Australian wine trailblazers
The story of Europe’s great wine regions is a tale 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 through looking at some of its trailblazers.
Unlike Europe or America, Australia has no native grape vines. Our first 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.
Having brought vine cuttings from France and Spain, James Busby is referred to as the ‘father’ of Australian wine. Most notable of his collection was Syrah from the Northern Rhône. 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, the Hardys and the Hamiltons in McLaren Vale, Tullochs of the Hunter, and Campbells of Rutherglen.
The Hunter Valley, Australia’s oldest wine region, has seen its share of early trailblazers. Most famous is Maurice O’Shea who, with an Irish father and a French mother, had the right pedigree for the drinks industry! He started Mount Pleasant in 1921 and is celebrated for his blending techniques and sophisticated use 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. Karl, co-Chairman of the Wine Selectors Tasting Panel, went on to make 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. Today, he’s recognised as a Hunter Valley Living Legend.
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. He kept his early experiments 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, Penfolds Grange, helped take the industry on the trajectory from the 1960s, where 80 per cent of Australian wines were fortified, to today, where table wines dominate our wine landscape.
Trailblazers of the modern era
The Australian wine industry of today is all about regionality, variety, prestigious single varietal wines and complex, beguiling blends, not to mention formidable Sparklings that are challenging even the best fizz from France. There are literally hundreds of trailblazers from every wine region across the country, who have helped shape our remarkable vinous climate. We’ve highlighted a few of the key characters of this journey.
In 1959, Murray Tyrrell 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, Murray 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 1990s, propelling Australia to number 1 in the UK wine market. It is still by far our most planted white varietal. Tyrrell was also an unofficial spokesman for the Hunter, promoting tourism and seemingly declaring every vintage as the vintage of the century!
Petaluma founder Brian Croser is one of Australia’s mostly highly awarded winemakers. He was a highly influential lecturer in the 1970s and 1980s at Riverina College (now Charles Sturt University), and as winemaker, he was noted for his focus on preserving fruit flavour through ultra-clean and strictly anaerobic winemaking techniques. This focus on ‘clean wine’ gave Australian wines a consistency of quality and a competitive advantage over old world wines for many years.
Brian was also ahead of his time in his conviction of planting the right varietals in the right locations. With Petaluma, he planted Cabernet and Merlot in Coonawarra, Riesling in Clare Valley, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir in the Adelaide Hills with the coldest sites being selected for Croser Sparkling. Brian now runs Tapanappa wines, in one of South Australia’s coolest and most pristine sites in the Adelaide Hills.
While politicians in Canberra jawbone about climate change and environmental protection, trailblazing winemaker Vanya Cullen has been practising sustainability for years.
Vanya’s parents Kevin and Diana Cullen were pioneers in establishing the Margaret River wine region about 50 years ago, along with Tom Cullity of Vasse Felix, Bill Pannell of Moss Wood and a handful of others. Vanya has built on this legacy through her passion for the land and its connection to her wine. Cullen Wines is certified biodynamic, as well as being the first carbon neutral winery in Australia. Vanya’s zeal is to make great wine in harmony with ‘mother earth’ and in rhythm with nature. Admirers range from leading UK wine critic Jancis Robinson to celebrity cook Nigella Lawson.
To read the full story, pick up the latest issue of Selector Magazine at newsstands from March 7.