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.

Letters on the Culture of the Vine. Part 1: Introduction

Preface to the Hortus Reproduction

‘Letters on the Culture of the Vine and Manufacture of Wine’ is not the first book on wine production published in Australia. By the time it appeared in book form in 1844, James Busby had published two books on wine making, ‘Treatise on the Culture of the Vine and the art of Making Wine’ in 1825, and ‘A Manual of Plain Directions for Planting and Cultivating Vineyards and for making wine in New South Wales’ in 1830. The former was a translation of extracts from Chaptal’s ‘Treatise’ on the subject. The latter was rather more practical but Busby still lacked the experience of viticulture and wine making on any sort of scale in New South Wales. He also wrote two useful books on his travels in wine regions of Europe, ‘Journal of a Tour Through Some of the Vineyards of Spain and France’ in 1833 and ‘Journal of a Recent Visit to the Principal Vineyards of Spain and France’ in 1834. Much earlier than this, in 1819, Gregory Blaxland had published the first Australian book in wine, ‘A Statement on the Progress of the Culture of the Vine’.

The value of William Macarthur’s book compared with earlier Colonial publications is that it is written from the perspective of over twenty years of experience of growing grapes and making wine in New South Wales. He does include theory from the pens of European authorities such as Chaptal, but the bulk of the book is written from personal experience. He is in effect saying ‘this is what we have found to work here’. - Colin Mills

Introduction by William Macarthur

Nearly two years since, I commenced a Series of Letters upon the Culture of the Vine, and the Manufacture of Wine, to appear, from time to time, in THE AUSTRALIAN Newspaper. Circumstances caused an interruption in the publication of these Letters, and the connexion having been thus broken, it was considered most advisable to print the whole series in the form in which it is now presented to the public.

The original Letters were published under the signature of “Maro,” but the Proprietors of The Australian Daily Journal, who have undertaken to publish them at their own risk, having suggested that the little volume would probably be received with greater attention, if the authorship were avowed, I have willingly acceded to their request, that my name might be attached to it. Having thus consented to appear before the public as its author, it is but just that I should say, that I have had little leisure to devote to the duties of authorship, and still less personal inclination so to employ the little that I have possessed. I am very conscious of the imperfect-state in which the following observations are presented to my fellow colonists. I never intended to write a book; but having persevered during more than twenty years in the attempt to produce a Merchantable description of Wine, at all events for our domestic consumption, I have been made so sensible and the conviction has been strengthened with increasing experience of the remarkable fitness of the soil and climate of the eastern counties of New South Wales, for vineyard cultivation, as well as of the prevailing absence of just ideas upon the subject, that I was induced to make an attempt to direct the attention of our landed proprietors to one, at least, of the veins of that vast mine open to colonial enterprise, which, if not altogether untried, has, at all events, been but superficially or unskillfully worked. Such was the origin of the following letters.

It may naturally be asked how it happens, if the soil and climate be so favorable for vineyard culture, that we do not see our hills clothed with vines, and their produce the common beverage, of every class in the community? The reply is simple and obvious; it is owing to the almost entire absence of practical acquaintance with its details. Had our Home Government fulfilled its duty, there would have been conveyed to our shores, during the prevalence of, the Bounty System of Emigration, two or three hundred families of German, Swiss, or French vine dressers. Had this been done, vineyards would, ere this, have become common amongst us. Not only have they omitted to perform that which would have been the act of a wise and paternal Government, but they absolutely interfered with private arrangements, and refused their assent to a wise and salutary measure of Sir Richard Bourke?s Administration, which authorized the introduction, under bounties, of a limited number of foreigners, conversant with this species of culture, because, forsooth, they chose to assume that such introduction would, pro tanto, interfere with Emigration from the British Islands!

The want of foreign vine dressers is, however, not the only reason why the cultivation of vineyards has made such singularly slow progress. The colony has been most unfortunate with respect to the sorts of vines, which, up to a comparatively recent period, were introduced into it, of which I am about to give the reader one or two curious examples. During the earlier years of the colony, the wars of the French Revolution were the means of preventing communication with the Continent of Europe; but in 1815 and 1816, my father made a tour of eighteen months’ duration through France and Switzerland, for the express purpose of collecting vines, and of obtaining information respecting their culture, previously to his return to New South Wales. In this tour, which was made chiefly on foot, through the greater part of the best wine districts, to the extent of many hundred miles, he was accompanied by my brother and myself. He returned to England in 1816, with, I think, about thirty of the best varieties of the vine (from six to twelve cuttings or plants of each) which were collected in the vineyards in which they grew, and taken from the vines, in most instances, literally under our eyes. Circumstances preventing his embarkation for this colony until the following year, the whole of these vines, with a great variety of olive and fig trees, the caper, and other valuable plants, were entrusted to the care of a nursery man near London. In April 1817, this collection, or what was said to be this collection, was embarked with us, together with several other sorts of vines, and a number of fruit trees, and other plants from England. At Madeira, where we touched, the season being too far advanced to obtain cuttings at the time, a mercantile correspondent undertook to procure and forward to Sydney, by the first eligible opportunity, several tubs full of the best varieties of wine grapes (which are understood to be seven in number) cultivated in the island.

