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Bob’s Blog: The Hunter Valley Wine Region – a product of the Enlightenment

Bob’s Blog: The Hunter Valley Wine Region – a product of the Enlightenment

The settlement of Australia which has received some controversial attention recently was a striking departure from previous patterns of European colonization. Much of the philosophy behind the move to NSW came from the lessons of the Enlightenment, intent on building a new settlement differently. Based on humane principles it was in effect an experiment applying science and reason to the development of the new colony.
Initially, this was to be a land of penal reform, where freedom could be won. There would be no slavery; every human being was of equal worth. Beyond the convicts, some of whom took advantage of the better opportunities available, it attracted many early settlers who had a vision and looked for the advantages the new settlement would offer, particularly in agricultural pursuits- including the production of wine.
Isolated from the main sea-lanes and trading routes it was important for the colony to become self-sufficient in the production of grain crops, vegetables and fruit trees as quickly as possible. There was also a curious interest in growing grapes that the warmer environment could offer the English settlers!
The Enlightenment, was a philosophical movement of the 18th century, one of the characteristics was the adoption of a scientific approach to the understanding of nature. The Royal Society, a scientific and philosophical body created by King Charles 11 had among its distinguished members Sir Joseph Banks a key person driving the new approach to the founding of the Colony.
This age of inquiry led to the great scientific voyage to the South Pacific by James Cook on the Endeavour in 1768-71. It was an example of the spirit of exploration and observation, organized by the Royal Navy and the Royal Society. On board was Sir Joseph Banks an experienced New World botanist who funded seven others to join him in discovery and documentation of the voyage.
Banks became the greatest proponent of settlement in New South Wales and along with other things was keen to see how wine production would prosper. Among the many plants brought by the First Fleet at his suggestion were vine cuttings from Rio de Janeiro and the Cape of Good Hope.
By December 1791 Governor Phillip wrote to Banks about the vines;” from the few cuttings I brought from Rio and the Cape we now have many thousand young vines here (Parramatta and Norfolk Island)”.
While Sydney Cove had failed as a site for vines, the fertile crescent at Parramatta thrived. Indeed, Watkin Tench, a British Marine Officer who wrote an account of the early settlement was “convinced that the grapes of New South Wales will, in a few years, equal those of any other country”.
Banks took an active interest in the settlement for some 20 years, he was the general advisor to the government on all Australian matters. Banks sponsored George Suttor, third son of a Scottish Market Gardner and well trained, who in 1800 brought grapevines and other plants to the colony. Suttor planted an experimental vineyard at Parramatta in 1801 with little success but his orange orchard worked out. After a turbulent time of trial and error, Suttor became a successful farmer. He later published a work “the culture of The Grape Vine and Orange in Australia and New Zealand” in 1843.
Among the early settlers with an interest in vines there was in 1791- Phillip Schaeffer, at Parramatta, 1794- John Macarthur, at Elizabeth Farm Parramatta in 1806 and later at Camden Park with his son William. The two traveled through the Continent around 1816/7 and collected vines from France.
Gregory Blaxland in 1816 carried out early experiments with vines at Ermington on the Parramatta River, and published in 1819 “A Statement on the Progress of the Culture of the Vine” and was the first to export wine and win an award for it in 1822.
Others early included in 1806-Mary Putland, Orange Grove at St. Mary’s, and about 1810-Samuel Marsden “Mamre” at St Mary’s and James Busby in 1826 at the “Male Orphan School Cabramatta”, developed a vineyard possibly planted it with cuttings he had brought with him in anticipation. This is a short list but demonstrates the keen interest in growing grapes right from the start.
Out of interest to me is that my maternal great-grandfather, John Downey, purchased part of George Suttor’s Parramatta property known as Lisle Estate that had been a vineyard in the 1830’s. There remains evidence still of the techniques such as deep trenching (a technique learned from the Cape where deep trenches are filled with manure before the cuttings are placed, in order to fertilize and hold moisture) and planting of rows with a north-south orientation allowing equal distribution of sunlight. A generation earlier the Downey’s had received a large grant of land in the 1840’s and planted a vineyard in the fertile soils of Smithfield, one of the many vineyards planted in the Sydney area at that time.
Phylloxera, of course, later put an end to most of the vineyards of the Sydney basin. The Hunter, fortunately, was spared from phylloxera but was definitely under the spell of the Enlightenment and took to growing grapes right from the start. It is as we know the oldest grape growing Region in Australia built on the early Sydney experience and also the strength of a collective scientific approach through the Hunter River Vineyard Association (HRVA).
