Discussions on the history and historiography of Australia's New England

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

History revisited - wine industry's vintage

There is a story, perhaps apocryphal, about a lecturer from the New England University College who went into a pub in Uralla and ordered a bottle of wine to go with dinner. After some scratching around, one was finally found. “Would you like a glass”, the waitress asked?

I mention this now because of Armidale’s recent focus on food and wine, including the forthcoming Under the Elms event at UNE. Many of we expats wish we could be there!

Even fifty years earlier, the Uralla pub story would have made no sense, for the Tablelands still grew and sold its own wine. By the time of the story, that had gone. I thought, therefore, that I should share with you the story of the rise and fall of the Tablelands’ wine industry.

In 1830, George and Margaret Wyndham purchased "Annandale" in the Hunter Valley, renaming the property "Dalwood" and building Dalwood House as a home.

In 1828 George had planted his first grapes using 600 cuttings purchased from James Busby. Following the purchase he immediately made the first commercial planting of shiraz at "Dalwood".

Produced in 1831, the first "Dalwood" vintage was not a great success; the "extremely hot conditions promised to make good vinegar." Still, in that same year Wyndham brought the 100,000 acre property "Bukkulla" near Inverell on the edge of the Northern Tablelands. There established another vineyard. Wine growing now expanded rapidly. By 1860, Wyndham's total holdings including “Bukkulla” were producing 11,000 gallons of wine per annum.

George Wyndham was not the only wine producer. Other settlers also planted vineyards and made their own wine.

The wealthier settlers were used to drinking wine, so it made sense to plant their own grapes. The surplus could also be sold locally through the little local hotels that dotted the stage coach routes.

As late as 1905, wine production from the Inverell area of New England was 227,000 litres from seven or eight larger vineyards and a number of smaller vineyards. Nor was this wine bad.

Between 1870 and 1920, wines from the area won many awards at wine shows in Sydney, Amsterdam, London, San Francisco, Chicago and France. A prominent English wine judge of the time wrote of the “Bukkulla” wines, “(They) have a character and quality above the average of most wine-producing countries. The lowest quality is better than a large proportion of the ordinary wines of Europe, while the best would not suffer in comparison to the finest known growths”.

And then all this vanished. Why? Part of the answer lies in that dreaded word, beer.

Initially, colonial New Englanders were not big beer drinkers. Among those wanting to imbibe to excess, to get smashed we would now say, brandy was the tipple of choice. The Australian colonies were one of the biggest global markets for French brandy!

Beer did not become readily available until improved brewing techniques allowed consisent quality. Beer did not become readily available until improved transport allowed bulk shipments. The combination made beer the drink of choice among ordinary Australians.

This was not the only factor.

The rise of the temperance movements, the wowsers, also changed things.

Wine drinking diminished; brandy retreated to the medicine cabinet where it became hospital brandy. Only beer survived. The Tableland’s wine industry was one victim of all this social and structural change. Now it is back!

Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express Extra on 7 November 2012. I am repeating the columns here with a lag because the Express columns are not on line. You can see all the Belshaw World and History Revisited columns by clicking here for 2009, here for 2010, here for 2011, here for 2012 (Belshaw's World), 2012 (History Revisited).

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