Address by Mr Julian Jeffs Q.C.

Past President of the Circle of Wine Writers

Let me confess at once that when I was asked to deliver this address the name of Admiral Arthur Phillip did not mean anything to me at all.  My memory was at fault as I had seen it mentioned in books on Australian wine that I had read, but it was only mentioned in passing, and had not registered with me.  Reading more widely, I soon came to see what a great man he was.

He had been sent, rather reluctantly, and with a most unpromising collection of people, to the other side of the world.  Thanks to his care and skill, he got them there with minimal loss of life and by the time he left the foundations of a new dominion had been securely laid.  But these aspects of his achievement have in part already been covered in addresses and will no doubt be the focus of future ones.  My own subject is wine.  I doubt whether, even with his unique foresight, he could imagine the full splendour of the vintages which the future would provide and to which his own enthusiasm gave the first impetus.

John Beeston started his excellent book “A Concise History of Australian Wine” with a quotation from a letter written by Captain Phillip (as he then was) to the Colonial Secretary Lord Sydney, in whose honour the settlement was named.

“In a climate so favourable the cultivation of the vine”, wrote Phillip “may doubtless be carried to any degree of perfection, and should no other articles of commerce divert the attention of the settlers from this part, the wine of New South Wales may perhaps here after be sought with civility and become an indispensable part of the luxury of European tables…”

Now we are there, but the journey was to take a considerable time.

Wines for luxurious tables did not at first enter the imagination of the immigrants, voluntary or otherwise.  However wine for their own consumption certainly did and some of the marines who were in charge of the convicts sent a memorial before setting sail in 1787 that they

Conceive ourselves sorely aggrieved by finding the intentions of Government to make no allowance for spirituous liquor or wine after our arrival at the intended colony in New South Wales.  A moderate distribution of the above-mentioned article being indispensable for the preservation of our lives, which change of climate and the extreme fatigue we shall necessarily be exposed to may probably endanger.

How right they were!  Their memorial may well have helped to stimulate Captain Phillip’s interest, but wine growing formed no part of his brief before sailing.  The only crop he had been specifically ordered to grow by the Pitt Government was hemp for the use of the navy.  At that time there were virtually no New World wines in England.  There were some from South Africa but the heyday of Constantia was yet to come.

A year after landing he was growing vines obtained from South Africa in his garden on the banks of Sydney Cove where the Botanical Gardens are now, but they did not thrive.  It was the wrong place.  The beautiful location down by the sea was warm and damp: the ideal condition for the growth of the fungus “anthracnose” which was fatal, though this was not recognised and failure was blamed on the hot winds.  The disease could easily have been overcome with modern sprays.

Still, he persevered.  In July 1790 he had 1000 vine cuttings and planted a vineyard at Rose Hill.  The next year he picked his first harvest, but it was not very exciting: two bunches of grapes.  By this time he had 3 acres of vineyard at Government House, Parramatta.

In those early days there were more pressing problems to deal with: most notably getting enough to eat.  When the convicts could be persuaded to work at all, which was not easy, few had any ability as farmers or gardeners and none had any experience at all as vineyard workers.  It is extraordinary that vines were grown from the very beginning, as the lusty tipple of the colonists was rum.  The fact that wine was grown may perhaps be attributed to two things: its popularity with members of the upper classes who were the officers for the expedition and also an imperial desire to make Britain independent of its European neighbours.  When Hubert de Castella published a book about it in 1886 he called it “John Bull’s Vineyard”.

The first commercial vineyard was planted also at Rose Hill, by a free German immigrant from Rheinhessen, Phillip Schaffer, who had come out as a superintendent of convicts, but he was no good at it as he spoke no English.  However, he was granted 140 acres of land in 1791 and planted one acre with vines and tobacco.  He made the colony’s first wine – 90 gallons of it – in 1795, but sold the vineyard two years later.  After various changes of ownership it passed into the hands of the Roman Catholic Church which continued producing altar wines there until 1960.  Now it is gone, absorbed into the city, a fate which nearly befell the mighty Chateau Haut-Brion in Bordeaux, which was only saved by the enormous prices its wines fetch.

By 1792, out of 1441 acres planted, four were of vines, but not all of these may have been intended for wine.  Captain Phillip was not to see how right his vision had been, as he left the colony, a very sick man, in December 1792, though he lived till 1814.  It was to be a long haul, but we are apt to forget that the wines grown in Europe today have been evolved through a thousand years of experiments with sites, vine varieties and methods of vinification.  Australia learned fast.

The second known wine grower was Lt. John Macarthur who settled near Parramatta and planted vines there in 1792, though the vineyard has since disappeared.  What a man he was! – a stormy petrel if ever there was one.  But although he left no legacy as a wine grower he was to make one contribution which was to have a vital and dramatic effect on the history of the colony: he introduced sheep farming and wool production.

