By Fergal Gleeson
The story of Europe’s great wine regions is the story of tradition and heritage. Many wine regions of the Mediterranean have grown vines since the time of the ancient Greeks and Romans.
In the middle ages, the great Benedictine and Cistercian monasteries refined winemaking and their methods were used until modern times. The story of Australian wine is entirely different.
It is perhaps best understood though looking at some of it’s trailblazers.
Unlike Europe or America, Australia has no native grape vines. Our first grape vines came via the Cape of Good Hope with Arthur Philip.
They were planted at Farm Cove in what is now the Botanical Gardens. They didn’t last and John Macarthur is credited with the first commercial winemaking out of Camden Park, south west of Sydney.
James Busby, is referred to as the ‘father’ of the Australian wine industry, because of the vine cuttings that he brought from France and Spain to Australia.
Most notable of the cuttings he procured, was Syrah from the Northern Rhone. Renamed Shiraz, it is now Australia’s most planted varietal.
Families of early settlers were trailblazers in the industry. Many of the names are still among Australia’s best known brands today: the Penfolds and Hill Smiths (Yalumba) of Barossa, the Henschkes of Eden Valley, Hardys of McLaren Vale and the Campbells of Rutherglen.
The Hunter Valley, Australia’s oldest wine region has seen its share of early trailblazers. The Hunter’s best known is Maurice O’Shea. With an Irish father and a French mother he had pedigree for the drinks industry!
He started Mount Pleasant in 1921 and is celebrated for his blending techniques and sophisticated used of oak. The few remaining wines he made from the 1940s and 1950s are almost priceless today. Mount Pleasant’s flagship red wine ‘The Maurice O’Shea’ is named in his honour.
Karl Stockhausen, a German emigrant, fell into winemaking when he got a cellar hand job at Lindeman’s Ben Ean winery at Pokolbin.
He made some of the greatest Lindeman’s Hunter wines, such as the shiraz-based Lindeman’s Hunter River burgundies and Hunter River chablis, made from semillon.
Of course no story of early trailblazers would be complete without mentioning Max Schubert, who dreamt of making a great Australian wine comparable in quality to the best of Bordeaux.
His early experiments were run in secret from the Penfolds family, who wanted their winemaker to continue making the ports and sherries for which they were renowned.
The success of what is now Australia’s most famous wine helped take the Australian wine industry on the trajectory from the 1960’s where 80% of Australian wines were fortified to today where table wines dominate.
Trailblazers in Recent Times
In 1959, Murray Tyrell took over the Tyrrell’s family winery, in the Hunter Valley, which was founded in 1858. After having been introduced to French Chardonnay by his good friend and fellow Hunter Valley winemaker, Len Evans, Tyrrell pioneered Australia’s first commercial Chardonnay in the early 1970s.
The importance of this varietal can hardly be overstated. Australian Chardonnay went on to become the wine style that the world fell in love with in the 1980s and 1990’s propelling Australia to number 1 in the UK wine market.
It is still by far Australia’s most planted white varietal. Tyrell was also a sort of unofficial spokesman for the Hunter promoting tourism and seemingly declaring every vintage as the vintage of the century!
Tyrell Wines is still one of the region’s largest producers and is run by Murray’s son Bruce.
Photos from the National Portrait Gallery.
More to follow next week…
From Selector Magazine