Winter is coming!

I mean this literally and metaphorically.

First, the metaphorical, which – as anyone who is a fan of Game of Thrones has already guessed – entails Starkish tidings of potential doom.

Sounds serious? It is. (And those who have not read or seen GoT, be warned, there is a minor spoiler at the end of this post.)

Image courtesy of whyisthistrending.wordpress.com

Ned Stark – King of the North – who predicts “Winter is coming”      whyisthistrending.wordpress.com

How so?

In the past fortnight I have been asked to engage publicly on how the cycle of wine corporatisation in Australia continues to turn in a direction that may yet see prized wine brands scooped up by private equity companies.  Private equity companies are those beholden only to their shareholders who prey on vulnerable corporations, divide them up and re-sell for maximum profit.

The problem as I see it is that such companies may not see themselves as custodians of wine stories, land and material culture.  This matters a great deal at the moment because many brands that contain much of Australia’s most valuable wine history and heritage presently belong to large corporations – the most vulnerable to private equity takeover is Treasury Wine Estates, which owns Penfold’s Grange. For a further explanation about this from my colleague Paul Docherty and I in The Conversation – click here.

While I don’t take issue with foreign ownership per se, wine history – along with the land on which this history has played out and the material culture relating to such histories – have relevance beyond the wine world, as I discussed with Jeremy Oliver and Cameron Wilson on ABC Radio National’s Bush Telegraph as a follow-up to The Conversation article.  As Australia becomes a wine nation, wine history is emerging as a vital part of the nation’s complex agricultural, rural and regional past.  Indeed, wine history connects country and city in ways that many other historical threads do not.  While digital history can preserve elements of the past and make them accessible online through digitised images and oral histories – an element of my present research – without preservation of sites, documents and artefacts, much will become obscured to us that promises to complicate and enrich understanding of Australia’s social, cultural and economic past.

What specifically could be lost through corporate takeovers?

A good way to explain this is in terms of what is already being lost due to corporate decisions about the future of the oldest vineyard site in Australia’s oldest continually producing wine region. It is, I think, an ill omen for the fate of Australia’s wine heritage that – come October this year – neither you nor I will be able to as readily visit Wyndham Estate (owned by Pernod Ricard Australia) in the Hunter Valley as we may now.  Wyndham Estate – formerly known as Dalwood – is a site of extraordinary historical complexity dating to early colonial Australia.  Not only is this Australia’s oldest accessible wine heritage site but many themes in colonial history played out there – beginning with invasion and Indigenous dispossession to make way for early European-style farming. Convicts assigned to work with the Wyndham family were among Dalwood’s first labourers in the vineyard as well as elsewhere on the property. Settler women and children from the Wyndham family and the wider community helped with the grape harvest for what became a successful colonial business.  Also, I have it on good authority (thank you Jill Barnes) that

 Dark-in-jung man, William Bird and his father’s family helped create the Dalwood winery and once convict transportation ceased and cheap labour was less accessible, it is highly probable that Aboriginal people worked more widely in the fledgling wine industry: clearing, hoeing, ploughing, staking and pruning the vines.

Further still, Wyndham Estate is home to the oldest extant neo-classical building in Australia: Dalwood House.

dalwood-houseImage courtesy of http://www.nationaltrust.org.au/nsw/DalwoodHouse

Just look at those doric columns! As many people I have taken to visit Wyndham Estate attest, it’s one of the most surprising sights you’ll see in a vineyard: stone monoliths at the entrance to the room designed in the late 1820s to be the bed chamber of George and Margaret Wyndham. Fortunately, Dalwood has the protection of the National Trust.

Besides Dalwood however, there are other places, stories and artefacts all over the country – some barely known, as I have discussed in my book First Vintage, that are not protected against neglect.

What is to be done?

