerro type camera. He also became a property developer and with his brother developed the Hunter’s Hill enclave in Sydney with its magnificent 19th Century mansions.

This 1837 imported vinestock material of cabernet sauvignon, malbec, Petit Verdot, sauvignon cendre and semillon were crucial imports as was riesling which was brought from the Rheingau in 1838 - again at the behest of William Macarthur.

During this time he also. sponsored families of vines dressers – or vineyard workers – from the Rhine Valley to settle an work at Camden. This was arranged by William Macarthur’s brother – Edward who was living in London. The descendants of these families still live in Australia.

So now there is a picture emerging by the 1840s of more sophisticated ambitions.  The varieties talked about during the 1830s – like sweetwater, small black cluster, black frontignan, verdelho were now supplemented with varieties - better suited to Australian conditions.

Early settlers found it difficult to adapt to the contrasting seasons in the Southern Hemisphere, but as the years progressed landowners better understood their ground and vineyard techniques. Acclimatised vinestock is used frequently in advertising material showing the view-point that home grown cuttings were better than imports.

The trade in vinestock material became a massive business during the 1830s and 1840s. And the Camden Nurseries were at the centre of this trade – selling trees and plant material for those fine houses on Sydney Harbour and grand properties in the country.

William Macarthur had a special interest in viticulture and started writing a column called “letters from Maro.” which was syndicated through various newspaper titles around the Australian colonies.

For those with a classics background – you will note the name Maro refers to the Roman poet Publius Vergilius Maro – or Virgil.

When Macarthur planted his vineyard at Camden he planted it using the quincunx system or diamond shaped pattern – promoted by Virgil.

MacArthur recommended 19 grape varieties and of course all of these could be obtained from Camden. They included

Sauvignon blanc
Shiraz – which was the Australian corruption of Syrah
Cabernet Sauvignon  - which was carbonet
Mataro – netter known a mourvedre in Europe
Petit Verdot
Pinot Noir

The majority of these formed the core of Australia’s fine wine plantings over the next 120 years.

William MacArthur, with the help of his vine dressers and gardeners at Camden Nurseries established the most important grape vine nursery in the Australian colonies. It was known that it comprised the best plant material available.

And although there were other imports of vinestock material and other nurseries like Thomas Shepherd’s Darlington Nurseries, many of the avenues of enquiry lead back to the Macarthurs Camden Nurseries. It wasn’t a monopoly but the connections between William Macarthur and many early settlers were profound.

After the colonies of South Australia (1836) and the Port Phillip District (1842) were established William Macarthur’s nursery business flourished.

Camden Nurseries supplied many early vignerons – including The Penfolds, The Reynells, the Gilberts and Smiths in South Australia and the Ryrie Brothers at Yering Station in the Port Phillip District’s Yarra Valley in present day Victoria.

As the colonies developed Macarthur entered commercial agreements with other nurserymen including John Bailey and George Stevenson in Adelaide and John Pascoe Fawkner – at Pascoe Vale near Melbourne. Camden Nurseries supplied directly to the new vineyards in South Australia and the Port Phillip District.

Many of the early vignerons also supplemented their income by supplying cuttings to new settlers including the Germans in the Barossa Valley. One example was the Reynell family that took up wagons of cuttings for sale from Reynella. But small grape vine nurseries also existed in Angaston and so cuttings could be obtained from various sources including neighbouring vignerons.

In addition to his involvement in the Sydney Botanic Gardens and its grape vine collection, William Macarthur also had a big hand in the transmission of vinestock and the creation of the first botanic gardens in Perth from 1830 onwards. It is known that both Gregory Blaxland and William Macarthur donated cuttings.

But of course there were other importations of vinestock too. One of the main difficulties of tracking transmission is that cuttings were regularly brought into various Australian colonies and ports by settlers or traders without any form of regulation.

In the earliest days settlers made the assumption that they had to survive on their own. For instance, Dr Christopher and Mary Penfold brought wax lined cuttings from South Africa.

But after arriving in South Australia they discovered that they could buy cuttings from nurserymen particularly Camden Nurseries and later places like Bailey’s Gardens – literally just down the road from Magill.

