Wine Conversations by Andrew Caillard

Grapevine Stories - Part 3 - Grand Dreams & Boom-Bust-Boom

Episode Summary

1855 to 1960s Australian Grape Vine Stories; Grand dreams and boom-bust-boom Fortunes were mixed after the great promise of the 1860s and early 1870s. Many of Australia’s greatest 19th Century vineyards were planted during this time. Economic, social and agricultural challenges hampered progress. The arrival of Phylloxera in Victoria in 1875 was met with a scorched earth policy. But South Australia’s quarantine laws protected the vast plantings of grape vines especially around Adelaide, McLaren Vale, Barossa and the Clare Valleys. Australian Burgundy boomed in the 1880s and 1890s. After the Second World War plant breeding programmes were introduced to improve colonial vinestock material, while only a trickle of new clones and selections were permitted into Australia.

Episode Notes

Photo courtesy of Langmeil - Old Vines

Episode Transcription

Australia’s colonial nurseries were never so busy distributing vinestock material around Australia - And winerieswere also busy propagating their own vines to expandplantings.

I should also stress at this point thatAustralia’s founding wine pioneers were on the most part quite knowledgeableabout vinestock by the 1850s and 1860s.

Botanic Gardens were seen as repositoriesto acclimatise plant material before it was propagated and made available tofarmers. By extension Nurseries like CamdenNurseries and Bailey’s Gardens in Adelaide were seen as places where the best selections and acclimatised material could be sourced.

The most dominant varieties were shiraz, cabernet, grenache, mataro, pinot meunier, pinot noir, riesling, muscatel and semillon. But of course, there were all sorts availableby this time. To addconfusion wines were often labelled like Burgundy, Claret, White Hermitage orMadiera.

Charles Fergusson at Houghton’s in the Swan Valley famously planted cabernet sauvignon in the 1860s which was first brought into Western Australia during the 1850s and probably not the CapeColony as the Western Australian Department of Agriculture suggests.

There are three reasons for this.

Cape vinestock by the 1850s was regardedas generally inferior

There was a thriving nursery business onthe east coast.

Charles Fergusson claimed his vines weresourced from Leschenault (South West of Western Australia) and South Australia

A report in Perth’s Inquirer and Commercialnews of 1862 said that cabernet sauvignon and malbec were brought to WesternAustralia by a mister Chauncy probablyconnected with the assistant surveyorgeneral at the time.

The Houghton Clone of Cabernet Sauvignonwhich forms the backbone of Margaret River’s success  – derived from 1930s plantings at Houghton’s.It is probably genetic vinestock material related to the those originalimports.

And there is a compelling case that theprovenance goes back to William Macarthur’s importation of 1837 – eitherdirectly or through his agency nurseries. This could also besaid of theDorrien and Reynell Selections – which were both taken off 19thCentury South Australian planted colonial vinestock material.

The most prolific and successful clonesSA125 and 126 both taken form the 1942 planted Dorrien Vineyard could be closely related remembering that South Australia’s quarantine laws saw virtually no new material coming into that colony/ state from around 1875 until the 1960s

When Fowler and Company planted its CabernetVineyard on the western edge of the Barossa Valley in 1888, this material wouldalso have been sourced within theSouth Australian Colony. Penfolds Block 42 –which is the back-bone of Bin 707 – could also be related to the sameprovenance.

Plantings were prolific in the 1860s and1870s. This was helped by all sorts of brilliant things

like Britain’s preferential duty on CapeWine

the fall in shipping costs

and the creation of off license wine businessesall over Britain.

To put this all into context Australia’sexports quadrupled during the 1860s and doubled again by the mid-1870s. That accelerationwas extraordinary but this still representeda fraction of what was to come inthe 1880s and 1890s.

Plantings in the Barossa Valley. McLarenVale, North East Victoria, Central Victoria and around Melbourne of reallystarted to take off.

This was also aided by new technologiesincluding the pruning device – the secateur.

Yep - I know we are all familiar withthis device these days – but the secateurs was truly ground breaking – like thewide comb wool shearer. Only that the vineyard workersdidn’t complain. In factthe invention promoted pruning competitions all around Australia which becamemassive community events/

In 1861 – in South Australia 14 nurseries advertised grape vine material and these also included Yalumba, Stonyfell, Reynella and Evandale.

Significant investment in wine production also took place in South Australia, Victoria andWestern Australia – and everything was designed using the latest in architecture, steam powered technology including crushers and presses.

