The world in a glass of Hunter Valley wine

A date for your diary…

I have the honour of being invited to give the John Turner Memorial Lecture in Newcastle on Thursday May 15. This is a major event on the University of Newcastle’s community program and I’ve titled the presentation The World in a Glass of Hunter Valley wine.

Thursday May 15 6.30-8.00pm, David Madison Theatre, Newcastle

Thursday May 15 6.30-8.00pm, David Madison Theatre, Newcastle

In this lecture I’ll explore the complex of global historical notes that swirl in a glass of Hunter wine. By this I mean that amid the aroma and bouquet in your glass of wine (wherever it’s from!) – just like the vapours emerging from an uncorked genie’s lamp – there are wisps of memory, fragments of stories, the souls of wine communities past…

To preview next week’s event, I’d like to share a short presentation about some of these wisps and fragments that I gave in March this year.  The presentation marked  the launch of the newest cairn in the Hunter Valley Wine and Tourism Association’s Heritage Trail at Hall’s Cottage (RobertsCirca1876), Pokolbin.

My talk was introduced by the indomitable Brian McGuigan (photograph courtesy of the Cessnock Advertiser)

Your blogger and Brian McGuigan – Hunter wine legend – at Hall’s Cottage, Pokolbin. Photograph: Cessnock Advertiser

Here goes…

I find it fascinating  that vineyard districts drew admirers well before tourism became the ‘experience economy’. Certainly much of what we understand about the landscape of historic vineyards comes from the observations of travellers. It is through two travellers’ accounts, published in Maitland newspapers in the final years of the nineteenth century, that we may glimpse the family, the farm and wine making associated with Hall’s Cottage at Pokolbin.

The accounts I will share with you today were published in 1898 and 1900 respectively, and both took place during the vintage of each of those years. One of the travellers – Martin Hogg in 1898 – was wise enough to note that as a visitor during this pivotal part of the wine growing year, it is a bad time in one way and a good one in another to visit the vineyards. A person must not expect too much attention on the one hand, but if he can dispense with a guide he sees matters in the full swing. Hogg also acknowledged that he must not necessarily share news of everything he saw―which I take to mean that ‘what happened in the winery, stayed in the winery’, unless the participants themselves publicly discuss their methods and practices.

When Hogg visited the district he found that, vineyards surround you on all sides. Some are of small area, but all show the quality of the soil. Hogg has much to say but I will speak here only about his observations of the Halls whom he noted had 370 acres of land, well watered, with 21 acres under vines on a portion of chocolate loam on limestone. The vines had to be close pruned on account of a grub, but are making a fresh start. The crop was naturally light … the cellars are nice and cool, and have plenty of room for the quantity of wine made. This is the extent of Hogg’s account of the Halls but, two years later, George Craig was more forthcoming.

By the time Craig travelled to the district for the 1900 vintage, the Halls had dealt with the invading pest that forced heavy pruning two seasons earlier, and their vineyard seems to have doubled in size as Craig estimated the Hall’s vines covered 40 acres. Craig’s first impression of the district was that many farmers selected [land] up upon the Pokolbin ranges and you can see the green patches and clearings in the sunlit and fertile uplands. It looked [to be] a hard road to and from market, but when the big wine central factories are established the grapes will find their way to the lower selection and freeholds.

Craig’s guide in the Parish of Rothbury―the country of the Tyrrells, Holmes, Campbells, Kings and Loves―and the Parish of Pokolbin, was Mr Hutcheson: a public works contractor who owned a little vineyard. Mr Hutcheson sold his grapes to the McDonalds at Ben Ean. Craig tells us that Mr Hutcheson’s property, like many in Pokolbin, grew prized apples and ran dairy cows as well as growing grapes. Craig commented too that Mr Tulloch was steadily cultivating large areas of vines and had a local creamery.

