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‘Bob’s Blog’ Origin of sparkling wine in the Hunter

Sparkling Tintilla Blush with some Granita Syrup from the Two Fat Blokes and a day in the freezer made the welcoming Cocktail at our end of Harvest Hawaiian night. We have a long tradition of making sparkling wines in the Hunter, starting with the experiments of James King of Illawang. In 1850 he was awarded the Horticultural Society of Sydney’s Gold medal for his “light sparkling “ from the 1844 vintage.

More significantly he was invited to have his sparkling wine on the table of Emperor Napoleon III at the closing ceremony of the famous Paris Exhibition of 1855. The Paris jury reported the wine had “a bouquet, body and flavor equal to the finest champagnes”. Interestingly the muselet (wire basket) used to prevent the cork blowing out of a champagne bottle was not invented till 1844 by Aldolphe Jaqueson and the rise of champagne as a popular wine style was a 19th century phenomenon.   So in a sense we are quite contemporary with the development of sparkling wine due to Kings endeavors.

As a Scotsman with no viticultural experience, he from the outset in 1832, had experimented and tried to discover the best methods of planting, training and pruning his vines, he sought the most suitable soils and selected those vines that seemed to thrive in the Hunter environment. He “selected vines that bore abundantly every year and brought their fruit to the greatest perfection” He also developed skills in wine making and blending as well as “mellowing” or ageing his wines. The Semillon grape did well in his hands and also the Pinot Noir!

It is said he spared no pains to obtain high quality- limiting his cropping levels to two thousand gallons from about five acres of grapes as he felt larger crops would produce inferior wines. He was typical of many early settlers, full of enthusiasm and energy, not afraid to take on new ideas and happy to share his experiences. He wrote numerous pamphlets and books including “Australia may be an Extensive Wine-growing Country” published in Edinburgh 1857.

Recognizing that they had little experience in growing and producing wine the early pioneers formed the Hunter River Vineyard Association in 1847 as a means of exchanging ideas and experiences. James King was a driving force behind the HRVA which insisted every member be a “cultivator of the vine and bona fide maker of wine” and that “members are to communicate any knowledge on viticulture by letter to the secretary”.

At their half yearly meetings “Each member is to give 8 bottles of wine or more of his vineyard, to be packed in a box with locks and hinges, key to be given to the secretary with a statement of the vineyard, age of vine, variety, implements used, age of wine and quality” Reading this makes me feel good that the wine tasting groups I belong to are not so demanding but the tradition of comparative tastings remains central to driving quality I believe.

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