At the beginning of the nineteenth century Phillip Gidley King, who had sailed in the first fleet with Captain Phillip and who was to become governor of New South Wales from 1800 to 1806, was as anxious to develop vineyards as his captain had been and, at his instigation the Sydney Gazette, in its issue of March 15th 1803, published an article advising settlers on how to make wine.  Unfortunately, it had been translated from the French without much thought and, forgetting that France was in the northern hemisphere, it advised the hapless growers to prune their vines in January and February.

After some vicissitudes the Macarthur family enters the story again in 1817 when John Macarthur, after some years of banishment, came back with a collection of European vine cuttings, but they had not been wisely selected and most failed.  His son, Sir William Macarthur, became the leading wine grower in New South Wales in the first half of the nineteenth century but his wines were not esteemed for their quality.

At this time wine growing was a crusade carried on in the name of temperance, in the true sense of the word: moderation.  The settlers’ tipple was rum and, for the most part a rough
lot, they drank it in vast quantities.  Prohibition would obviously have been disastrous – oh that the Americans had seen that! – and the inspired solution was to encourage brewing and wine growing.

The first recorded export of wine to England was made by Gregory Bloxland, whose site in Sydney is now called Vineyard Creek.  The Royal Society of Arts had offered a medal for the ‘finest wine of not less that 20 gallons of good merchantable quality made from the produce of vineyards in New South Wales’.  The wine was duly submitted but was received with modified rapture, and although he got a medal in 1823 it was only a silver one.  He tried again in 1827 and this time he was awarded a gold one.  Unfortunately he was of a depressive temperament and committed suicide in 1853, but went on growing wine to the end.

Three years earlier one of the great figures in the history of Australian viticulture, who was to do much to bring Phillip’s vision into reality, arrived in Sydney: James Busby.  In 1825 he published his first book “Treatise on the Culture of the Vine” and became principal of a male orphan school where he established a vineyard, though he soon lost his position and it was developed by his successor.  In 1830 he published his book “A Manual of Plain Directions for Planting and Cultivating Vineyards and for Making Wines in New South Wales”. They went in for long titles in those days.  It carries an advertisement

In order to facilitate the Distribution of this Manual in the Interior, a certain Number of Copies will be forwarded, under the Sanction of His Excellency the Governor, to each of the District Constables, from whom it can be procured at the same price as in Sydney, namely; Three Shillings & Sixpence.

He was one of the propagandists of wine as a temperance beverage to reduce the consumption of ‘ardent spirits’, and he wrote with the vigour of an evangelist.  His book is a good read.  Shortly afterwards he made an extensive tour in Spain and France and wrote a fascinating book.  In Hermitage he was told that four fifths of the wine was sold to Bordeaux for blending with claret.  At this time English wine merchants were in the habit of specifying how much Hermitage they wanted to be added.  He had stumbled on that combination of grape varieties which, over a century later, was to be so successful in Australia: Cabernet-Shiraz.  In his journeys he collected cuttings of 543 vine varieties and brought 362 of them alive back to New South Wales.  They were planted in Sydney Botanical Gardens, though many were mislabelled.  But in 1833 he left to be British Resident in New Zealand, and he made wine there, but that is another story.  He died in England in 1871.

Another of the earliest names in Australian viticulture is still renowned.  Dr. Henry John Lindemann planted vines in Cawarra in 1843.  He was one of a great line of Australian doctors who linked good wine with good health long before their European colleagues had stumbled on this great truth.  Another, whose name is still equally renowned, was Dr. Christopher Rawson Pefold who planted vines at ‘The Grange’ in 1844.  He prescribed his wine, rich in iron, for anaemia.  Yet another, Dr. Alexander Kelly established Tintara Vineyard in McLaren Vale in 1862 and wrote two books, “The Vine in Australia” and “Wine growing in Australia”.

Those pioneering days suffered their vicissitudes, some of which were quite unexpected, like the discovery of gold in 1851, which drained the vineyards of their labourers just as effectively as the black death had dealt a blow to farming in this country in the fourteenth century.

There were many ups and downs before Captain Phillip’s vision was finally to become a reality, but although the history of Australian viticulture is a fascinating one with lessons steadily learned, especially the techniques of growing grapes and making wine in hot climates, it lies outside my brief.

My time is running out.  I am conscious that my address has been wholly historical and I confess that I find the history so fascinating that I am reluctant to move on from it to a scene that is now so full of riches as to be indescribable.  Wines from all over that area described as the New World – which is now most of the world – fill the vintner’s shelves.  The first to make an impact, in the last century, were those of South Africa; and after a period of eclipse they are returning.  But to cover the whole story of New World wines would fill a small library, so let me go back to where I started: Australia.  When I started to drink wine fifty years ago, Australian wines were still something of a joke in this country.  We were told defensively that good wines were grown there but not exported.  We were a little sceptical.  How different the story is now!  The great Australia Day tastings held in London are daunting in their sheer size, but above all wonderful both in the variety and in the absolute quality of the wines.  Several large books have been devoted to describing them.  One can only stand in awe and look forward to drinking the next bottle.  Captain Phillip’s vision has indeed proved to be an inspired one.  To return to his words quoted at the beginning of this address, Australian wines have now become an “indispensable part of the luxury of European tables”.