The trade in vinestock material was also aided greatly be regular coastal shipping services between Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide, Launceston and Perth. The development of the wardian case during the 1830s was also of great significance.

Loddiges Nursery in London exported and brought back plant material to and from Australia from 1833 - widely using Wardian cases. William Macarthur was known to use this advanced technology of the time which was essentially a portable glazed glass house. For instance the

 Adelaide Botanical Gardens brought in 50 rooted vines of Sultana grapes from South Africa in 1867. But there was also a significant downside. The wardian case partially promoted the spread of mini-pathogens and pests around the world - which cause a devastating effect for the wine industry.

 But the idea that our early wine industry sourced all of its cuttings from South Africa is not right.

Most Cape wine, was increasingly seen as inferior – and nurserymen were also aware of poor performing vinestock – probably a result of virus problems. Certainly by the 1860s – no vigneron in his right mind would be importing grape vine material for wine production from South Africa.

But first I need to tell you about what people felt about Australia during the 1850s because this has a crucial bearing on vinestock transmission and the ambitions of our 19th Century forefathers.

Australia was about the most exciting place on Earth during the 1850s. The discovery of gold in 1851 captured the imagination of the age. The combination of mineral and agricultural wealth attracted a massive influx of new immigrants from Europe, the Americas and China.

Increasingly the invention of steam power propelled people and materials around the world at a rapid rate. Australia – once a place that was on the far side of the world and as inaccessible as the moon – suddenly became much closer – and the expanding British Empire offered huge opportunities.

In 1850 the population on the eastern side of Australia was roughly 400,000 and by the decade’s end there were 1.2 million. It would have been a lot more if it wasn’t for the perceived harsh environment.

Nonetheless Victoria and New South Wales were among the richest places on earth attracting extraordinary entrepreneurial dreams, many funded by gold.

Although gold was discovered in the Barossa Valley, it was not significant and South Australia lost an enormous amount of its manpower as people rushed to the gold fields.

Many wives held the fort at home. 

This was also the age of the great exhibitions where countries were able to showcase their wealth and export products – these included mineral discoveries, patented machinery steam engines, wool bales, agricultural produce and of course wine.

The first of these took place in 1851 in London.

One of the big breakthroughs for Australian wine – from New South Wales -  took place at the 1855 Universal Exhibition in Paris. One of the commissioners was none other than William Macarthur who was knighted following its huge success.

It is worth mentioning that this was the same exhibition - where Bordeaux Wine Merchants at the instigation of Emperor Napoleon III– introduced the first 1855 Classification of Bordeaux Wines and the ratings of 1st  to 5th Growth Chateaus.

In the same exhibition Emperor Napoleon III and Queen Victoria both tasted the wines of New South Wales and were impressed – enough to buy some wines for their own cellars.

The chairman of Judges – for colonial wine - was Richard Owen – one of the leading scientists of the day who founded Britain’s Natural History museum and invented the word dinosaur.

One of the most influential scientists of the day Justis von Leibig was also captivated and reportedly enthusiastically about Australia wines. After a dinner with William Macarthur, Charles Darwin wrote to his old shipmate Syms Covington how much he enjoyed Australian wine.

The optimism for Australian wine was remarkable and many believed that Australia’s future as the France of the Southern Hemisphere was assured.

Against this back drop was also the disastrous impact of oidium – or powdery mildew. To give you an example - in 1852 the four first growths (as they were at the time ) Château Lafite, Château Latour, Château Margaux and Château Haut Brion made roughly 60,000 gallons between them.

And in 1854 they could only muster 5000 gallons. Just 8%. With the ravaging effect of phylloxera in France and other parts of Europe during the 1860s – you can start seeing the massive opportunities presented to Australian wine entrepreneurs.

But more vinestock material was required. And certainly not from the Cape Colony. Cape wines were - as one observer said - “so much inferior to those of older wine countries.” South African winemakers were reproached by observers as being slovenly. AC Kelly – on eof Austrralia’s great wine pinoeers and scintiests - being one of the main critics. So bad was the reputation of Cape Wine that it was eventually rebadged South African wine.