Notice

Colin Mills, compiler of the Hortus Camdenensis, died in late November 2012 after a short illness. As he always considered the Hortus his legacy, it is his family's intention to keep the site running in perpetuity. It will not, however, be updated in the near future.

Colonial Australian Wines

The following article appeared in The Gardeners’ Chronicle of Saturday, November 25th, 1854. It includes a review of seven wines sent to the proprietors of The Gardeners’ Chronicle from Camden Park by William Macarthur, together with his notes on the wines, the vineyards in which they were produced and the economic conditions pertaining to wine production and sale in Australia. Macarthur’s brief notes, when read with the more detailed essay Some Account of the Vineyards at Camden, extends our knowledge of wine production at Camden but most importantly provides an external (but not necessarily unbiased) view of the quality of the wines.

‘The fate of European vineyards may be regarded as sealed, for the present. The ruin of the Grapes in Portugal, France, Italy, Germany, and the Balearic Islands, appears to be so extensive that the price of wine must rise considerably, unless its consumption should much diminish. And this becomes the more certain when it is remembered that Madeira is in the same predicament, and when we add, as we can upon good authority, that mildew has begun to show itself in Sicily, whither it seems to have travelled [sic] from the kingdom of Naples, where the Grapes are in the same state as in France. How far Spain is exempt we are as yet uninformed, but we know that mildew prevailed largely in Grenada last year, and we have reason to believe that the mischief has this year been much greater. Under these circumstances it becomes a subject of great interest to ascertain whether any of our colonies are likely, either to fill the void thus created, by exporting wine, or to relieve the market by the production of wine for their own consumption, instead of obtaining it from; Europe. About the Cape of Good Hope we know nothing; but the kindness of a correspondent furnishes us with some facts respecting Australia which are worth communicating.

The wines grown in N. S. Wales are gradually displacing the imported, particularly among families not resident in the towns. If their use be once adopted, the majority of persons discontinue the consumption of imported wines, especially the highly brandied sorts from the south of Europe; alleging that they find those of home growth more wholesome and exhilarating.

Australian soils prove to be well adapted to the Grape, the average produce of well managed vineyards being considerably above what it is represented be in the corresponding European climates. Perhaps this may be partly attributable to a better system of culture, one founded upon observation and study of the physiology of the plant, instead of empirical treatment, as handed down from generation to generation. Occasionally, however, great losses are experienced. The vineyards near Sydney suffered an almost total loss of crop during three years out of the last five; twice from heavy storms of hail, and last year from a singularly late and severe spring frost. These two accidents rarely occur twice to the same vineyard within a few years. The spring frosts are confined to a very few situations, and the hail-storms, although of fearful severity, are fortunately, for the most part, of very limited extent. The only other cause of loss to any extent is whena period of rain happens towards the maturity of the crop.

The crop of dry wines in ordinary years may be estimated at from 600 to 1200 gallons to the acre according to the kind of Grape. Of one very productive sort, it has been known to reach 1800 gallons. From this estimate must be excepted the years of failure arising from hail, rain, and frosts. More loss has been sustained during the last five than during the preceding 15 years.

It is, therefore, evident that in the districts near Sydney, wine in abundance may be, and is, obtained. The only question is, as to its quality. Upon this point we have had the opportunity of forming an opinion from samples transmitted by Sir Thomas Mitchell, Wm. Macarthur, Esq., of Camden, and other Australian gentlemen. To Mr. Macarthur we are more especially indebted for a case of samples accompanied by the following memoranda:

“Memorandum Relative to Samples of Wine Grown at Camden Park

No.1. From Verdeilho Grape (Madeira), March,1848.

No.2. From Aucarôt (Departement des Landes), March, 1848.

No.3. From Riessling [sic] (Rheingau), March, 1849.

No.4. From Scyras, or Red Hermitage, March, 1848.

No.5. From Muscat, or Frontignan, No. 1, April, 1851.

No.6. From Muscat, or Frontignan, No. 2, April, 1851.

No.7. From Muscat, or Frontignan, No. 3, April, 1851.

“The first four are dry wines, three of them white and the Scyras red. Of the white, the Verdeilho is the most spirituous, and the Aucarôt the least so, the Riesling the best. All are of a description which by keeping improve for an indefinite number of years. Hitherto the limit to which they may be kept with improvement has not been reached. Wines which occasionally develope an acid flavour during their earlier years part with it gradually.

