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Tintilla Estate – Hunter Valley Winery

‘Bob’s Blog’ The French connection: Early days

‘Bob’s Blog’ The French connection: Early days

With our Tintilla French Long Lunch this past weekend I was thinking of why we were so influenced by the French in our winemaking. Timing is everything it is said and when it comes to the development of wine in New South Wales a number of factors came into play. In the UK the Georgian era embraced the ancient Greek and Roman cultures not only in their buildings but also the role of wine as an integral part of everyday life. The “Enlightenment” thinking was central to formulating ideas about how the new colony would develop. It was this background that led to the First Fleet bringing vine cuttings to the colony- how else can we explain a beer, rum and gin culture looking at the possibility of wine making in the new colony. Sir Joseph Banks supported the culture of the vine and interestingly was opposed to sheep in the colony!

The early settlers arrived in NSW after the UK lost access to East Coast American Vineyards and before the Napoleonic wars.  Waterloo was fought in 1815 and subsequently many young men in Britain set out on the Grand Tour and came to appreciate the place wine had in the culture of France and Italy. The post war freedom to explore France and Italy led to many of our early grape growers and wine makers going on tour to find out about wine making.

Banks organized vine plants for the colony of the type “valuable wines of Europe were made” and encouraged plant nurseryman George Sutter to cultivate the vines. Sutter had had talks with the Board of Trade in London about wine production before coming out and was a regular correspondent with Banks.

Suttor planted his vines in what is now Parramatta, the site was later purchased by my maternal great grandfather for his bakery, and is now known as Bakers Mews. An archaeological dig there has revealed the original vineyard sight and is open to the public. Suttor struggled in the early years despite his botanical expertise but after a tour of European wine regions in 1840, during which he took extensive notes, his results improved. He published his observations in “The Culture of the Grape-Vine, and the Orange, in Australia and New Zealand”. In his travels to France he noted particularly’ soil types, vine heights ,trellising and colour and size of grapes’ he longed to see the” hills and plains of Parramatta” covered with vines and admired the way the French “ venerated the vine” and how the stone walled vineyards of Burgundy “ evoked a sense of historic gravitas.” In 1842 Suttor returned to France to experience the Chateau Margaux at a time France was just starting to dominate the fine wine market.

One of the earliest pioneers of the wine industry to travel through post Napoleonic France and Switzerland was John Macarthur and his sons James and William in 1815. Having defended himself over the arrest of Governor Bligh he was able to travel through Europe acquiring knowledge about farming crops and in particular vines. Here the European connection is most interesting. Jean Jacques Dufour had experience in setting up a new world wine industry in Kentucky and had published his experiences. Macarthur arrived in Switzerland in time to observe pruning and could follow the cycle of grape production. His two sons attended school there during the time. William would go on to be a major player in the NSW wine industry. The Macarthur’s collected cuttings from Tain L’Hermitage, from the Cote d’Or, from Languedoc among other places but on arrival in Sydney some of their best had disappeared. (It is said they were offloaded in the Cape! But they could never understand how it happened. “Too much caution cannot be used (crede mihi experto ) until the identity of the vines be proved said William Macarthur!”

James Busby before setting out to Australia with his Father in 1823 toured France observing the growing of grapes and wine making, observations he included in his first book on the culture of the vine. Had NSW been settled by the French there would have been few corn fields without neighboring vineyards he said.

John Busby, the engineer who built Sydney’s water supply from Centennial Park to Hyde Park was given a 2000 acre grant on the Hunter River near Branxton- Kirkton. From the Busby collection some 365 varieties of vines were planted at this Family Vineyard run by his sister and Brother-in-law Kelman in 1832, twenty still existed in 1911. The last wine made at Kirkton was in 1924 approximately one hundred gallons of Chablis and Burgundy-the French influence had a commanding position by then.

The proceedings of the Hunter River Vineyard Association show Red Burgundy and Claret from Bordeaux were the styles they sought to emulate. Hock and Rieslings from the Rhineland dominated the white styles-Hunter Valley Riesling (Semillon). In the early colonial period French wines were not the only ones for British tastes however, Madeira made from Verdelho grapes, Port wines and even Constantia from South Africia were enjoyed. Busby included Italian and Spanish varieties in his collection as the dominance of the French in fine wines was yet to happen.

Closer to home George Wyndham decided to emigrate to Australia and in preparation travelled to France and Italy to study wine making in 1825/6. In Italy he met Margaret Jay, daughter of a French Huguenot, and married. In 1827 he reached Sydney and subsequently purchased 2000 acres on the Hunter River near Branxton which he called “Dalwood” after a portion of his father’s estate Dinton in Wiltshire. He planted various crops but it was grapes that really sparked his interest. In 1828 he obtained cuttings Busby had collected from already established colonial vineyards but these did not do well so subsequently he obtained cuttings from the Macarthurs at Camden and the Busby 1832 collection. His first vintage was in 1831, and by 1836 was in true production. He chose principally French varieties- Cabernet, Shiraz and White Hermitage.

While I have mentioned some of the principles behind the development of the industry of course the vine dressers were of vital importance- more on that another day. The majority of vinedressers were German as migrants from other countries were discouraged. We have one French connection however- Philobert Terrier who ran the Scottish Australian Investment Company’s Kaludah, near Lochinvar—sadly the old winery roof has now collapsed.

We are indebted to the early pioneers and their hunger for information. “Every person who has travelled in France in pursuit of information connected with its agriculture, will, I am sure, bear testimony to the urbanity and obliging disposition commonly manifested towards strangers by the people of the country, and their desire to communicate useful information.” To quote William Macarthur in his Cultivation of the vine, and to note how the free exchange of information continues among wine grape growers and makers today in Australia.


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