: New South Wales


NSW Wine Industry Association:

nsw wine regions:map, click to enlarge

New South Wales

Let's start with a hard truth. International tourists flock to the Hunter Valley cellar doors for an Australian wine experience. But most Australians outside of NSW don't drink NSW wine regularly except as cheap quaffers. This is shame as there are many outstanding wines made in NSW and the ACT.

Australia's first locally grown wines came from NSW but the state has long been outstripped in boutique wine sales by South Australia, and more recently, in the number of wineries by Victoria. If we discount the vast sales of $10 Riverina and Central Ranges retail chain quaffers NSW is now also considerably outstripped in the premium wine market by Western Australia, and is now relegated to battling with the tiny Tasmanian industry for fourth spot in terms of prestige.

Wine-making continued to struggle along in the Sydney basin through the 19th century in locations such as Minchinbury at Rooty Hill. However, it was the opening of Hunter Valley, 150 km north of Sydney, to agriculture in the 1830s and 1840s that sparked Australia's first grape rush.

By 1852

Upper Hunter Valley

Upper Hunter valley, NSW

Many of the properties were quite large mixed agriculture concerns with small amounts set aside for wine-making. By 1850 about 200 hectares of vines had been planted by 32 vine growers. One of the early vignerons, George Wyndham at Dalwood, noted that his first 1835 vintage 'should make good vinegar' (hardly an auspicious start for the founder of now vast Wyndham Estate wine company). Another of the early wine pioneers was Dr. Henry Lindeman who founded another of Australia's largest wine companies, Lindemans.

The quality, the amount of wine produced, and the passion of the growers had increased sufficiently to the point where the Hunter River Vineyard Association was formed in 1847. The members sent in their wines for inspection by their peers, a foreunner of contemporary wine shows. An influx of German and Irish migrants saw the wine-making spread to Cessnock and Pokolbin.

Birumbrae vines, NSW

Birrumbrae vines

First vineyard at Mudge

A German migrant, Adam Roth, established the first vineyard at Mudgee, 30 km inland on higher slopes, in 1858. Significant amounts of wine was also made on the southern border of the state around Albury and Corowa from the 1870s but most of the vineyards were wiped out by the phylloxera that swept up from Victoria at the turn of the century. Tiny amounts of wine were also made in isolated wineries around the Murray-Darling, Yass and Pt. Macquarie.

The doldrums

NSW wine-making went into the doldrums for most of the first six decades of the century. The lifting of tariffs post-Federation brought a flood of cheaper, and often superior, South Australian wine. NSW tried to match the success of South Australia's Riverland bulk wines through the development of the Murrumbidgee Irrigation Area project around Griffith in the first couple of decades of the 20th century.

Unfortunately the mainly inexperienced farmers (many ex-soldiers) chose unsuitable varieties and viticultural techniques. However, McWilliams flourished there with fortified wines and brandy distilleries at Hanwood and Yenda. World War 11 saw a brief spike in both the fortified and the table wine market (albeit unlabelled or under the hotel's label) while the populations of Sydney was swollen by local and US troops. The doldrums in the industry returned once the troops left, and in 1947 the Hunter Valley had only 447 hectares of vines, less than 20% of its 19th century peak, almost exclusively Semillon and Shiraz.

Turn around

The NSW wine industry began to turn around in the 1950s and 1960s through the efforts of Maurice O'Shea (Mount Pleasant) and Max Lake (Lake's Folly) in the Lower Hunter Valley to revive quality table wine making. Maurice O'Shea revived the Hunter's reputation for classic dry reds while Max Lake pioneered a new 'boutique' style of winery.

Success brought rapid investment into the region in the 1970s, with many new small boutique wineries, a market for quality wine and over 4000 hectares of vines in the region. The success spilt over to the Upper Hunter and revived the nearly extinct Mudgee wine region. However, since the early 1990s the Hunter has fallen out of favour, certainly with wine consumers, and to a certain extent with the wine reviewers circuit (with the most notable exception of the Sydney raised James Halliday).

Objective limitations

Far sighted investors and wine corporations, however, could see the objective limitations on the Hunter in terms of suitable wine areas for more expansion and its warm climate. While great Shirazes and Semillons were possible in the best vintages the wines needed at least 10 years cellaring to bring out their best qualities. This is beyond the patience of the modern Australian wine consumer who overwhelmingly drink their wine within 24 hours of purchase. Young Hunter Shirazes tend to be spiky and leathery unless they are blanded down into a drink now style, while the Semillons are delicate, light whites before they turn into their rich toasty glory.

The industry and consumer choice shifted to the many new cooler climate regions across Australia leaving the Hunter to wallow about like a stubborn trilobite in a receding tide. The NSW wine corporations began to look for cool climate areas elsewhere in the state, and also established major wine-making operations in South Australia, Victoria and Western Australia.