Amongst the investors were people like JohnPinney Bear at Chateau Tahbilk who called for a million cuttings of vines. Theequivalent of 500 acres of planting material. Hedidn’t quite get that much butit promoted trade and vinestock movement.

Therewere others too.

All Saints inRutherglen with its marvellous Chinese Dormitory for its vineyard workers

JamesFallon’s Murray Valley Vineyard,

Auldana nearAdelaide as well as Penfolds which instigated massive new works at Magill,Seppeltsfield, and Chateau Tanunda a little later.

Tintara and Tatachillain McLaren Vale.

Houghtons inWestern Australia.

There are many still intact or restored wineries from this period dotted aroundAustralia especially around Melbourne and Adelaide and surrounding regions. These buildings reveal a lot about the mindset and ambitions of our early forefathers,

An example is the still-intact Yeringberg winery in the Yarra Valley – although built in brick and timber it follows the design of a Bordeaux cellar – bit like a miniature Chateau Pontet Canet - and clearly shows that there was an ambition to make claret although it also achieved a reputation for its White Hermitage

The originalvinestock material of cabernet at Yeringberg was supposedly from a consignmentfrom Chateau Lafite – via a Geelong nursery – but this story could also belinkedto Camden Nurseries.

But that original vineyardwas ripped out in 1921 – not from Phylloxera – but because of an economicslump.

Joseph Best’s Great WesternCellars was also important.

Asides from the amazingarchitectural winery buildings especially built to produce champagne sparklingwines – there is an even greater legacy

Best’s nursery block ayConcelallaplanted in 1868 still survives and includes pinot noir, pinot meunier, shiraz, cabernetsauvignon, dolcetto, mataro and riesling, etc.

The vine cuttings were purchased from the nurseryTrouette and Blampied at Great Western, who began a thriving nursery businessin 1863. This material could have comevia Camden Vineyard which was extremelyactive with nurseries and vignerons in Victoria. The list of varieties alsopromotes that theory.

In 1877 Phylloxera was officiallydiscovered at Fyansford in Victoria although it was first observed in 1875. Thearrival of this pest which eats off the roots of the vinesand causes the vinesto die - was inevitable considering the rapid transport and technologies likethe Wardian case.

Butit had a devastating effect on the wine industry in Victoria and New SouthWales. By the mid 1880s Camden Vineyards was no more. Thankfully Sir William Macarthur had died a few years earlier and never witnessed this sad ending.

But the survival of South Australia’s vineyards – all on their own roots rather than American rootstocks, is a testament to South Australia’s colonial Government and to the vigorous support of those policies by wine figures like Patrick Auld and Thomas Hardy. Although there was actually a big scare in 1879, the quarantine laws have been strict and effective and have protected South Australia’s wine industry for nearly 150 years with various laws including the Phylloxera Act of 1899.

Unfortunately – despite the efforts of industry bodies and existing quarantine laws, there is a maverick element in Australia – where machinery is crossing borders without being properly sanitised. I just wonder how long South Australia can be impervious to phylloxera.

But Phylloxera caused a scorched earth policy – not unlike Melbourne’s lockdown of 2020.

Vineyards in the Geelong area were pulled upand this soon extended to other parts of Victoria. The thriving wine industry around Melbourne was destroyed and aspirations for a great fine wine industry imagined by settlers faded away.

When St Huberts winery won the Kaiser Wilhelm Trophy for the best exhibitor in Melbourne’s 1880 Great Exhibition, it was a high water mark for Victoria’s wine industry –even though that trophy should have gone to a New South Wales producer – such was the politics of the time.

Unsurprisingly over-cropping in many of Australia’s agricultural regions became a significant problem during the 1870s and 1880s because it led to a decline in soil quality,fertility and yields.

Phosphate for fertiliser wasn’t imported to Australiauntil 1905. So farmers looked towards alternative crops, especially currants,wine grapes and orchard fruits. Thelandscape of the Barossa Valley, ClareValley and McLaren Vale, once sweeping vistas of wheat and barley fields,changed markedly during 1880s and 1890s. It was also during this time that manyAgricultural colleges were founded in the Australian colonies especially Roseworthy Agricultural college on the edge of the Barossa Valley in 1883

This was a golden period for the wine industry whichfor the first time attracted significant capital for winery and vineyarddevelopments, even during the depression years ofthe 1890s. There were an amazing number of wine entrepreneurs – people like Walter Reynell, ThomasHardy, Sir Samuel Davenport, Thomas Hyland, John Riddoch who created theCoonawarra Fruit Colony

When you read the list of surviving vineyards fromthis period there are much more from the 1880s and 1890s – and most of them areshiraz.