Character preservation legislation for sites beyond those already protected in South Australia and Western Australia would be a good start.  BUT, to achieve this there must be barriers broken down about perceptions of the value of history and heritage connected to alcohol. This is one of the thorniest issues in Australian history – deep fears of drunkenness and its tragic effects versus celebration of a strong (still chiefly beer) drinking culture.  Yet, heavy drinking is not the only story of drinking in Australia and research shows that rural and regional Australia has been boosted economically by wine production and tourism – as have many others parts of the world.  These economic benefits are connected to perceptions of wine value and quality, which in turn depend on history and heritage

Something to ponder during the long cold nights ahead.

On a lighter note (if a reference to Game of Thrones can be called light): the GoT books by George R. R. Martin and related HBO series, have gifted popular culture the phrase Winter is Coming! – along with a fantasy world brimming with wine. And, as Season 4 draws to a close – with the final episode to air in the US in a few days’ time – I will go on the record to say my favourite characters are Arya Stark and a character called The Hound, who is doing his part to restore the Starks to power in the North. Among The Hound’s most quotable lines is: all a man needs is a flagon of sour red, as dark as blood.

Reds. Yes. And – after a late autumn heatwave – there are signs this week of the onset of actual, non-metaphorical cold weather in Australia.

This means it is time to reach into my modest collection of wine for the oldest Mudgee Cabernet Sauvignon I can find, and to plan a meal that does it justice.  Though – having said that – as a colleague recently donated a posh Californian Zinfandel to McCellar, it is a toss up which New World treasure I should summon up to fortify myself against the forces of potential (private equity driven) destruction in the world of wine heritage.

Were I to tackle this dilemma in the spirit of Game of Thrones there would be a trial by combat between the Cab Sav and its American rival!!

But – as a peace loving soul – I envisage instead a civilised comparative tasting and patient reflections on the origins of each wine – a ritual accompanied perhaps by a nourishing Boeuf Bourguignon or soothing cassoulet.

The red-wine winter that I look forward to each year, is finally here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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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Och aye, the noo: wine and the Scots; who knew?

When we think of alcohol and the Scots we usually think of whiskey. But Scots were active in the British wine trade. Rich traders and Scottish Enlightenment intellectuals alike favoured grape over grain. And Scots exerted a largely forgotten influence on wine growing in colonial Australia.

So, as Scotland squares its shoulders for a September referendum on independence from the United Kingdom of Great Britain, let’s reflect on Scots and wine.

I propose that we begin with the Francophilia of philosopher David Hume in the 1750s and thoughts on wine by his dear friend Adam Smith, the ‘father of economics’. Then we’ll catch the currents of late eighteenth century British-American trade networks before pausing to explore the politics of consumption in Georgian Britain. From there we’ll accelerate around the world to colonial New South Wales, travelling part of the way on board ship with colonial Australian Scot John Dunmore Lang to land in the Hunter Valley vineyards of Lang’s brother Andrew and his fellow Scottish neighbour, James King in the 1850s…

Leading thinkers of the Scottish Enlightenment, David Hume and Adam Smith

Leading thinkers of the Scottish Enlightenment, David Hume and Adam Smith

Ideas of wine and economics feature strongly in the work of both Hume and Smith.  (As they wrote before the rise of the temperance movements of the nineteenth century, drinking wine did not have the same stigma attached to alcohol and social harm such as violence, as it does today.) Hume, for one, decried the British trade treaty with the Portuguese that made it port wines cheaper than French claret. There are few Englishmen, he wrote (see page 28), who would not think their country absolutely ruined, were French wines sold in England so cheap and in such abundance as to supplant in some measure all ale and home brewed liquors…[and yet] we transferred the commerce of wine to Spain and Portugal,where we buy worse liquor at a higher price.  Smith, for his part, hinged his argument for free trade partly on the benefits of removing high tariffs from French wines entering Britain, despite long rivalries between the nations.