In October, 18l7, a great part of the collection we had with us was landed alive at Sydney, and in the course of time throve. But after several years’ careful cultivation, the only sorts which we obtained, were those now known as the Gouais (La Folle), Muscat Noir, Black Hamburg, little Black Cluster, Miller?s Burgundy, and Sweet Water, of which, all but the first three had been before introduced, and probably only the last two had formed part of the original collection from France. We have never been able to account in any manner for the remainder of the French vines, and from the information we now possess, we know that they ought to have consisted, after making a due allowance for deaths, of from twenty to twenty-five of the most valuable varieties in France. The Madeira collection arrived in good order the following year, 1818, but instead of comprising seven distinct sorts, consisted of only one, and that so worthless, as to be utterly unfit for wine, or, indeed, any other useful purpose. However mortifying it is to discover at the end of a voyage, that one has incurred much trouble and expense to introduce plants of little value, it is infinitely more so, when several years elapse before the fact is ascertained, as in this instance, proved to be the case. We cultivated our vines, and in the course of time planted a vineyard of more than an acre in extent. We fully believed that it contained the best varieties grown in Languedoc, at the Hermitage, Côte Rôtie, in the Côte d’or, &c., &c. and were greatly surprised to discover, when they bore fruit, that so little variety existed amongst them, as if one or two sorts only were prevalent over such an immense extent of vineyard country. Our wine, too, did not answer expectation. In short, although the vines flourished, the vineyard seemed to be a failure, and ignorant of the true cause, we were half inclined to give the matter up.

In 1825, the Australian Agricultural Company imported other sorts of vines from the Horticultural Society?s Garden at Chiswick. Of the genuineness of these, there could be no doubt; and amongst them was the Verdeilho, one of the best sorts cultivated at Madeira. From this variety, and from two sorts of Muscat, we, in a few years more, began to make good wine, but in very small quantity. Having, however, now ascertained that our earlier failures were attributable rather to the sorts of grapes we had to plant, than to any fault in the soil, we proceeded with greater confidence in our experiments. But, by this time, ten or twelve precious years had been lost.

In 1832, Mr. Busby’s collection was imported, and the vines began to bear in 1834. The spurious nature of our importation in 1817, was now made very evident. I may here observe, that on two other occasions, within my knowledge, have spurious collections been sent to the colony, one from Xeres, the other from the Constantia Vineyard; but it would little interest the reader, were I to enter into the details.

I have stated the foregoing facts, that the causes of our slow progress in vineyard cultivation may be better comprehended. With the exception of two of the varieties of Muscat, which appear to have been formerly much more liable to suffer from the disease called “the blight,” (see Letter 4,) than they are now, the Verdeilho was the first really good wine grape introduced. How different is the field now thrown open to the cultivator! We have varieties, the genuineness of which is unquestionable, suited to almost every variation of our climate. The Pineaus, and others from Burgundy, and Champagne for the colder districts, the Scyras, Verdeilho, Cabernet, Malbec, Riesling, Aucarôt, and the Muscats, &c., for the milder; the Rousillon grapes, the Blanquette, &c., for the warmest. Thus, much of that which formerly impeded success, is now removed, and if bad sorts are planted, it cannot be for want of proper precaution. The art of pruning and dressing a vineyard is certainly difficult to teach to an ordinary laborer, but, if an intelligent person be chosen, not altogether a hopeless undertaking. I have reason to know, however, that at the present moment, (May, 1844,) there are several families of German Vine Dressers, who have either deluded themselves, or have been deluded by others, into the belief, that vineyards might be successfully cultivated at the New Zealand Company’s new settlement, at Nelson; and that these poor people are now there, in an almost starving condition. We have requested a friend to engage, and send up three or four of them for us, and I strongly recommend those persons who desire to cultivate the vine, to follow the example. If allowed a good ration, and a small plot of garden ground, these Germans will be content to hire at low money wages, and will generally prove to be orderly and industrious servants, capable of performing most of the ordinary operations of farm husbandry.

In writing upon the culture of vineyards, it would argue extreme ill-taste, were I to omit all mention of the exertions of a fellow laborer in the same cause, who preceded me. I allude to Mr. James Busby, who previously to his residence in New Zealand, devoted much time to promote this object, He published first a translation of part of Chaptal’s Treatise, subsequently a little manual of great merit, to stimulate the smaller settlers to plant the vine, and lastly, a Journal of his tour in the South of Spain, and through France, in 1831. These successive publications are exceedingly creditable, as well to the intelligence of Mr. Busby, as to the zeal with which he pursued the subject. I think that any erroneous views which may be expressed in them, are attributable to his not having had practical experience to the extent which was desirable; for I am perfectly well convinced, that had he been so fortunately circumstanced in that respect as myself, he would long ere this, have given to the colony ample evidence of his superior capability of turning that experience to the public advantage. His three works are, I believe, now out of print. But Mr. Busby has conferred a still greater and more enduring benefit upon the colony by collecting and importing the splendid assemblage of varieties of the vine now in the Sydney botanic Garden. I have noticed this collection in one of the succeeding letters, (No. 3,) I will not, therefore, make further allusion to it here. Monsieur D. N. Joubert has been another benefactor. In 1837, he brought out a collection of the best sorts cultivated in the Medoc, and I am happy to bear testimony that the chief part of them have been easily identified, and that they bid fair to be come amongst the most valuable of our acquisitions.

I have been indebted to a friend, whose contributions to science, need no commendation from me for the valuable Note at page 32, upon the disease called “the blight.” Attentive observation had almost satisfied me that this malady would prove to be the attack of a parasitical plant, and it is gratifying to have one’s surmise confirmed by such undoubted authority.

If I were possessed of very moderate skill in drawing, I could, by means of a few simple sketches, have rendered several portions of the following letters much more intelligible to the reader, and I might have furnished drawings of several implements, &c., which would probably have been useful to our Cultivators of the Vine. There is, however, I am assured, a difficulty in the execution, at Sydney, of engravings, at a sufficiently low rate to enable them to be freely introduced into a little work of this kind. Notwithstanding these and other manifold deficiencies, I trust this attempt will prove not otherwise than useful to my fellow laborers in the Australian Vineyard.


Camden, 27th May, 1844.