"The samples in question are produced upon a deep porous alluvial soil, in no places very rich in decayed vegetable matter or other elements of fertility, and occasionally very sandy; but everywhere of immense depth, and from this cause, its free texture, and perfect drainage, favourable to the constitution of the Vine. We have ascertained that it varies little for the first 25 feet, and to the depth of 50 feet still continues to offer conditions favourable for the roots of Vines. The growth of the plants is for the most part luxuriant and uniform, the soil being very rarely in need of moisture, and never too wet. Vine roots have been traced more than 20 feet deep, with the appearance of going much deeper. The stems of the older plants of the Verdeilho (not yet 20 years old), are many of them 7 to 8 inches in diameter.

“The three samples of Muscat are of wholly different character from the other four. They are the produce of three sorts of the Frontignan, the white, black, and red or grizzly, mixed indiscriminately together. They were made in the same year by similar process, but from three different descriptions of soil; and differing considerably from each other may be curious as illustrating how greatly the character of wine is dependent upon the soil in which it is grown. In the colony they are very highly esteemed, the demand for them being much greater than the supply.

“No. 1, considered the best, is from a finely grained reddish loam, a good Turnip-soil in which both Camellias and Azaleas flourish, but resting upon a deep bed of ferruginous gravel, almost a bed of pure oxide of iron, well drained but liable to burn in very dry weather. Vines from 20 to 25 years old.

“No. 2, containing the greatest quantity of undecomposed sugar, is from a much stronger soil, fine Wheat land for the first 15 to 18 inches, but resting upon decomposing calcareous rock, and full of fragments of tufaceous limestone.

“No.3 is from the alluvial soil first mentioned, and less rich in sugar and spirit than the other two. All those soils have been well trenched and mixed 3 feet deep. The produce of this description of wine may be given at 250 to 300 gallons to the acre, quantity being sacrificed to obtain the extreme density of the must requisite for this class of wine.

“None of these wines have been grown with any view but home consumption; the high price of labour precluding the hope of successfully competing with the Vine countries of Europe in the English market, even if no objection on the score of quality existed.”

Having been kept for a sufficient time after their arrival, these wines have been tasted, and with the following result. The Sweet Muscat wines 5, 6, and 7, proved to belong to the same class as the best Constantia, and to be in no respect inferior to the finest samples of that variety. In fact it was difficult to distinguish them. No. 4, the Scyras, was a dry sound red wine, not unlike good but over-kept port wine which had partially lost its colour, and undoubtedly such as would prove agreeable as soon as the palate became accustomed to it. Its fault was its want of what is called bouquet. Nos. 1, 2, and 3 had evidently been fine generous wines, but they had not borne the voyage well. The Aucaröt was pale, cloudy, and vapid. The Verdeilho was bright and strong, but too acid, and wanted flavour. The Riessling [sic] had the same fault, but was quite as good as much of the German wine that goes into consumption.

This result is in accordance with our experience of other samples, and shows that if wines capable of entering into competition with those of Europe are not made in Australia, it is not because the country is unable to produce them but because the colonists do not possess the skill required in their preparation. Even as it is there can be no doubt that Australia may be independent of other countries for her supply of this necessary of life, and that she will become so as soon as the high price of European wines renders it desirable that she should be. She may even supply the Indian market, as we believe she does to a small extent, and thus take off the pressure upon that of Europe.

The manufacture of wine is a much more difficult branch of the pursuit than the culture of the plant. One may spend a life in mastering some of the phenomena which complicate the subject. Like the manufacture of tea, or of beer, or of tobacco, it demands a nicety of manipulation which can only be acquired by long experience. Before the Indian Tea plantations could be made to produce Tea of good quality it was necessary to obtain Chinese who had learned the art of preparing the leaves; and every day’s experience tells us the difference in beers produced from ingredients identically the same. What the Australian settlers want is a supply of wine makers from the most celebrated vineyards in Europe; they have long had the finest varieties of the Vine; their vineyards are by this time old enough to produce an excellent article; and they possess all the skill which sound theory and good observation can give them. What they want is something beyond either theory or the observation to be acquired in a lifetime. They want that practical skill which is the result of the observation of ages, and which nothing but experience can supply. The most learned of our chemists can explain philosophically every phenomenon connected with fermentation and preservation, but we should be sorry to entrust them with making our wine. It is probable on the other hand that many a wine-maker in the first class vineyards knows nothing about the chemical theories of the matter, although the wine that comes from his hands is among the finest in the market. We would, therefore, suggest to our Australian friends the desirableness of availing themselves of the present state of paralysis by which European vineyards are now unhappily affected, and of obtaining from some of the most celebrated of them the assistance of those experienced men in whose hands the peculiar art of wine-making alone resides.’ [Gard. Chron. p.755/1854].