The grape rush in southern Australia started more as a grape dawdle, from just one cask of cuttings brought by Edward Henty in 1834 from a nursery in Windmill Hill in Launceston, origin unknown. These cuttings were planted in Portland Bay, in the far south-western corner of the Port Phillip district.
Although Henty’s early plantings soon petered out, shoots were taking hold further east. Three years after John Batman claimed the lower reaches of the Yarra as a good place for a village, a Scot named William Ryrie settled further upstream in the Yarra Valley in 1838. There he planted a small vineyard at Yering from ‘Black Cluster’ and ‘Sweetwater’ cuttings taken from John Macarthur’s Sydney Camden Park Vineyard. Ryrie became Victoria’s first vigneron and was a founding member of the exclusive Melbourne Club. But he got restless and sold his Yering property to Paul de Castella.
The Swiss-born de Castella, along with brother Hubert, created a vast swathe of vineyards in the Yarra Valley – Paul at Chateau Yering, Victoria’s oldest surviving vineyard, and Hubert (and later with his state government viticulturalist son, Francois) at his sanctified Saint Huberts. The de Castellas came from good vine stock. Their old man Jean, a head vigneron back in Switzerland, made wine for many years from his two acre Hawthorn home block. Jean de Castella died on his cottage veranda with a glass of his wine in hand, contented.
Through his influential Bordeaux friends, Paul de Castella acquired 20,000 cuttings from Château Lafite, which did well in the vigorous soils and obliging climate. The results were stunning. A generous host when it came to French wines, one night when Paul’s Burgundy reds ran dry, he opened one of his own to great acclaim from the honoured guests. “Better than Pommard!” was the call.
Good things came in threes. Baron Frederick Guillaume de Pury, Swiss consul in Melbourne, established a vineyard adjacent to St Huberts in 1863, which became Yeringberg. The Baron, longing for his homeland, built Alpine-style cellars that still stand today, the A-frame shaped to shake off snow that never arrives. Unlike the reds of the de Castella brothers, it was Yeringberg’s White Hermitage – made from marsanne plantings from the Rhône Valley – that brought him and Yeringberg plaudits.
These three Yarra Valley vignerons went on to receive many accolades around the world, most notably at the Melbourne International Exhibition of 1880-81, with a St Huberts red picking up the Emperor of Germany’s Greatest Merit award. Hubert de Castella had been for many years extolling the virtues of the Yarra Valley wines. “The light wines of temperate regions, the small proportion of alcohol is amply compensated by the aromas, by the tannin, by those full-mouth flavours which render wine the best beverage on earth,” he said.
Coming of Age
Victorian wines in fact had their very own Judgement of Paris moment a century before the famous 1976 French-Californian tasting showdown. At the Vienna Great Exhibition of 1873, a Bendigo red was declared the winner by French experts – to their bewilderment. They had universally thought it a fine French Hermitage, as having “the same striking affinity with the famous wine of Drôme”. A leading French wine publication of the time lauded: “If Australia were not too remote â€¦ its competition would alarm us [in] France.”
The alarm bells were ringing for the French just five years later. At a Paris Exhibition in 1878, a Victorian syrah was likened by the judges to the esteemed Château Margaux. “Its taste completed its trinity of perfection,” they noted.
Victorian wine had come a long way from some of the horrendous concoctions that had been hawked early on. Notorious among them in the goldfields was a drop made of wine spirits, opium, cayenne pepper and rum. It was called Blow My Skull Off.
The Rutherglen district became a focal point for this romance. Ironically, one of the first to plant, at nearby Gooramadda, was farmer Lindsay Brown in 1851. Lindsay was no relation to the famous Brown Brothers dynasty, but a vine tragic all the same. He implored hapless miners to dig, but for liquid gold instead, telling them, “You need only to sink 18 inches – and plant vines.”
Many did. Scottish migrant John Brown started out in a little place in the Ovens Valley called Milawa. Another branch of the Brown family – Angela, Eliza and Nick – runs All Saints Estate, established in 1864 by George Sutherland Smith. Another family, the Chambers, have had a long association with the Rutherglen district as sheep farmers and in the better times, vignerons. William Chambers acquired the Rosewood and Lakeside vineyards in the 1870s.