The success of AustralianBurgundy wines in the British Market during the 1880s and 1890s propelled the Australianwine industry. The most successful exporters were the Emu Wine Company, with its Emu Burgundy brand and Peter Bond Burgoyne with his Tintara brand, Burgoyne bought from Hardy’s, Reynella, Wirra Wirra, Seppelt, Fowlers at Kalimna and Spring Vale - amongst several others. He did more than any other individual to promotethe cause of Australian wine at the time.

Nonetheless when he started criticising the Australian wine producers for making thin wines, probably a result of over cropping, many industry figures were offended.But it was a shot over the bows.

Between 1890 and 1900 Australian wine exports grew from 155,000litres to 3.8 million litres. Auldana, Emu, Keystone, and Tintara Burgundy werethe major brands of thesetimes.

And these wines were based primarily on shiraz and mataro. Butremember these wines were all sent off to England in hogsheads down the railwaylines that had beenestablished throughout the colonies.

Although Shiraz was known to be first imported in 1830 by anotherwool baron Alexander Riley, there is no question that the vinestock brought outfrom the Hill of Hermitagein the Rhone Valley is the ancestral material ofmost of Australia’s shiraz plantings.

It just shows the extraordinary contribution of James Busby but also the remarkable networking of William Macarthur’s Camden Nurseries. Reading diaries and letters almost every 19th Century Colonialist with any wealth was dealing with Macarthur during the 1840s until at the late 1860s.

His network also flourished because of his collaboration withnurserymen in Adelaide and Melbourne. A provenance of Camden Nurseries – meant that there was nothing better. Camden Nurseries was essentially an early colonial brand name.

The grape variety Mataro – better known as mourvedre in France – was often an essential element to Australian Burgundy styles. While Shiraz gave the softness and richness of flavour, mataro contributed some freshness and vigour.

Mataro was grown in huge quantities at one stage but growers began to graft over their vines to shiraz because of its success and higher prices - despite the contrary advice of Professor Arthur Perkins. Tatachilla had over 230 acres ofmataro and just 33acres of Shiraz in 1895 which shows how important mataro was.

Mataro also came out to Australia in the 1830s and was grown around the Australian colonies, but it had different names like Lambruscat or Esparte suggesting that it may have been imported multiple times.

Although we are used to words like Shiraz and Mataro, these 19th Century descriptions were a result of trade in English and the butchering of the French Language. In some reference guides there are suggestions that Shiraz came from Persia because there is a city in Iran called Shiraz.

Butasides from DNA analysis and further historical evidence, you can easily seehow Syrah migrated to Syraz - to schyraz - to shiraz - over the years.

Mataro was much easier to pronounce than mourvedre and of course there are Spanish connections too. When I first arrived in South Australia – vignerons talked about carbonet rather than cabernet sauvignon – which is exactly how it was spelled during the 19th Century.

Although there are many surviving 19th Century vineyards by far the most are shiraz – followed by grenache and these can be found mostly but not exclusively in the Barossa and McLaren Vale. There are also other varieties like 1850 plantings of semillon in the Barossa or 1860plantings of sweetwater (chasselas) in Central Victoria. There are more or less around 200 vineyards covering hundreds of acres that are at least 100 years old that have still survived – which shows the astonishing resilience of grapevines in the Australian environment. Our oldest surviving vineyards go back to the 1840s and all are pre-phylloxera vinestock growing on their own roots.

The most famous are those established in the 1860s includingHenschke Hill of Grace. Chateau Tahbilk and Tyrrell’s Old Hill/ Patch Vineyard – all of which are still yielding fruit.

Lesser known 1860s plantings include the Gervasoni Blocks planted by Italian immigrants at Yandoit near Daylesford in 1863. Vinestock include shiraz, pinot meunier (known as Black cluster back in the day ) and Chasselas (also known as Sweetwater). These plantings were connected to a thriving business supplying miners and other locals with booze. 

Strict quarantine regulations greatly restricted the movement of vinestock material around Australia from 1875.  This had a massive impact on livlihoods.

From a positive point of view it saved many vineyards from destruction and has guven the Australian wine industry a very solid foundation story.

But it also prevented new clonal material from coming in fornearly a century.

