The wine industry today is one of Australia’s biggest agricultural exporters, sending out over $2 billion worth of wine to international drinkers.
Although it is now associated with area like the Hunter Valley, the Barossa or Margaret River, the industry started and for a long time flourished, in Sydney.
The first vines came with Governor Philip on the First Fleet. With no home grown wine industry in Britain, the Colonial authorities were keen to see the development of wine growing in the new colony. Phillip planted his vines close to the Government House near present day Macquarie Street. Although the soil was not great, and the proximity to the harbour made the vines susceptible to fungus, the vines were the basis of the Australian wine industry.
Phillip saw the potential, if a little before its time, when he wrote in his journal: In a climate so favourable, the cultivation of the vine may doubtless be carried to any degree of perfection and should no other articles of commerce divert the settlers from this part, the wines of New South Wales may perhaps, here after be sought with civility and become an indispensible part of the luxury of European tables. (Norrie:1990, p19)
With the move of agriculture west to Rose Hill (Parramatta) later in 1788, cuttings from Phillips vines went as well and were soon planted on the Government farm as well as the early estates. By 1791, the vines were producing fruit, and by 1800 some wine had been made, although of fairly ordinary character.
The main problem seems to have been a lack of experienced wine makers. To remedy this, two French prisoners of war were transported to NSW to make wine, but their boasts were bigger than their skills and no decent wine came of it.
Despite this, the popularity of wine among the gentry meant that most colonial farms included a vineyard. Vines were planted extensively on George Johnston’s farm Annandale, on James Bowman’s Lyndhurst Estate at Glebe, at Vaucluse House, on Gregory Blaxland’s Brush Farm at Ermington, at the Gladesville Asylum and in the Botanic Gardens. The Botanic Gardens vines were planted by James Busby from cuttings he collected all over Europe. Busby transferred some of his Chardonnay collection to his Hunter Valley property, which started the industry there.
It was in western Sydney however that the most successful colonial vineyards grew. From at least 1794 John Macarthur was growing vines at Camden. Although more closely associated with the development of the Australian sheep industry, Macarthur and his son William, were instrumental in Sydney’s early wine growing.
Macarthur and sons realised that a lack of experience was holding them (and the rest of Sydney) back, and so in 1815 undertook a European tour through France and Switzerland to study wine making and vine growing techniques. By 1828 Macarthur had sent samples to be tasted in England (although his rival Gregory Blaxland had sent some in 1822) but it wasn’t until the mid 1830s, when William brought out 20 German families to tend his grapes that anything resembling a decent drop was produced.
In 1851 William sent bottles to the London Exhibition, included a verdelho and a riesling and followed this with the Paris Exhibition in 1855. In Paris, with William there to spruik, the wines finally achieved success, with judges unexpectedly praising their quality. Queen Victoria, in attendance, ordered some bottles be sent to her table. When this was reported in the London Times, the success of William’s wines and Australian wines in general was assured.
William and other colonial growers were overrun with orders and by the close of 1855 25,000 gallons of Sydney wine was being exported into the UK.
By the late 1800s, disease and the opening of the Hunter had seen Sydney’s industry largely disappear, but not totally. In 1990 there were eight vineyards still producing wine in Sydney’s west. Camden Bridge Farm, established by one of William’s Germans, was still producing, Gledswood at Camden which had planted grapes as early as the 1820s was still going, while the Minchinbury estate, first planted in the mid 1860s was still going strong until 1978, after which a fire destroyed the Cellar complex in 1987. The name survives as a suburb, as does one other-Vineyard near Windsor.
Today six vineyards continue to produce wine around Camden, Luddenham and Windsor. So next time you go wine tasting head west for a historic tipple.