Hunter Valley History

Brief history of the Hunter Valley

Discovered by John Shortland RN in 1797 and named after John Hunter the captain of the HMS Sirius, The Hunter Valley had rich natural resources including cedar timber and coal. By 1826 it was opened to settlement and along the river, some vineyards were planted among other crops.

Hunter Semillon – It’s Early History
Among the grape varieties brought back by James Busby in 1832 was the Semillon grape. He divided his collection into thirds, one going to the Botanical Gardens, one to Thomas Shepherd and the remaining to his Hunter Valley vineyard Kirkton.

Thomas Shepherd was a renowned nurseryman who had his establishment near Vine Street in Darlington, just near what is now Sydney University. Shepherd was a friend of Busby’s and helped him write his manual for growing grapes. Shepherd also gave lectures on viticulture at the Mechanics School of Arts in Pitt Street, Sydney. The building designed by the colonial architect John Bibb is still standing and has been restored and become the Art House Hotel.

The School of Arts was a precursor of Sydney University and served as an important resource for providing the know-how to the colonists. The Reverend Henry Carmichael one time president of the Hunter River Vineyard Association and owner of the Porphyry Vineyard that was on the School of Arts Board
A report seen here in the Maitland Mercury of 1850 outlines Shepherd’s identification of this grape variety as suitable to plant in the colony and how it became known as Shepherd’s Riesling.

James King of Irrawang among other members of the Vineyard Association recognised the suitability of Shepherd’s Riesling in the Hunter such that by the 1850’s it had proven to be a most successful white grape variety.

Known as Shepherds Riesling then Hunter River Riesling because of its resemblance to the German wine that was so popular at the time. We know it today as Semillon and indeed the Hunter has become famous for this Varietal thanks largely to the keen observations by the early pioneers of our wine industry.

Hunter Shiraz – It’s Early History
It’s hard to not to mention Hunter Valley Shiraz in the same breath as Hunter Semillon.

Both vines were brought to the Hunter by the great prophet of the Australian wine industry James Busby. Arriving in 1826 to the colony of NSW Busby had a vision of developing a wine industry but found the range of vines available not very suitable and so undertook a trip to Spain and France to collect vines. In 1832 his vines arrived and were distributed to the Botanical Gardens in Sydney, to Shepherd’s private nursery and to his property Kirkton in the Hunter Valley. Shiraz grapes obtained from the hill of Hermitage in the Rhone Valley proved successful in the Hunter climate. The wine was noted for its smoothness and refinement and was known as Hunter River Burgundy or Hermitage

Also among Busby’s collection were Chardonnay and Pinot Noir cuttings obtained from the famous Clos du Vougeot vineyard in Burgundy.

One key feature of the Hunter River wine industry has been its scientific approach to the growing of the vines and making of wine. In the 1840’s James King and others formed a society to exchange ideas and taste the products of their endeavours, comparing the wines to those from France. In the age of enlightenment their approach was fundamental to working out the most appropriate varietals, trellising, fertilising, pruning, wine making and transport.


Records of their half-yearly meetings can be found in the Maitland Mercury, available online. The Hunter is the oldest continuous wine region in Australia but also has a youthful cohort of forward-looking winemakers enabling it to keep pace with the times.