The history of wine in Australia

Photo courtesy of Sparky Marquis (Mollydooker Wines) via Facebook.
Photo courtesy of Sparky Marquis (Mollydooker Wines) via Facebook.

How did a continent without native winegrapes become one of the world’s wine capitals? The history of wine in Australia is fascinating–and the country has a lot more to offer us than just Shiraz. Enjoy our overview of today’s Australian wine industry. 

An overview of today’s Australian wine industry

For those who are not too familiar with Australia’s current wine industry, here are a few interesting pieces of information:

  • Australia, which is roughly the size of the United States (it is a tad smaller) is the sixth largest producer of wine in the world. (It ranks behind France, Italy, the United States, Spain and Argentina; although there are reports that China’s wine industry actually ranks third in the world, which would bump Australia down to number seven.)
  • Wine is produced in every Australian state, but is mainly produced in the southern ones where the climate is cooler.
  • More than seventy varietals are grown in Australia, but the most produced varietals include Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Merlot, Semillon, Pinot Noir, Riesling, and Sauvignon Blanc.

How Australia’s wine industry started

Unlike Europe and the Americas, Australia does not have native grape vines; to produce wine, grapevines had to be imported from another region. This first occurred in 1788, when cuttings were brought aboard a ship from the Cape of Good Hope. These first vines were planted in Sydney on a site called Farm Cove. Unfortunately, due to intense heat and humidity, the vines rotted. These vines may not have produced the first legendary Australian vintage, but the introduction of wine grapes in 1788 marked the beginning of wine making in Australia.

Aspiring wine maker John Macarthur, who planted vines on his Camden Park property about 50km southwest of Sydney in the early in the 1800s, is widely credited with cultivating Australia’s first commercial vineyard and winery. Macarthur mainly planted Pinot Gris, Frontignac, Gouais, Verdelho and Cabernet Sauvignon. Macarthur’s ability to produce wines and sell them for profit marked the beginning of the commercial wine industry in Australia. By the 1820s, the trade was flourishing.

Major influences on early wine production in Australia

In 1833, a man named James Busby brought back cuttings from France and Spain, thus introducing the now-famous Syrah (Shiraz). Other European grapes such as Chardonnay, Merlot and Grenache  have also had successes on Aussie soil.

As the wine industry was growing in Australia, it received some help: settlers from Europe. The settlers did not necessarily bring expertise to the Australian wineries (immigrants were mainly Englishmen with a passion for wine, but absolutely no background in grape growing or wine making) but they did provide the Australian wine scene with their palates, which were adept to drinking the European varietals that had recently been introduced to the continent. These immigrants strove to improve the quality of wines in Australia and markedly improved the caliber of wine in their new country.

Gaining a worldwide reputation

A century after wine grapes were introduced to Australia, the Australian wine industry began to gain a respectable reputation. During a blind taste taste at the 1873 Vienna Exhibition, French judges praised wines from Victoria; however, they withdrew their laudatory remarks when they discovered that the wine was Australian and not French. The judges protested on the grounds that “wines of that quality must clearly be French.”

Australian wines may have garnered some insulting remarks at the Vienna Exhibition, but the industry remained unfazed. In 1878, a Shiraz from Victoria competing in the Paris Exhibition was likened to the French Chateau Margaux and was described as a “trinity of perfection.” One Australian wine won a gold medal at the 1882 Bordeaux International Exhibition; another received a gold medal at the 1889 Paris International Exhibition.

The devastation of phylloxera in Australia

Around the time Australian wines began receiving worldwide acclaim, an event occurred which is referred to in the wine world with a sullen voice and serious nature: phylloxera.

It is hard to believe that a tiny yellow aphid-like insect could impart so much damage on an industry. Working underground, the pest ate away at the vines–unbeknownst to anyone above the soil surface until the damage had been done. European and American vintners watched as their vines became yellow, shriveled and died. Sadly, vines that survived produced grapes that made weak, watery wines. Although numerous remedies were attempted, it appeared there was no stopping this destructive little bug. For some, it looked as if the wine world was coming to an end. Phylloxera hit Europe in the 1860s and traveled to Australia around 1875. Because Australians had just imported and begun planting numerous European varietals, they were severely affected. The majority of the vines in Australia were lost, and the industry was hit incredibly hard.

Eventually, (but not before thousands of hectares of vines were ravaged) a “cure” was discovered. Vintners realized that grape vines native to the Americas were resistant to phylloxera and its subsequent disease, while European vines, which are genetically different, were still at high risk. Vintners ingeniously planted American plants, then grafted European grapevines to the American plant, making a “Franken-vine” of American roots and European vines and grapes. The result was a plant which produced European grapes while possessing pest-resistant roots.

The reinvention of Australian wine

It would take almost a century before Australia recovered and regained its reputation as a quality wine producing region. After phylloxera, Australia primarily produced sweet, fortified wines (hardly any of which received acclaim). Thanks to a booming economy, a renewed social interest in wines, and new wine technology, in the 1960s a shift occurred in Australian wine making: the focus turned from fortified wines to the table wines we all associate with the country. The shift was a successful one: Australian wine production surged from 1 million cases of table wine in 1960 to 85 million in 1999.

The wines of today’s Australia

Phylloxera is not the only problem that has plagued the Australian wine industry. Overproduction, which has led to an overabundance of grapes and wines in the marketplace, is seeming to become a trend in Australian wines. In the late 1980s, the government sponsored growers to pull out their vines to overcome a glut of wine grapes. Low grape prices in 2005 and 2006 led to calls for another sponsored vine pull; we saw this again during the 2010 and 2011 vintages. In 2010, Australia experienced a massive drop in wine sales, which left some to believe that market needs an overhaul of some sort. Only time will tell what is in store for Australia’s wine industry.