The first vines were planted in the Hunter around 1827/8 on the land grant at Branxton (Kirkton) of the Scottish engineer John Busby, who built the water supply for Sydney – “the Busby Bore” from Moore Park to Hyde Park. The vines came from James Busby’s initial collection from the many existing vineyards around Sydney, some 20,000, for distribution to farmers. The first vines planted by George Wyndham were from this collection but failed, he then acquired cuttings from the Macarthurs. It was the problems and unknown identity of the various vine cuttings that drove Busby to go back to France and Spain and collect properly catalogued vines.
Even the cuttings obtained in 1816 by John Macarthur in France had proved to not be what he expected possibly substituted for inferior ones at the Cape! Another problem that had arisen in the moister Sydney environment was that of ‘blight’, as well as Anthracnose and black spot and many of the unknown varieties planted were susceptible. It would require a scientific approach to sort out which varieties were best.
Busby had brought back some 365 key vine cuttings and their duplicates that were shared by the Botanical Gardens, Thomas Shepherd(of Shepherd’s Reisling fame) at his Darlington nursery and at Kirkton, the vineyard run by his sister Katherine and her husband William Kelman. It was these vines that subsequently became the mother vines of the Australian wine industry.
Busby wrote an account of his Journey through Spain and France detailing many aspects of the vineyards, viticulture, soils, winemaking etc. as well as a description of the carefully catalogued cuttings. Busby is recognised as the great prophet of the Australian wine industry.
His Manual of Plain Directions for Planting and Cultivating Vineyards and for Making Wine in New South Wales published in 1830 helped many growers and publicised the growing and benefits of wine.
Busby wrote” Those who have witnessed the Temperance and contentment of the lowest classes of the people of Southern Europe, where Wine is the common drink and contrasted them with the unhappy effects produced by the consumption of Spirits, in less favored climates …will easily perceive how much it would add to the happiness of the Colonists of NSW”.
Like Dr. Lindeman, he was in favour of Temperance, not abstaining as a means of addressing the abuse of alcohol in the colony.
So it was the development the Table Wine industry in particular that the Hunter Valley pioneered and persisted with. Many growers elsewhere were interested in producing fortified wines, heavy Ports, and distilled brandy as well as grapes for eating at the table. Indeed John Macarthur crossed Governor Bligh by trying to import a Still to make brandy leading to the so-called ‘Rum Rebellion”, and the dismissal of the Governor!
George Wyndham and Dr. Henry Lindeman were true pioneers of a large production Wine Industry coming out of the Hunter Valley. Of course, there were many other Hunter producers who contributed to the advance of knowledge of grape growing and winemaking.
It was through the Hunter River Vineyard Association that the experience and exchange of knowledge, in the true tradition of the Enlightenment, occurred. Formed in 1847 the HRVA had as its primary purpose the “culture of the vine and turning its products to the most profitable account”.
Among the Famous names of the early the association were James King of Illawang, Henry Carmichael of Porphyry, A and J Windeyer of Kinross and Tomago, Edwin Hickey of Osterley, William Kelman of Kirkton, Dr W F Lindeman of Cawarra, John Wyndham of Dalwood and Frederick Wilkinson of Cote d’Or, Honorary members were Justus von Liebig and James Busby.
Many of the experiments and observations in the pioneering days were shared with Europe’s leading scientist of the day, Justus von Liebig, through extensive correspondence with James King. Samples of wine were sent for analysis and the results discussed at the meetings of the HRVA. Both King and William Macarthur won medals at the famous 1855 Paris exhibition (seen here) and their wines were served to Napoleon 111 at the closing ceremony.
In 1857 King published a small tome “Australia May Be an Extensive Wine-growing Country” based on his observations and assessment of our wine grape growing potential. The Goldrush and many other events as we know then occurred increasing the population interested in wine. By this time the Hunter was becoming an important Region thanks to the initiative, drive, enthusiasm and scientific approach of its people.
Still, it was the underlying philosophy of the Enlightenment and the grand experiment that was the Settlement of New South Wales, for which we must be grateful…timing is everything!
Busby, J. (1830). A Manual of plain directions for planting and cultivating vineyards and for making wine in New South Wales. Sydney: R Mansfield.
Hunter River Wine Industry stemmed from Hunter River Vineyard Association by Hans P Mollenhauer read to Historical Society of Cessnock Australian Brewing and Wine Journal
Maitland Mercury online publications
King, James (1800 – 1857) Australian Dictionary of Biography – online edition
Gerald Walsh, The Wine Industry of Australia 1788-1979 in Wine Talk ANU Canberra
Wine Australia a Guide to Australian Wine Nelson 1968
Author: Robert Lusby AM
©Around Hermitage Association


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