History Of Wine In Australia
Australia has a rich wine, vine, and family history that includes more than 200 years of winemaking and viticulture. But how did a continent with no native grapevines manage to become one of the top ten wine capitals of the world? In fact, Australia is the 6th largest wine producer, ranking behind France, Italy, the United States, Spain, and Argentina, although there are reports that China actually ranks third in the world, bumping Australia down to 7th place. Although every state in Australia produces wine, the southern states are the most productive as the climate is cooler there. More than 70 grape varieties are grown in Australia with Shiraz, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Semillon, Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Merlot, and Pinot Noir topping the list. You’ll see this yourself on one of our Shoalhaven Winery Tours.
Unlike the Americas and Europe where native grapevines existed, Australia had to import their grapevines from other regions. Wine manufacture can be traced back to its settlement in 1788 when the first grapevine cuttings were brought to Australia by Governor Arthur Phillip on his ship The First Fleet from the Cape of Good Hope. These vines were planted on a site called Farm Cove in the area now known as Sydney. Even though these first plantings did not produce the hoped-for legendary first Australian vintage because humidity and intense heat caused them to rot, the introduction of grapevines to the area marked the beginning of wine production in Australia. Numerous vineyards were established and by the 1890s wines were being produced in the popular Hunter Valley, Yarra Valley, and Barossa Valley areas.
In the early 1800s John MacArthur, an aspiring winemaker, planted grapes on his Camden Park property southwest of Sydney. His ability to cultivate and produce wines and sell them for profit caused him to become widely credited with cultivating the first commercial winery and vineyard in Australia. He mainly cultivated Pinot Gris, Gouais, Cabernet Sauvignon, Frontignac, and Verdelho varieties and by the 1920s the Australian wine trade was flourishing.
A man named James Busby had a major influence on early wine production in Australia. In 1933 he brought vine cuttings to Australia from France and Spain, introducing the now-famous Australian Syrah or Shiraz variety. This was followed by other European grapes such as Merlot, Chardonnay, and Grenache.
In 1975 the devastation of phylloxera, a disease caused by a tiny yellow insect that caused grapevines to shrivel up and die, hit Australia just as it began to receive worldwide acclaim. The majority of vines were lost before a cure was found by vintners who discovered that vines native to the Americas were resistant to the disease as they were genetically different from European varieties which were at high risk. They ingeniously planted American vines but grafted European varieties to the vine to create a kind of “Franken-vine”. The new vines had American pest-resistant roots and European grapes.
It took more than a century before the Australian wine industry regained its reputation as a quality wine-producing nation. After the phylloxera disaster, Australian wine manufacturers primarily produced fortified, sweet wines with hardly any acclaim. However, thanks to new technologies, a booming economy, and a renewed social interest in wine, a shift occurred in the 1960s that turned the focus back to table wines and production surged from one million cases in 1960 to 85 million cases of table wine in 1999.
During the 1970s aromatic wines such as Rhine Rieslings and gewürztraminer Rieslings became popular. It was during this time that Australia developed the wine cask, also called the “bag-in-a-box” that made it more convenient to drink a small amount at a time. This simple Australian invention is now used all over the world.