Taking the reins from the legendary Bill, Rosewood today is run by Stephen Chambers and Lakeside (aka Lake Moodemere Estate) by his brother, Michael. The Rosewood vineyard had some of the oldest Rutherglen plantings – a 2.4ha plot that pre-dated the 1850s gold rush – and was acquired from a reclusive figure, Anthony Ruche, one of the area’s first fortified winemakers.
Some of the varieties Rosewood vinifies today were originally brought to Australia from Europe in 1817 by the Macarthur merino family. These included Muscat a petit grains (Rutherglen Brown Muscat) and gouais, a rare ancestor of chardonnay, of which Chambers Rosewood is the world’s only commercial producer.
Although Tahbilk, in central Victoria on the banks of the Goulburn River, was established by a Melbourne syndicate in 1860, it has been in the Purbrick family since 1925: first Reginald, then Eric, to John and now fourth- and fifth-generation, Alistair and his daughter, Hayley.
Changing the Guard
As the gold rush was abating, the Victorian government encouraged diversification through farming, granting leases to new areas to all and sundry.
Another mad rush – a vine rush – ensued, led not by winemakers, but, according to Francois de Castella, “Lawyers, doctors, men of means [whom] planted vineyards by proxiesâ€¦ Speculation, fashion, public opinion, all were pointing to prosperity.” Sounds very familiar.
Great Western, with its historical vineyards, was a beneficiary of this rush. Young French migrant Anne-Marie Blampied came to Beechworth for gold but then drifted away, vine cuttings in hand, and established a vineyard called St Peter’s near Ararat in 1863.
These early plantings provided vine stocks to former butchery business owners the Best brothers – Joseph at Great Western in 1865 and Henry at Concongella in 1866. Joseph excavated tunnelled ‘drives’ to store his wine underground. They survive today, as a trip to Seppelt Wines’ Great Western cellar door can attest.
By the late 1800s, Victoria led Australia’s wine production, a fair proportion of which landed on British shores. Nothing could stop this train. Until the train wreck in the form of a tiny sucking insect, phylloxera, came to town, and then to many towns.
Emerging from a small vineyard in Fyansford, near Geelong, the louse tracked northwards, slowly, but to devastating effect. Suddenly Victoria became the smallest wine state in the country.
Victoria would live to fight another day but phylloxera-free and with already a burgeoning wine industry, South Australia was ready to claim its supremacy.
A Taste of History
2018 Yering Station Village Shiraz, Yarra Valley, A$30, a regional classic harking back to the original black cluster variety planted nearly 200 years ago.
2020 St Huberts Pinot Noir, Yarra Valley, A$35, a fuller style Yarra pinot reminiscent of the Miller’s Burgundy pinot variety of the late-1800s.
2019 Yeringberg Marsanne Roussanne, Yarra Valley, A$70, the classic White Hermitage varieties that made this winery renowned.
2018 All Saints Estate 1920 Old Vine Shiraz, Rutherglen, A$80, made in the original winery using traditional basket pressing of the day, this vintage marks the estate’s 150th anniversary.
NV Chambers Rosewood Rare Muscadelle, Rutherglen, A$250/375ml, is made from old vines, and blended solera-style from very old vintages, dating back to the 1890s.
2007 Tahbilk 1860 Vines Shiraz, Nagambie Lakes, A$415, is a piece of history, made from ungrafted, pre-phylloxera shiraz plantings that are among the oldest in the world.
2021 Best’s Concongella Blanc, Great Western, A$35, is produced using Henry Best’s original Nursery Block. The vine cuttings from were planted randomly, hence this field blend.
2017 Seppelt St. Peters Grampians Shiraz, Great Western, A$70, formerly Great Western Hermitage. From the 1998 vintage it was renamed in honour of the region’s first vineyard.
Yering Station vineyard, St Huberts and Yeringberg vineyard are on the homeland of the Woiworung people. Saints and Rosewood vineyards are on the homeland of the Waveroo people. Tahbilk vineyard is on the homeland of the Taungurong people. Best’s Great Western and Seppelt’s Great Western vineyards are on the homeland of the Djabwurung people.