Vineyards in Mendoza, Argentina.

The coronavirus pandemic, recent drought and appalling bushfires have rocked our community to its core. Yet Australia has faced many periods of uncertainty throughout its history. We are also experiencing a time of massive social change and political bloodletting. The #blacklivesmatter and #metoo movements have brought renewed focus on inequality.

Our colonial heritage is also being questioned. The word ‘colonial’ to some means violence, theft of land and disinheritance. What we know about the frontier wars of the 1860s and 1870s is just a fragment of the reality. When looking back at the past, the behaviours of our ancestors are often judged by the standards of our day. Sir Henry Parkes, five times the premier of New South Wales, was a racist bastard, all things considered. Colonial leaders were of waspish disposition as were the state legislatures, church organisations and social institutions of the time. Yet many of these people showed foresight by dealing with potential threats from outside our borders.

The steam-powered age during the mid-1850s brought the world closer to Australia and with it a myriad of potential pests, diseases and mini-pathogens. Quarantine stations were established in major ports. Yet this did not stem the arrival of Vitis vinifera’s mortal enemies.

Oidium spread across Queensland, New South Wales and Victoria between 1866 and 1869. In 1872 it had arrived in South Australia causing “havoc” in the vineyards. But within a few years most vignerons were able to manage or protect their vines with applications of sulphur. A disastrous outbreak of stem rust in South Australia’s wheat crops in 1867 led to the appointment of a Royal Commission and recommendations “that more needed to be known about the sciences underlying agricultural production”.

But the spread of oidium was a dress rehearsal for a much greater challenge. When phylloxera was discovered at Fyansford in 1875, strict countermeasures were put in place to stop its spread. The Victorian Government legislated the Disease in Vines Act (1877) in which inspectors were authorised “to check vineyards for signs of the disease and destroy any infected vines”. Initially growers had no recourse for compensation if their vineyards were pulled up, but this was changed in 1880 with the Phylloxera Vine Disease Act.

Another Royal Commission, established by South Australia’s agricultural minister Ebenezer Ward in 1875, led to recommendations to create a department of agriculture, appoint a professor of agriculture, establish an experimental farm, as well as a program to improve varieties of crops, grasses and fertilisers. This far-sighted report was a call to arms and gave significant momentum to South Australian wine. Roseworthy Agricultural College was established in 1883 to meet all of these challenges.

Many of South Australia’s early vignerons were involved in establishing some of the strictest biosecurity protocols of the time. Vigneron Thomas Hardy was particularly active. William Patrick Auld of Auldana Vineyards, president of the South Australian Vignerons’ Association, became the first secretary of the Provisional Phylloxera Board (after the Phylloxera Act of 1899). He played a crucial role in pushing through legislation to protect the colony’s vineyards. But in 1864, as a younger man, he had joined the disastrous Boyle Travers Finniss expedition to the Northern Territory where he fatally shot an Aboriginal. After an inquiry he was put on trial for murder, but was acquitted for lack of evidence.

The new Phylloxera Board appointed Henry Lowcay as Inspector of Vineyards in 1899. Previously he had supervised the “quarantine, disinfection and destruction” of vines after the arrival of phylloxera in 1888. Lowcay was instrumental in keeping phylloxera out of South Australia by instigating strict control measures for importing vinestock, curtailing illegal carriage of vines across the border and monitoring vine health across the state. Meanwhile in Victoria, viticultural experts Romeo Bragato, Francois de
Castella and Giovanni Federli promoted the use of American rootstocks to protect new plantings from phylloxera.

South Australia’s remarkable inheritance of 19th-century grape vine plantings is an example of extraordinary political foresight and the collaborative effort of the wine industry. Draconian measures were enforced to protect the future of the sector. But this colonial past is not without its challenging truths.