Question: How did the continent of Australia, which is not even home to native wine grapes, become one of the most popular wine capitals of the world?
If you read on, you’ll see that it turns out, that the history of wine in Australia is pretty fascinating. Australia has a lot more to offer us than just Shiraz.
Please enjoy this overview of the development of the wine industry that has become an important part of Australia’s economy.
Enjoy our overview of today’s Australian wine industry, which continues to boom.
The Australian wine industry today
If you aren’t very familiar with the Australian wine industry, maybe these interesting statistics will help set the scene and provide a little background before we look in more depth.
- Australia is approximately the same size of the United States. It is the seventh largest producer of wine in the world. (Ahead of it are France, Italy, China, USA, Spain and Argentina)
- All of Australia’s states have wine production, but due the the cooler climate, the majority is produced in the southern states.
- Over seventy varieties of wine grapes are grown in Australia, the main ones being the very propular: Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Merlot, Semillon, Pinot Noir, Riesling, and Sauvignon Blanc.
Australian wine production: Where did it all start?
It all started a long, long time ago, back in 1788. Grape vines aren’t native to Australia and so they had to be brought here. Grape vine cuttings were brought to Australia by ship from the Cape if Good Hope and were subsequently planted at a place called Farm Cove in Sydney. These first attempts at cultivating vines failed due to the intense heat and very high humidity which led to the vines rotting. It’s true that these vines didn’t result in any direct wine production, but they did mark that first time grape vines hit Australian soil and hence marked the beginning of wine making in the territory.
First commercial vineyard and winery
John Macarthur was one of Australia’s pioneering wine makers. John planted vines on his Camden Park property, about 50km southwest of Sydney, in the early in the 1800s and is widely credited with cultivating Australia’s first commercial vineyard and winery.
He mainly planted:
- Pinot Gris
- Cabernet Sauvignon
His ability to produce wines and to sell them for profit, punctuated the start of the commercial wine production in Australia.
By the 1820s, the wine industry was well established and flourishing.
Major influences on early wine production
One of the major influences on the development of wine production was when James Busby brought back cuttings from France and Spain in 1833, thus introducing varietals from these regions. One of these varieties was Shiraz, which everyone will recognise as being one of the dominant players in the not only the Australian, but indeed the world markets. Pretty much every wine variety has now had success on Australian soil, just look at the popularity of Australian Chardonnay, Merlot and Grenache for example.
Whilst the wine industry was making strong growth in Australia the arrival of European settlers had a significant influence on the direction of that growth. The settlers, or rather, immigrants, were mainly from the United Kingdom and in particular, from England. The arrived on the shores of Australia, not with new growing techniques, nor new wine processing systems, but much more importantly, with their highly developed palates! The settlers were adept in 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 refined the quality of wine in their new country.
Establishing a worldwide reputation
A century after wine grapes were introduced to Australia, the Australian wine industry began to gain a respect and it’s reputation was becoming established. Further more vineyards began to win some accolades.
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.”
Nevertheless, the industry remained unfazed and continued to win wine awards and receive global praise.
In 1878, a delightful 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 and another received a gold medal at the 1889 Paris International Exhibition.
The impact of phylloxera in Australia
In 1877, which was around the time that Australia began receiving worldwide acclaim for their wines Australia was hit by Phylloxera. This epidemic first appeared in Australia at Geelong. From there it spread north, being detected in New South Wales in 1884 and Queensland in 1910, destroying vineyards and devastating the industry.
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 seemed as if there was no stopping this destructive little bug. For some, it looked as if the wine world was coming to an end.
Eventually, (but not before thousands of hectares of vines were ravaged) a “cure” was discovered. Vintners realised 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 decided to plant American plants and then graft 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 but was resistant to the virus thanks to its American roots.
It took almost a hundred years for the Australian wine industry to once again regain its reputation for the production of high quality wines. After phylloxera, Australia primarily produced sweet, fortified wines, hardly any of which received acclaim. Thanks in part to a booming economy, a renewed social interest in wines, and new wine technology, in the 1960s a shift occurred in Australian wine making and the focus turned from fortified wines to the table wine which we all associate with the country.
The move back to table wine production was very successful. Australia went from 1 million cases of table wine in 1960 to 85 million in 1999.
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, and 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.