I remember being intrigued when I first encountered Adam Smith’s assertion about wine and sobriety in An Inquiry into the Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776)If we consult experience, he said,  the cheapness of wine seems to be a cause, not of drunkenness, but of sobriety. The inhabitants of the wine countries are in general the soberest people in Europe: witness the Spaniards, the Italians, and the inhabitants of the southern provinces of France. People are seldom guilty of excess in what is their [cheap] daily fare. Not only did wine countries have less habitual drunkenness but if drunken types moved into wine countries, where light alcohol common wines were cheap, they were transformed into more sober folk. What an argument! From this side of the temperance centuries that began in the early 1800s, this seems preposterous. But there is more. Smith continued: When a French regiment comes from some of the northern provinces of France where wine is somewhat dear, to be quartered in the southern, where it is very cheap, the soldiers, I have frequently heard it observed, are at first debauched by the cheapness and novelty of good wine; but after a few months residence, the greater part of them become as sober as the rest of the inhabitants.  Smith claimed drunkenness resulted not from being able to afford liquor, otherwise the rich would be the most inebrious; it was that light alcohol should be what working people could more readily purchase so they were not so inclined to be intoxicated. For commoners, the cheaper the wine, the more sober the people.  Ergo, remove tariffs on French wine!

 

A petite dram glass from the mid eighteenth century

A petite dram glass from the mid eighteenth century

As I’ve written elsewhere, Smith’s wine and sobriety argument came to be invoked volubly by wine growers in colonial New South Wales to gain legislative support for their industry. But, in the decades before the British colonised New South Wales, Hume and Smith’s interest in wine was part of a much larger Georgian culture.  Historians David Hancock and Charles Ludington have given attention to the deep influence of wine trade and wine drinking at the centre of Georgian British politics. Ludington in particular discusses how wine became a complex symbol of power for Scottish as well as English MPs.  Knowledge of French wine translated into a cultural capital that could be traded for greater influence in the halls of power.

So it comes as little surprise that colonial Australian Scots saw the value in producing wine and invested in the future of wine growing. A high profile colonist, John Dunmore Lang, acted as an immigration agent for a range of enterprises, including colonial vineyards.  Indeed, he claimed that he tried to import qualified German vineyard workers (vinedressers) for his brother Andrew Lang’s Hunter Valley property in 1835.  According to J. D. Lang, his brother asked him to recruit vinedressers while he was signing up missionaries Andrew specified German or French labourers for his vineyard and promised to provide them with their own gardens and livestock. Unfortunately, despite J.D. Lang’s initial success in identifying willing migrants the Dutch Government halted the project. The Germans could not pass through Holland without a guarantee from the British Government that they would not be turned back to Holland, poverty stricken and stranded…  The alternative plan was to recruit Germans who were based temporarily in France until they could emigrate to America but who had run out of money and were living as refugees. Lang finally succeeded in persuading two hundred and fifty Germans – vinedressers and their families – to follow him to New South Wales and he hired a French ship to transport them. But, when the shipload of workers arrived at Rio de Janeiro, the Brazilian Government – keen to keep them – bribed the ship’s captain to release them to that country, and they went on to form a settlement in the south of Brazil (See pp. 139-140 for the extended version of this story). J. D. Lang reported this story, saying he was outraged but powerless. He may have even sought the release of the Germans in Rio himself since the British Government did not formally approve of non-British workers migrating to New South Wales until 1836. Andrew Lang, meanwhile, later employed German vinedressers through an assisted migration scheme and became a member of the first generation of Hunter Valley wine producers.

Which brings us to the last of the Scots in our tour of wine and Scots: James King. Most certainly one of my favourite characters from the colonial Hunter Valley.  Lang may have tussled with a ship’s captain over a team of poached vinedressers but King had the gall to buy back a case of his best wine from a customer. And in a fit of fury – over the actions of another member of the colonial elite – he sent this wine to Buckingham Palace. From where (as I explain in my book First Vintage) – despite the bad blood with which it was dispatched – it received a fairly encouraging response. Quite a feat for colonial wine!

As a coda to the recent royal visit to Australia; and in anticipation of the upcoming Scottish Referendum – settle back with your favourite cabernet sauvignon blend (in a petite dram if you have one) and read King’s short treatise Australia May be An Extensive Wine Growing Country (1857)*.

If this fiery Scot were with us now, how do you think he might have voted come this September?

