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Aussie Vines and Wines

Then . . .

When the thirteen original North American colonies won their battle for independence, Mother England was faced with a curious problem: what to do now with her massive convict population (remember, our own state of Georgia began existence as a penal colony). "Transportation," even to the ends of the earth, being infinitely cheaper than building more jails, the English (for a variety of economic and political reasons) chose as their new convict destination New South Wales, the eastern part of Australia that had been discovered and mapped by Captain Cook in 1769. The First Fleet carrying 736 convicts landed at Botany Bay in 1788 . . . and Australia evolves from there.

The early settlers were more interested in hard spirits than in wine - in fact, by 1808 New South Wales had what can best be described as a "rum economy," with hard spirits used as currency - but by the 1820s things were much changed. James Busby, arriving in Sydney in 1824, found a thriving town of 10,000, including "men of enterprise and industry," settlers who could perhaps be persuaded to produce and consume wine in its proper social environment. Busby took up the cause with a vengeance: he traveled throughout Spain and France, amassing a collection of vine cuttings from 543 varieties, more than half of which he was able to bring back to New South Wales in good health.

Early enthusiasts like Busby - and like Dr. Henry John Lindemann, who settled in the Hunter Valley in the 1840s and planted vines - espoused a thesis of moderation: that the drinking of light table wines with meals would prove an antidote to the spread of alcoholism caused by "ardent spirits." In spite of their proselytizing efforts, however, Sydney remained a roistering seaport with a major thirst for the hard stuff.

In what is today the state of Victoria, the vine arrived in serious fashion in 1839, with Melbourne's first Superintendant. Charles Latrobe. Latrobe had lived for some years in Switzerland and had married a Swiss woman; partly as a result, the area shortly experienced a steady stream of emigration from Switzerland, including many skilled agricultural workers. By 1860 the vine was firmly established in the Yarra Valley. Further to the northwest, vines were planted within months of the foundation of Adelaide in 1836, and other areas quickly followed.

The 20th century splits neatly into three periods. Between 1900 and 1955, Australia was an exporter of low-cost sweet "Sherry" and "Tawny Port." The period of 1955-1985 saw the transition back to table wine, with an increase in domestic consumption. The years 1985-2000 mark the golden era of wine exports, reflecting the shift to premium grapes and a massive explosion in the rate and amount of new vineyard plantings. By as early as next year, Australia is projected to be the fourth largest exporter of wine in the world. To quote James Halliday: "The challenges inherent in this are immense - Australia will have to be lucky, and very clever."

and Now!

I spent most of the month of August "down under," and can report from first-hand experiences that the explosion of new plantings continues at a rapid pace. Someone threw out an amazing statistic at one point - that a new winery opens down there every 72 hours - and when we repeated that to our winemaker friend Trevor Mast at Mount Langi Ghiran he speculated that the opposite might also be true, that one might close every 72 hours. Nevertheless, brand-new vines were evident everywhere we went.

We started our trip in Adelaide, from which we could easily cover the Clare Valley and the Barossa Valley to the north, and the Adelaide Hills to the east. To the north, the area combines a bit of the look of Napa with a bit of our Midwest, with its small towns with main streets of one-story buildings. Gum trees are flowering (it is just barely the start of spring), and where the land is green it is an intense emerald green. Vines are dormant still and are just now being pruned. The Adelaide Hills is totally different, with stunningly beautiful scenery, seriously winding roads, great drop-offs to deep valleys, stiff cypresses, more trees and bushes in bloom . . . sometimes a California feel, sometimes northern Italy.

Our next region, driving south out of Adelaide, is McLaren Vale, where everything is lush and green and rolling, and the main road into town is lined with signage replicating the labels of all the local wineries. Here we see the first signs of bud-break on the vines. Even further south is Coonawarra which, by contrast, is seriously flat, its saving grace being the narrow strip of terra rossa that imparts a potent terroir to the red wines.

We next drive east over the Grampian Mountains to visit Trevor Mast at Mount Langi (two of his wines have been featured here in the past, the Billi Billi Shiraz and the Four Sisters white), then on to Melbourne (our favorite city), from which we can cover the Yarra Valley and the Goulbourn Valley to the north. Yarra ranks right up there with the Adelaide Hills for breath-taking scenery and stunning views.

We fly over to Sydney and pick up another car to check out two more wine areas: "hot" relatively new Mudgee on the western side of the Blue Mountains, an old gold rush town/region which charms, and stodgy old Hunter Valley, which does not. In Sydney (the least driveable city we have ever been in) we make time for some non-wine-related venues (the Opera House, the Botanical Garden, the Quays, charming Elizabeth Bay House), then on to New Zealand (but that will have to wait for another issue of this newsletter).

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