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A History of the Australian Wine Industry

Governor Arthur Phillip is commonly thought to be the first to plant vines in Australia; he established a vineyard at a penal colony in Farm Cove in 1788, following the arrival of the first European settlers, using vines imported from the Cape of Good Hope. Three years on, the Governor had around three acres of vines growing steadily though wine production was unfortunately unsuccessful. Others began to try to succeed where Governor Phillip had failed but with little initial success. The most notable second attempt was that of Philip Schaeffer who briefly brushed with success at Rydalmere Farm between 1792 and 1798; unfortunately the end result mirrored that of Governor Phillip and Schaeffer abandoned his attempts within a year of the last crop failing.

Then in 1800 two French prisoners of war, Antoine Landrien and Francois de Riveau, were sent to Australia from England to put their winemaking skills to use. They were instructed that they were to spend three years teaching the Governor King the art of viticulture whilst working on the land. Unfortunately, from the variety of sources I’ve consulted, I can’t help but feel that the French men were selected from this task due to English stereotypes about Frenchmen’s winemaking skills. There are numerous letters and other original sources from the period that clearly suggest the two Frenchmen had relatively little idea about what they were supposed to be doing.

Consequently very little had come out of their three years’ of service by the time they were free to leave. Antoine remained for a further year after he was obliged to stay however and through the Governor King ordering in excess of 12000 cuttings to be taken and planted at Parramatta; the vineyard industry began to experience a limited amount of success. An estimated 40 gallons of wine came out of this attempt though it was said to be of “indifferent quality” and the vines failed shortly after.

Despite these repeated early failures, the European settlers would not be put off. Through a mixture of perseverance and luck, it was in 1816 that a wine of “acceptable quality” was finally produced. Although many vineyards started to spring up in between the arrival of the Frenchmen and the production of the first decent wine; it is largely believed that Gregory Blaxland, a free settler from Kent, was responsible for the first notable success. Having began cultivation of his vineyard in 1806, it had taken him ten years to really establish himself as the first successful Australian winemaker.

Interestingly, Blaxland was also responsible for diagnosing the possible causes and treatments for Anthracnose in Australian vineyards which was a turning point in the information and education other prospective planters had at their disposal. Blaxland’s investigations of such matters basically paved the way for others to follow. He was also the first Australian wine Exporter sending his first shipment over seas in 1822. Around 25 gallons of his red wine were transported to London where the Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufacturers and Commerce (later the Royal Society of Arts) judged his wine to of silver medal standard. Unfortunately no-one really stopped to give Blaxland the credit he was rightfully due in later years and he retired from the public eye sometime around 1830 1831 never having been truly recognised or rewarded for his hugely important pioneering achievements.

I think it’s important at this point to explain the role of the Macarthur family in the history of the Australian wine industry. John Macarthur is frequently mistakenly cited as having been the first successful vineyard cultivator ahead of Gregory Blaxland. In reality, John Macarthur and his sons James and William did not establish their first vineyard until the early 1820s; several years after Blaxland had achieved his first successful wine. They played an important part in the history and growth of the Australian wine industry nevertheless with production of notably decent wines being steady by the end of the 1820s; even if these successes weren’t yet particularly recognised as such back in England at that time.

In 1828, English free settler George Wyndham embarked on his first vineyard in New South Wales using cuttings given to him by a British botanist called James Busby. It took him seven years to produce his first good wine; it was exported to both England and India where it was extremely well received. Wyndham’s success was such that the vineyard is still in operation today, 180 years later. It claims to be Australia’s “oldest surviving vineyard” and its “pioneer wine exporter” which isn’t strictly speaking true. It is indeed the oldest surviving vineyard in Australia today however despite being the first notably successful Australian wine exporters, they weren’t technically the first.

By the 1840s, settlers were landing in Australia in droves and by 1850 there were over 160 vineyards in Victoria alone. Growth stagnated somewhat during the discovery of gold in 1852 when labourers switched trades however this proved to be no major setback in the grand scheme of things. In 1862, the Duffy Land Act meant that land in Victoria, where the majority of vineyards were being grown, was suddenly made available en mass. This led to over 2000 acres of vines being planted in the four years that followed. In fact my own Great-Great-Grandfather was born in the Victoria in 1862 right in the midst of this cultivation rush. Unfortunately though, his family was one of many to reap little reward from their land and quickly returned to England.

In the 1880s the industry suffered a temporary setback in the form of the “abstinence movement”. Though many Australians maintained that wine was a healthy beverage for all, others rallied that wine was the “root of all evil” and had no place in a civilised society. In 1882 the New South Wales government passed “The Liquor Licensing Act” in an attempt to persuade the public that wine was a lesser evil than hard liquor. Propaganda and arguments flew back and forth between those who were for drinking wine and those who were passionately opposed. The end result was that despite those opposed managing to cause a certain amount of disruption to the industry; by the early 1900s, most had abandoned the cause and accepted that wine was there to stay.

Through the 1900s, the wine industry continued to expand on par with the rest of the country. Having been barely populated prior to 1800, the country as a whole boasted a population of nearly four and a half million by 1900. In 1950 the population had almost doubled to just over eight million. An obvious result of this increase in population was an increase in production and skill within common industry; including the wine industry. As more and more European techniques were introduced to existing Australian processes; so the truly fine Australian wines were born.

As the industry evolved through the latter half of the twentieth century, the popular wines we enjoy today started to appear in droves. Penfolds Grange, started up in 1955, is possibly Australia’s leading brand in the wine industry today.

Today the UK purchases 43% of Australia’s total annual exported wine. The popularity of Australian Chardonnay, Cabernet and Shiraz makes Australian win the UK’s most frequently purchased. On a global scale, Australia is thought to be the fourth largest wine exporter in the world. At first that may not seem overly impressive given how much larger Australia is than so many other countries. But one has to consider that this is a country with a drastically smaller population per square mile than most with a wine industry that started just 200 hundreds years ago.

All things considered, the progress the Australian wine industry has made in just 200 years of cultivation and production should be recognised as outstandingly impressive.