(* If the hyperlink pops up with an error message go to: http://digital.slv.vic.gov.au/ and search for the document by title)

 

 

 

 

 

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Wine & Controversy

I’m sure Max Schubert could not have imagined that a bottle of Grange (the brainchild of Schubert and a small coterie of his colleagues at Penfold’s in the 1950s) would have a role in bringing down an Australian state premier.  Indeed, it is a very early Grange – vintage 1959,  with an  intriguing story of its own, that is at the centre of evidence to the Independent Commission Against Corruption that yesterday led to the resignation of NSW Premier Barry O’Farrell.

What’s the big deal about Grange? To explain, I have taken down from my shelves a copy of Andrew Calliard’s The Rewards of Patience (Published by Penfold’s, 2004). This book has an extract from a speech by Schubert at a symposium at Australian National University in 1979 about the genesis of what has become the most premium of Australian wines.

Max Schubert, Penfold's Wines

Max Schubert, Penfold’s Wines

Schubert made the first experimental Grange in 1951 using shiraz grapes (also still known then as hermitage) from two Penfold’s vineyards in South Australia. After fermentation he oaked the wine in new untreated hogsheads (barrels), a technique he had observed produced excellent wines in France and other parts of Europe. “The objective”, said Schubert”, was to produce a big, full-bodied wine containing maximum extraction of all the components in the grape material used”.

Fast forward to the heart of the story of Grange, which is that Schubert’s experiment did not meet with applause from his managers. They decided to call a halt to the experiment just prior to the 1957 vintage, partly due to the expense of the oak barrels central to the manufacture of Grange.  But Schubert, in his own words, “disregarded the written instructions in part, and continued to make Grange in reduced quantities.  Finance was not available to purchase new hogsheads, but some benefit was gained by using hogsheads from previous vintages. This undercover production continued through to 1959 and the wines made, although good, lacked that one element which made the difference between a good wine and a great wine”.  By which I presume he meant the new wood.

“In all”, he continued, “it was 10 years from the time the first experimental Grange was made before the wine gained general acceptance and the prejudices were overcome. As the earlier vintages matured in bottle and progressively became less aggressive [in their tannins and from the wood] and more refined, people generally began to take notice, and whereas previously it had been all condemnation, I was now at least receiving some praise for the wine. A little of this filtered through to my board of directors, with the result that just before the 1960 vintage, I was instructed to start making Grange Hermitage officially again, with ample funds available for this purpose”.

A bottle of 1959 Penfolds Grange

So the ’59 Grange was the last of the “undercover” vintages, known in the industry as the ‘hidden’ Granges.

1959 was also the birth year of former Premier O’Farrell, which is why he was sent the bottle of red wine allegedly marked as bottled on his birthday. At the time of being gifted to the premier by an executive of Australian Water Holdings, it cost $3000. Much has been made of how Premier O’Farrell could forget drinking such a wine.  But, as wine is a natural product that may undergo extraordinary transformations but will inevitably decay, even the finest of old wines have a finite life of drinkability, and the ’59 is not considered an outstanding Grange anyhow.  The premier probably didn’t drink it, as it would certainly be memorable one way or the other. This doesn’t of course explain what has become of the bottle in question; another element to the current controversy.

In wine circles, time (and political preferences) will tell whether Premier O’Farrell’s departure is to be portrayed as a dark moment in the story of Australia’s most iconic multi-regional shiraz, or a new element in its mystique.  Either way winegate, or #grangegate as it is in the twittersphere, serves as a reminder that wine is rarely a subject (or $3000 object!) of controversy in Australia.  By contrast, a case of unprecedented fraud that shocked the world’s winerati continues to play out in the United States.  In this case Indonesian Rudy Kurniwan – known as a collector with perhaps the most impressive cellar of fine wine ever – was last year convicted of counterfeiting millions of dollars worth of wine, and will be – incidentally – sentenced next week. His operation affected some of the most powerful men in the United States, for whom wine collecting is a prized hobby. Kurniwan is facing a forty year gaol term.   My understanding is that Kurniwan focused on  premier cru and other high value French brands. I haven’t heard that he faked Grange. If you are plugged into wine news networks, do you happen to know?