Several new wine regions

In NSW this process has meant that several new wine regions have been established either side of the backbone of the Great Dividing Range: Hilltops, Tumbarumba, Orange, Southern Highlands and the newly established "New England Australia" GI region. The growth of the Canberra Wine District, another cold climate region mainly around Murrumbateman and Lake George, was more driven to quench the thirst of Canberra's public servants and by the passion of local wine-making advocates like Ken Helm.

These regions are still in their infancy, or in the case of Canberra, a blooming adolescence, and there will be more experimentation to find the right terroir, but there is plenty of potential at least in non-drought years.

Water and impact of global warning

Water and the impact of global warming on NSW climate are huge challenges facing these new regions. The popularity of the Hunter as a "wine experience" for international tourists and as a weekend escape for Sydneysiders shows no signs of abating. However, if climate change is not too cruel to NSW a potential third revival of a quality NSW wine industry lies with the best winemakers in these new regions. top

Honourable exceptions

With the honourable exceptions of the fantastic Semillons from the Hunter Valley, the iconic Clonakilla Shiraz Viognier and the Riverina's world class stickies it is hard to think of any other NSW/ACT premium wines that are regularly stocked in quality wine stores outside of Sydney.

This isn't a slight made up to stir the folk north of the Murray. Its an observation made from many years of scouring the good wine stores in Brisbane, Adelaide, Canberra, Perth and Melbourne for any NSW premium wines to review. In the Australian wine scene NSW, like Queensland, is now seen as too hot and humid to make really good table or sparkling wines.

This perception is wrong, or at least too simplistic given the diverse geography of the state, but with such a glut of wine coming out the cooler wine regions of Australia and New Zealand why take a chance on a NSW wine. Hopefully independent wine sites like this will help the consumer separate the wheat from the chaff and take a punt on trying the many seriously good wines in the NSW and the ACT.

Cradle of the Australian wine industry

NSW wines did not always have such a tainted domestic reputation. It was the first cradle of the Australian wine industry. The first vines in Australia came from grape seeds and cuttings carried by Captain Philip on the First Fleet when European occupation of the continent began in 1788.

As the first governor of the fledgling penal colony. Phillip, encouraged the brewing of beer and the production of wine as an alternative to the excessive use of hard spirits. Apparently the first vines, a ‘claret’ (probably a Cabernet Sauvignon), were planted at the location of what is now the Sydney Opera House. No wine was made from these first attempts as the humid conditions around Sydney Harbour led to the grapes being attacked by fungal ‘black spot.’

More interested in beer and spirits

For the next 30 years there were periodic unsuccessful attempts to start an Australian wine industry. The local population of Sydney were much more interested in beer and spirits but England had hopes of using its new colony as a reliable source of wine for the Empire. The upper classes in 18th century England had developed an appreciation of the fine wines of France, Spain, Portugal and Germany, put were periodically at war with these nations.

Blue Mountains explorer Gregory Blaxland, set up a vineyard of mainly claret on his property at what is now Eastwood in 1816. He made Australia's first wine export when he shipped over 300 litres, fortified with brandy to England.

Governer John MacArthur

A former Governer John MacArthur, left NSW after a particularly violent quarrel with Governor Bligh, and made an 18 month tour of France and Switzerland to collect vines. On his return the MacArthurs set up a vineyard at Camden in 1820. After some trial and error he moved to the alluvial soils near the Nepean River at Penrith and established Australia's first commercial winemaking business.

The most significant of Australia's wine pioneers was Edinburgh-born viticulturalist James Busby. Busby brought both a proselysing advocacy of wine as an alternative to hard spirits, and the first glimmerings of theoretical rigour to the new industry.

Treatise on the Culture of wine

Busby was employed in 1824 to teach viticulture at an orphans school near Liverpool, and to organise an agricultural institute on the 5000 hectare property there. Within a year Busby had published a 270 page "Treatise on the Culture of Wine". There is no evidence that Busby actually made any wine here, but his more important contribution was a tour of Spain and France that led to the famous Busby collection of over 400 wines. Busby donated the collection of live cuttings to Botanic Gardens in Sydney.

Busby's collection was eventually lost through neglect but cuttings taken from the collection were used to kick start the wine industry in NSW and South Australia. Vines derived from these cuttings were used to establish vineyards in areas as distant as Watervale in South Australia's Clare Valley. Busby, returned to England, where he subsequently published "Journals of a Tour through Some of Vineyards of Spain and France", which was one of the great 19th century works in ampelography (the science of grapevine identification). He also played a role in founding the New Zealand wine industry. top

Shaw and Smith

The Sydney Opera House was the location for the first vines planted in Australia shortly after the First Fleet landed (with Hannah, one of our Scottish connections)

Upper Hunter Valley pic

Vineyards in the Upper Hunter Valley

Lark Hill

Lark Hill is one of the veteran wineries in the Canberra region


Capercaillie is an outstanding Semillon producer from the Hunter Valley region