Book review: “First Vintage; Wine in Colonial New South Wales”

“First Vintage; Wine in Colonial New South Wales” by Julie McIntyre (UNSW Press; hardback; 247 pages; $49.95)


Imagine sending a fleet of sailing ships to the other side of the world in the 18th century to establish vineyards and make wine. Yet this is what author Julie McIntyre suggests Australia’s early white settlers did.

The fact that Australia’s first grapevines arrived on the First Fleet in 1788 and that they were planted in the governor’s garden at Circular Quay has been well documented. So has the fact that the vines failed at Sydney Cove, while the next attempt, in Parramatta’s less-humid climate, was more successful.

But many of the stories in this new book about the early viticultural history of New South Wales have either been forgotten or never told at all.

One of McIntyre’s revelations is the extent to which grapegrowing and wine production were important motivations for the settlement of the colony of New South Wales. The author emphasizes that the English wanted not only to re-settle the unwanted criminal element of England in a far-away place, but they were keen to establish a colony of winegrowing which could be England’s vineyard – the English climate then being thought unsuited to winegrowing. The belief among many was that wine could be as important a source of income for the colony as wheat and wool – an idea that seems radical, as food and clothing are surely more important in a subsistence economy than alcoholic drink. However, the other motivation was the widespread belief that wine was the alcoholic beverage of moderation; a civilizing drink compared to distilled spirits and beer.

The cultivation of vines was strongly encouraged by the English authorities, and viticulture was far more widespread in the early days than most of us realize today. Unfortunately, the architects of the colony vastly over-estimated the alacrity with which wine-drinking would be taken up by the local populace. Basically, few people wanted to drink wine in preference to other forms of alcohol. Hard drinking was rife in the early decades of the colony. And a significant export market did not begin to develop until the 1860s. Australia had to wait till the mid-1980s for a real wine exporting boom.

There are many other revelations in this excellent and comprehensive book, including the aborigines’ first reactions to wine. Bennelong (spelt Bannelong), for instance, drank wine regularly at Governor Phillip’s dinner table, after initially refusing it. And the shameful episodes where the local white gentry would get the aborigines drunk on wine and then encourage them to fight, sometimes with fatal consequences.

At the same time, ‘booster literature’ was promoting vinegrowing and winemaking and influential people were exhorting wine as a way to keep the people sober, or relatively sober. Wine, inexpensive, freely available and low in alcohol, was seen as the beverage of sobriety and therefore a way to control the people and keep them productive.

Although English migrants and convicts were often excellent farmers, they knew little about viticulture; hence there was a push to import German ‘vine-dressers’. These people eventually came to have a big influence on the emerging wine industry, and some of their descendants are still making wine – think of Andrew and Jacob Stein of Robert Stein Wines, Ken Helm of Helm Winery, Sam Kurtz of Orlando.

The travails of early winegrowers are recorded in detail, and a special chapter is allotted to George Wyndham and his family of Dalwood in the Hunter Valley (later re-established as Wyndham Estate). At one time Dalwood had 14 acres of vines. There’s also a lot on the earliest grapevine importations and the ‘wine squires’ who brought them in: the Macarthurs, George Suttor, James Busby and others.

This is a scholarly work by a professional historian. Ms McIntyre is a lecturer in Australian and European history at the University of Newcastle, and – for good measure – a grand-daughter of Mudgee winemaker Alf Kurtz. The book is a significant addition to the literature of Australian wine history. It’s been carefully researched and written, thoroughly documented and contains a large number of early photographs of great interest. I strongly recommend it. 

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