And, before the O’Farrell Grange, had there been any wine-related controversies in Australia? Not on anywhere near the scale of the current one.

In colonial New South Wales a feud did erupt in the late 1880s between the notoriously irascible colonial botanist Charles Moore and other members of the Vine Diseases Board. This bitter disagreement was over the identification of the pest grape phylloxera in flourishing New South Wales vineyards and subsequent decisions about vine pulling and compensation for growers. Growers resisted vine pulling while also seeking higher rates of compensation for the destruction of phylloxera-infected vineyards than the colonial botanist would countenance.

Moore, the key antagonist, declared the whole saga “unprecedented in any body connected with the government”! He even called for a government inquiry. In anger, he tried to step down from the Vine Diseases Board but the colonial secretary ignored his resignation. No major political leader became entangled in the escalating histrionics.

Director of Sydney Botanic Gardens, 1848-1896

Charles Moore, Director of Sydney Botanic Gardens, 1848-1896

As I write this New South Wales has a new premier, Mike Baird. I wonder if his birth year was a better (South Australian) vintage than 1959.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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.

FirstVintageCover2print.indd

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!!

 

 

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Movies, Tokaji and an 18th century wine tour

Your favourite wine movie; do you have one? Let me know if you do.

To help you decide there’s a recent story about film world luminaries drawn to wine growing and Brian Miller’s tremendously entertaining piece on wine at the movies in Winestate.

I have several favourite wine movies but top of my list at present is not mentioned in either of these reports. It’s Dean Spanley, a clever and poignant meditation on fathers, sons and mortality with a subtle reference to the magic of wine.

Dean Spanley features Peter O’Toole as a witty, goggle-eyed old curmudgeon who has become increasingly rigid in his habits since the death of his eldest son at war, and then his wife from a broken heart. Jeremy Northam plays his son; increasingly exasperated with his father’s refusal to express grief and desperate to make sense of the injustice of his brother’s death. In his search for solace, son takes father to a public lecture on reincarnation by an Indian prince who is hilariously uninterested in the idea of future lives since he’s content with his present wealth. His next life could not possibly compare!

At the lecture, father and son encounter an irreverent, resourceful fixer (Bryan Brown) and Dean Spanley, an edgy, enigmatic clergyman (Sam Neill; a film world wine grower who owns Two Paddocks in New Zealand).

It’s gradually revealed that when the Dean drinks Tokaji he’s transported to a past life as a dog. I won’t say more than this about the story except that Neill’s performance is deliciously canine.

But I would like to say a little more about Tokaji. Continue reading

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Meet Maurice O’Shea

Meet Maurice O’Shea: a far sighted vine grower, a magician when it came to blending wines; a vigneron who could see the world in a wine glass.

Source: National Library of Australia, photographer Max Dupain. Reproduced with permission.

O’Shea died in 1956 but I met him through his love letters along with stories of him which still ripple around the wine industry, tales told by folk near where I live in Newcastle NSW, and a transcript of a talk O’Shea himself gave to food and wine connoisseurs in Sydney in 1950.

Why was I reading his love letters? They’re in the Local Studies section of Newcastle City Library. As long as you’re a responsible member of the public you can pop in and read them anytime. Or you can read impressions of the passionate way O’Shea wrote, in the early 1920s, to his future wife, Marcia Fuller, in Campbell Mattinson’s The Wine Hunter, The Man Who Changed Australian Wine (2006) or Peter McAra The Vintner’s Letters (2007).

Love is lovely, yes. But when I went searching for O’Shea what I really wanted to know about was his work with wine. I was to speak about him at an event in the Hunter Valley NSW to honour his work at McWilliam’s Mount Pleasant, Pokolbin; the unveiling of a heritage cairn; one of four in a growing series of cairns which celebrate the heritage of Hunter wine growing. Continue reading

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