Although old vine material is romantic mutations and susceptibility to virus and disease can reduce yields and quality. Plant breeding and new source material are really important for survival and sustainability. In the early 1960s scientists and growers had touse their collective imagination to improve grape vine selections.

The story of Pinot Noir in Australia – is endlessly fascinating because it is so surprising and combines heritage, plant breeding and selection so brilliantly well.

Notwithstanding the success of the 1870s, Australia is only known recently for its pinot noir wines,

Yet this variety was central to the early colonial period, the beginning of Victoria’s wine industry and the present day. As you will remember pinot noir came into New South Wales as early as the first fleets.

Gregory Blaxland’s first vintages of 1822 and 1827 were based on small black cluster and we know that James Busby brought out pinot noir in the early 1830s – where it was planted out at Sydney’s Botanic Gardens, Camden Nurseries and Kirkton.

For a change the mostsuccessful pinot noir clone in Australia - MV 6 or mother vine 6 is pure JamesBusby Provenance rather than via Macarthur/ Camden

After James Busby returned to Australia with his vine collection in the early 1830s, he planted out his private collection at his father’s property at Kirkton in the Hunter Valley. Then he disappeared to New Zealand.

This property was left to James Busby’s sister who married William Kelman and it was under his efforts that the Kirkton Vineyard prospered, but it was never the grand visionary nursery like Camden Vineyards. But we do know that cuttings were obtained from Kirkton by local vignerons.

Among those was James King at nearby Irrawang who planted his vineyard with pinot noir cuttings in 1832.His 1846 vintage was famously described in a letter from James King to Early Grey and critics like James Halliday have drooled over what this wine might have been like!

Although the Irrawang Vineyard was pulled up in 1931 the genetic material survived, because in 1921 the celebrated Hunter Valley winemaker Maurice O’Shea took cuttings from Kirkton and planted them at his MountPleasant Winery – also in the Hunter Valley. These plantings still exist and are the oldest surviving pinot noir vines in Australia.

They also have direct links to Catalogue 49 – pineau noir – inJames Busby’s private collection.

Therefore we know these surviving vines are genetic copies ofMonsieur Ouvrard’s vineyard plot in the Clos Vougeot - that were growing in1830.

Of course there must have been some mutation over the years but the link is irrefutable

Maurice O’Shea became famous for his Pinot Hermitage wines – using pinot noir and shiraz during the late 1920s until the early 1950s. He was the most celebrated and revered winemaker in Australia during the first half of the 20th Century – before MaxSchubert the creator of Grange came onto the scene.

But even so there was not much pinot noir left in the Hunter by 1956 – infact there was only 9 acres and most of it was really badly virus affected. In fact according to Lindeman’s managing director Ray King pinot noir must was used to build up yeast populations.

Around 1962 the brilliant research scientist John Possingham started working at the CSIRO’s Horticultural and Viticultural Station. This bloke has a larger than life reputation and really is one of the great unsung heros of the Australian wine industry.

I love – for instance - the story of how he persuaded the RoyalAustralian Airforce to a fly prototype machine grape harvester from California to Australia in the early 1970s; ina Hercules C130 airfreighter.

Anyway in collaboration with other scientists, including State Viticulturalist Graham Gregory in New South Wales, Possingham embarked on one of the most visionary viticultural trials undertaken at the time, in which selections of Australia’s 19th Century vinestock material were obtained and improved, thus ensuring the DNA survival of this valuable pre-phylloxera vinestock material.

Max Lake of Lake’s Folly is said to have sourced his cabernet fromthis programme.

But Merbein’s signature result is MV6

The source cuttings were obtained by New South Wales State Viticulturalist Graham Gregory from the Mount Pleasant Vineyard, owned by McWilliam’s Family. The selections were heat treated and propagated, observed and then released. Initially, there were variants available including MV4 and MV5.

But MV6 is by far the most successful pinot noir clone used inAustralia and underpins the success of this variety in ultra-fine wine market. It has prospered particularly well in Victoria.

The provenance of MV6 Pinot Noir is just so clear and beautiful. Although there are many other clones brought in more recently which have also performed well, there is a genuine romance about this particular colonial vinestock material.

Just at a time when the word colonial has become a despised word, it actually stands for something quite brilliant. Mother Vine 6 Pinot Noir – is the result of generations of effort and imagination.

Whether it underpins or contributes to a wine, it isknown for its colour, density and richness of flavour. And this material hassurvived and moved through the ages becausethe people involved were not aboutwhat could be taken out of the country but what they could give  - to build Australia as a better place.