On his tour through the district, Craig passed by vineyards of grapes still bearing the names of their places of origin: Hambro, Shiraz, Hermitage, Reisling [sic], Black Prince, Malbec, Muscat, Madeira and Tokay.

The local school had emptied out as usual during vintage and children were scattered through local vineyards picking for pocket money.

Craig refers too in his account to the influence of the colonial New South Wales viticultural expert, Professor Michele Blunno who consulted with wine growers in the Hunter.

Prof Michele Blunno Source: State Library of NSW

Prof Michele Blunno
Source: State Library of NSW

According to Craig, the vine is seen everywhere, and so clear and healthy are the fields that the cultural touch of Professor Blunno seemed to be inspiring the whole. Farmers and vignerons seldom like to be told anything from official experts, wrote Craig, but the growers of vine are glad to take hints, although every vigneron knows his own vines and plants best. He continued to reflect that, what with fine vines, thriving maize and oat acres, together with find herds of dairy cows and stock in general, a Rothbury drive is excellent and the visitor is filled with admiration at the success of wine, and comparative satisfaction that all the habitués are making money and are happy in life.

Craig was struck by the tranquillity of the scenes he encountered over the gentle rises in the landscape that led him to several properties, including here―to that of the Hall family> Though he and Hutcheson arrived in a state anything but tranquil! To explain this I must mention that the horse who drew Hutcheson’s buggy, which he and Craig travelled in this day, was called Star.  (Craig notes that, Star was out of Fair Shiraz – just as you would expect a mare to be named in a wine region.)  As Craig and Hutchinson headed to the Hall property it began to grow dark and despite―or perhaps because of―his reputation as a reckless driver, Craig took the reins and put some latent life into Star… [We] drove as fast as the Blue Mountains or Toowoomba train to sliprails of Uderrathe property of George and Elizabeth Hall and their two sons, who to the best of my knowledge were Sydney – known as Sid – Hall and Truman Hall. Also to the best of my knowledge, George and Elizabeth migrated separately from Scotland and met and married at Pitt Town in Sydney, though at this stage I do not have details of their migration, or of their lives between arriving in Sydney and taking up their acreage here.

Craig said of the Halls that they were all natives of the soil and denizens of the vineyard. He found them at work in the cellar at the presses. The cellar was large and roomy, and the talk was of the grape and local wine production―and of the wild ride Craig and Hutcheson had taken through Hall’s paddock.

Craig described the Hall vineyard soil as good friable, chocolate and limestone. All of the family worked in the vineyard, which Craig judged to have resulted in a good home, and a prosperous industry, with the voice of comfort, plenty, fruit and young Halls around. Mr and Mrs Hall are kind, homely and hospitable people, he wrote, who have seen many Australian summers … When I see how the old folks thrive, and still health in old age, the climate of Pokolbin and Allandale must be very preserving … People seem not to die in the parish of Pokolbin at all. They can neither be killed by “canister” nor “grape”―by which he means they cannot be killed by canister shot nor grape shot (both used as ammunition in heavy artillery a century earlier).

Mr Hall, continued Craig, grows the recognised best wine grapes, [he] cultivates his vines in a practical manner, with the result that his vintages are generally good. He makes his own wine. It tastes nice, has a good body and flavour, rich, clear, and sparkling. It is a fine thing to sit in front of a vat―Hall’s own―waiting until the moon gets up.

Once the moon had risen, Craig and Hutcheson returned to Ben Ean, arriving there at midnight.

And there we will leave them for now, except to say that none of you will be surprised that during vintage, at that hour, Mr Macdonald of Ben Ean and his cellar hands  were still crushing grapes that had been brought to the winery after dark.

***

The research for this could not have been done without Trove, the national project to digitize historic newspapers.  And as it happens, I’m also speaking – though, not about wine! – at a Newcastle Hunter Studies event to celebrate the digitization of Newcastle’s 19th century newspapers at Newcastle Art Gallery on Tuesday 27 May. Cheers!!

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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.
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