Australia’s first wine, and other delicious mysteries

As well as wine I love crime fiction, so it will come as no surprise that I have a particular penchant for crime fiction themed around wine.

Yes, I’ve read Peter Mayle’s The Vintage Caper, a charming romp through the high end of wine collecting that that plays up the tensions between French wine connoisseurship and American pretension to it. I’ve also enjoyed Englishman Martin Walker’s The Dark Vineyard, in which chief of police Bruno Courreges toughs his way through solving a killing entwined with eco-activism in the oh-so-French village of Saint-Denis.  Equally entertaining are American Ellen Crosby’s Merlot Murders and The Chardonnay Charade.

You may know others – I’d like to hear about them.

Of course, wine history presents some of the most tantalising mysteries. Sans blood and bodies, but compelling nonetheless.

It has long been thought that the first grape wine made in Australia to be shipped to London came from grapes grown, fermented and bottled by Gregory Blaxland in the 1820s.  There is no doubt Blaxland made a weighty contribution to early wine growing efforts but wine had certainly been made and bottled prior to this in New South Wales, and some of it seems to have been sent from the fledgling colony to the centre of imperial power and scientific curiosity in Britain, as early as the 1790s.  This story is told in my book First Vintage: Wine in Colonial New South Wales (New South Publishing/UNSW Press, 2012), which has been making its way in the world for over a year now.  Indeed, some of this blog’s readers have spied or purchased a copy.


Should you not yet have encountered one of the central conundrums revealed in its pages – a teaser:

In 1791, New South Wales’ first governor Arthur Phillip reported in a letter to influential botanist and colonial supporter Joseph Banks, that ‘we have now many thousand young vines, here and at Norfolk Island … at present the old vines in my garden are loaded with very fine fruit’.

Late in 1791 too, an officer of the marines stationed in the colony to guard convicts – the colonial workforce – conducted a walking tour of government agriculture. Captain Watkin Tench wrote that at Parramatta, the site of the colony’s main farms, the vineyard at the Crescent  was ‘in beauty of form and situation … unrivalled in New South Wales’. Eight thousand vines had been planted from cuttings of maturing vines from earlier plantings of vines imported from the Cape of Good Hope. The older vines were expected to bear fruit in a year and ‘although the soil of the Crescent be poor, its aspect and circular figure, so advantageous for receiving and retaining the ray of the sun, is eminently fit for a vineyard’. Tench next visited the farm of Philip Schaeffer, ‘a man of industry and respectable character’; the colony’s first free settler and the first hope for private investment in wine growing.

How did Schaeffer come to be a free settler but neither ex-convict nor ex-marine so early in the life of the colony? After serving with Hessian (German) forces used to bolster British troops in the American War of Independence, Schaeffer arrived in New South Wales in 1790. He was aged in his forties and destitute after the wreck of his original ship of carriage, the Guardian, which had been loaded with much anticipated supplies for the colony. Schaeffer originally migrated to the colony to work as a supervisor of convict farm labourers but his limited English made this impractical.

Schaeffer’s conversations with Phillip (in German, which they both spoke fluently) revealed that the Schaeffer family’s estate at Hesse-Hanau on the Rhine River included a vineyard. Although Schaeffer had spent most of his adult life as a soldier, the experience of farming he described led Phillip to allocate him 140 acres of land on the Parramatta riverfront in 1791. This was at a time when ex-convicts were receiving only 20 to 60 acres. Schaeffer seemed to be an ideal candidate for settlement within the governor’s vision for agriculture to not only sustain the colony but to begin to build surplus production for trade. Schaeffer called his farm The Vineyard and quickly set about clearing land and planting corn and wheat, wine grapes and tobacco. It was ‘to these two last articles’, wrote Tench, that Schaeffer ‘mean[t] principally to direct his exertions’ though he thought the soil very poor compared with the river flats of the Rhine.

Philip Schaeffer planted the first private vineyard in Australia at his farm The Vineyard in 1791. This watercolour painting (above) is thought to have been painted the year after Schaeffer sold the land in 1797. Artist unknown. SLNSW, Call no: SSV1B / Parr / 6

Philip Schaeffer planted the first private vineyard in Australia at his farm The Vineyard in 1791. This watercolour painting (above) is thought to have been painted the year after Schaeffer sold the land in 1797. Artist unknown.
SLNSW, Call no: SSV1B / Parr / 6

Very poor? Phillip, also a man of the land, described Schaeffer’s soil as ‘of a middling quality, inclining to a loamy sand’.

I think Schaeffer likely made the more practical assessment.

The year of Schaeffer’s first vine plantings, Banks received a letter that implies he canvassed for information on viticulture to send to Phillip. The letter recommended that when grapes were planted, cuttings should be laid in a trench than had been partly filled with compost made of rotten manure and bread. The compost should be laid fresh around the plants and watered in as they grew. Though, with neither manure nor bread in great supply in New South Wales this method could not have been very helpful.

In October 1792, Phillip reported Schaeffer ‘doing well’ (despite lacking manure and spare bread!). The governor would depart from New South Wales only a few months later. In 1795, Phillip’s successor, Acting Governor William Paterson, advised Banks that Schaeffer had produced ‘ninety gallons of wine in about two years now … the vines I think produce better than at the Cape’. He predicted that within two years New South Wales would be self-sufficient in wine and brandy (which it wasn’t, but that’s not the point).

Paterson’s remark about Schaeffer’s first wine raises a question. Had the Hessian settler made wine from the grapes at the government farm even earlier? If so, this would be the first vintage in New South Wales. A tiny shard of evidence suggests that he had.

The shard of evidence is revealed in First Vintage.

A teaser … but no spoilers!!




About @DrJulieMcIntyre

Historian of nature/culture through studies of wine production, trade and consumption. Also trans-imperialism, migration, mobilities and business. Budding connoisseur of Semillon and Riesling.
This entry was posted in colonial history, wine and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s