Compared to Europe, whose viticulture dates back to the Romans, Australia’s winemaking heritage spans just 200 years. And yet, despite this short timeline, the country’s wine industry has become world-renowned for its quality, flavour and depth, and is consistently voted among the top ten wine producing nations in the world.
If you share our passion for wine and are keen to discover more about Australia’s winemaking heritage ahead of a trip to the country, read on as we explore the history of wine production down under.
Australia’s Proud Winemaking Heritage
What is so unique about Australian viticulture is that the country has no native grape varieties, so all of its grape vines had to be imported from overseas. The first vines to reach the Australian continent arrived with the First Fleet in 1788, but heat and humidity proved a problem for initial plantings at Sydney Cove, and the majority of these early vines reaped a poor harvest.
It wasn’t until 1805 that Gregory Blaxland established Australia’s earliest successful vineyards in the Sydney suburb of Parramatta. With its cooler climate, New South Wales was earmarked as a prime spot for wine making, and other vineyards sprang up in the area, most notably the William Macarthur reserve near Camden, to the south-west of Sydney.
1825 proved a pivotal year for Australian viticulture, when James Busby, a celebrated horticulturist, turned his attention to wine and the process of growing grapes on a large scale. In 1831, Busby set sail for Europe in search of the best grapes for growth in Australia, collecting some 650 varieties from across Europe that he believed would have the best chance of flourishing in Australia.
Sadly, only 362 of the vine saplings survived the journey back to Australia. These were planted in historic Botanical Gardens of Sydney, and there thrived under the watchful eye of Busby and his team. From this batch of grapes, several collections of cuttings were taken and planted at sites across New South Wales, Victoria and Southern Australia — including at Hunter Valley, which is now one of Australia’s most prevalent winemaking regions.
Many of Australia’s oldest grape vines can trace their origins back to the early collections of James Busby, and thanks to Australia’s low levels of phylloxera (a louse which eats vines), many of these old vines remain original and ungrafted — a fact which some experts attribute to Australia’s reputation for producing intense and flavourful wines with good aging potential.
Following the successes of Busby in his mission to put Australian wine on the map, the Hunter Valley became the country’s foremost commercial wine-growing region, with the Wyndham Estate growing to become Australia’s largest vineyard.
In the 1840s, wine production began to soar across many parts of southern Australia. Italian immigrants grew Riverina’s first vineyards close to the Margaret River, whilst in Victoria and New South Wales, Swiss and German settlers established several large wineries, particularly around the Clare and Barossa Valleys.
By 1854, Australia had started exporting wine to the UK, with the first export formally recorded at 1,384 gallons. Several Australian wines were entered into contests at the Royal Society of Arts the following year, including a variety from Gregory Blaxland’s vineyard, which later won a silver medal — becoming the first award-winning wine produced in Australia.
Following massive growth throughout the 1840s and 1850s, Australia’s wine industry suffered during the gold rushes, as labourers left the vineyards to pan for gold in eastern Australia and Tasmania. The industry began to find its feet again in the early years of the 20th century, until the outbreak of the First World War once again left the country’s wineries without the labour they needed.
Once the Second World War had ended, Australia saw a huge influx of migrants, bringing with them new skills and techniques for wine production. With these new methods of viticulture came a change in tastes, with people seeking newer and finer varieties. Consumption increased dramatically, reigniting Australia’s love affair with the vine.
From the 1950s to the present, Australia’s wine industry has continued to flourish. The country now produces and exports millions of gallons of wine each year, and is home to thousands of large-scale vineyards and smaller independent wineries, each producing distinct wines that have become synonymous with Australian viticulture. Less an industry and more a lifestyle, Australia’s winemaking heritage can be enjoyed by all those who live in or visit this magnificent, extraordinary country.
What Makes Australian Wine So Special?
Given its sheer scale, Australia is home to almost every climate, condition and soil type on Earth, lending it well to the cultivation of grape vines from across the world.
When James Busby set out to grow 362 vines in the Botanic Gardens of Sydney, he paved the way for Australian winemakers to produce a near-limitless variety of wines — from red and white wines, to sparkling, sweet and fortified varieties. And to this day, Australia remains one of the few countries in the world capable of producing every one of the major wine styles, regardless of the conditions or climate required.
Another reason Australian wines are so well thought of is down to the age of the vines. Unlike European grape vines, which suffered tremendously from phylloxera in the 19th century, many Australian vineyards remain completely free of disease — meaning that some of the world’s oldest vines can actually be found down under.
The country produces over a hundred varieties of wine, including Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Riesling, Pinot Noir, Muscat and Shiraz. Several rare Mediterranean varieties have also begun to flourish in Australia’s vineyards, including Vermentino, Barbera, Fiano and Nero d’Avola.
Australian wines can now be enjoyed in over 100 countries across the world, and the UK imports more wine from Australia than it does from France. Not bad for a country whose winemaking history only commenced two centuries ago.
Are you passionate about wine and enjoy visiting vineyards to sample fine cellar door vintages? You can indulge your love of the grape with a luxury escorted tour of Australia from Scenic. Thanks to our hand-picked Freechoice and Enrich experiences, we give you the opportunity to visit and enjoy some of Australia’s best-loved wineries. For more information, visit our Australian tours page or call us on 0808 274 6234.