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The Australian Wine Industry
Chardonnay in Australia - A Short History
Monday, 3rd March, 2008  - David Farmer
James Busby - known as the father of Australian and New Zealand viticulture

Would our wine history have been different if we had recognised much earlier than the 1970's the value of chardonnay as perhaps the most adaptable and delicious of white wines? After reading a great deal on the early history of Australian wine I still do not understand how a promising start making table wines, often referred to by variety, does not mention chardonnay as a variety with potential. Why did no one say cuttings of this variety must be imported?

Its importance in making Champagne was certainly known and imported Champagne was on many wine lists in the nineteenth century. Presumably the whites of Burgundy were aknowleged by some. Certainly they were by James Busby who on a trip through France and Iberia in 1830-1831 put together a collection of vine cuttings representing the wealth of French varieties and later added cuttings from Spain and elsewhere. They arrived in Australia in 1832 and the surviving collection of 362 (some say 365) types, from 500 to 600 collected, were divided evenly with half planted at the Sydney Botanical gardens and half at Busby's estate Kirkton in the Hunter Valley. The Kirkton Estate had been acquired in 1824 and was planted out by William Kelman who had married Busby's sister. These with earlier imports provided the developing country with a vine clonal legacy that perhaps yet is not fully understood and among the Busby cuttings was certainly chardonnay.

The nineteenth century sparkling wines of Great Western, Victoria, became quite famous yet how much better would they have been with chardonnay as the base white. It is believed that some of the Busby collection was planted in the district and it is thought that at least some of the many varieties at Bests, Great Western are from the Busby vines. Why else for example would Bests have old vine pinot meunier? Yet the white that underpinned many of the famous sparkling wines of Great Western was white pinot later called Irvines White and now identified as folle blanche a variety that retains a lot of acidity and on reflection may have been ideal for making a light sparkling aperitif in our warm country. Chasselas a French wine and table grape was also used for sparkling wines.

In 1971 Tyrrells (some say 1970, eg Lake's, 'Hunter Winemakers' published 1970 in which he briefly mentions Tyrrells chardonnay) released an unwooded chardonnay and followed this a year later with the first of the wooded wines the now famous Vat 47 Pinot Chardonnay 1972. In the late 1960's Craigmoor at Mudgee made a white which was probably chardonnay and was possibly labelled as pinot blanc. Other Mudgee growers may also have unwittingly made 100% chardonnay's. Pieter Van Gent released in 1970 or 1971 a Craigmoor Chardonnay. In 1960 Penfolds purchased land in the Upper Hunter at Wybong Park and planted hundreds of acres to many varieties and later extended the vineyards to about 1300 acres. They later sold the Lower Hunter Dalwood property and renamed the Wybong Park vineyard Dalwood Estate. Among the varieties planted was a white pinot and some of this would have found its way into the Dalwood White Burgundy, Dalwood Riesling and Dalwood Hock of the 1960's.

Murray Tyrrell aknowledges that the vines that made the Tyrrells chardonnay were developed from cuttings from the Penfolds Wybong Park property, presumably in the mid or late 1960's so knowledge that they were indeed chardonnay was known by some. Indeed he planted chardonnay at Rothbury in 1969. By calling his chardonnay, pinot chardonnay he rightly combined the name of the variety as it was then known, pinot blanc with its true name. Penfolds released both Wybong Estate wines as well as Dalwood wines and at some point began making a pinot riesling a blend of pinot blanc and semillon. Penfolds Bin 365 Pinot Riesling was being sold in the 1970's.

But where did the Mudgee and Penfolds pinot blanc come from?

Dr. Philip Norrie has enriched our knowledge of Australian wine history with original historical research including 'Vineyards of Sydney', published in 1990 and the following detail is taken from this book. In 1887 J.A.M. McLean established a vineyard called Kaluna on Smithfield Road near the Fairfield racecourse and this was managed by Ambrose Laraghy who was born in the Hunter and had worked at Cawarra and the Busby established Kirkton vineyard. The vines for this property it is believed came from the Hunter [or perhaps partly from other Sydney vineyards]. In 1918 Ambrose's son Arthur purchased the vineyard and grew table grapes and in the 1930's used to travel to Mudgee and Griffith to purchase grapes to make fortified wines. He gave cuttings from Kaluna to Bill Roth who was establishing his Westcourt vineyard near Mudgee. This was later acquired by Bill's brother Jack from Craigmoor (established in 1858). One of the workers at Craigmoor, Alf Kurtz planted his own vineyard, called Mudgee Wines, three kilometres north of Mudgee and was so impressed by the grapes produced from a section called white pinot (or pineau) at Westcourt that he planted these, perhaps in the early 1960's, knowning they had been grown from the Kaluna cuttings. The Official Mudgee Vineyard Web Site says that Alf Kurtz introduced chardonnay to Mudgee but this does not seem to be the case. They also say that Kurtz produced a wine called white pinot. Norrie assumes that Ambrose Laraghy sourced his cuttings from Busby's original collection at Kirkton. Kirkton as a vineyard was closed in 1924 (and later acquired by Lindemans) and Norrie suggests Kaluna was the only chardonnay source left. This explains the source of the Mudgee chardonnay.

The origin of the chardonnay planted by Penfolds at Wybong Park is preumably different and one guesses came from the Dalwood plantings in the Lower Hunter as Wybong Park was set up to replace the Lower Hunter property and presumably they replicated the same varieties plus added new ones. The origin of the Wybong chardonay would seem to be from Dalwood via the nearby Kirkton property. Why would they source material from the Mudgee? Dalwood was settled in 1830 by George Wyndham and a vineyard was later established. It is said that shiraz vines from this time were still producing in 1966. In 1904 this property was purchased by Penfolds. Thus its not proven but possible that the Wybong Park chardonnay was sourced from Dalwood.

After the Second World War wine drinking habits in Australia slowly shifted to table wine particularly red wine. A change began to take place in the 1970's and around 1974 there was an explosion in the growth of white wine drinking that continued till the mid 1980's. Red wine consumption in this time drifted sideways. Rosemount in particular picked the trend to white wine and were the first company to produce commercial quantities of chardonnay. It is worth speculating that the growth of the white wine category was at least partly fueled by the incredible popularity of chardonnay.

In Western Australia the favourite clone of chardonnay is 'Gin Gin' and was introduced by Houghtons in 1957. It is also known as the Mendoza clone. Where this came from I do not know though some references say it is from, naturally enough, Argentine. It seems unlikely that Houghtons would have looked to South America rather than Europe.

We know that other collections and cuttings came to Australia in the nineteenth century, many from Cape Town. Thus it is likely that some of our current chardonnay vines have an old and different source to Busby's. A recent article by Jeni Port in The Age, January, 22nd, reminds me that Adam Wynn of Mount Adam always thought they had a special clone. Con Moshos the current wine maker takes up the story. It is thought that in the 1860's Sir Samuel Davenport introduced Burgundy 'chardenet' cuttings to South Australia. Since he also sponsored Edmond Mazure who had been trained in Burgundy it seems possible even likely. Some of these cuttings were planted at Marble Hill in the Adelaide Hills. These vines were rediscovered by viticulturist Wally Boehm who was working for David Wynn and after cultivation at Wynn's Modbury nursery were planted out at Mount Adam in 1972.

There is no mention of chardonnay, to my knowledge in nineteenth century wine books, although Kelly's work Wine Growing in Australia (1867) has one passing reference. Even Dan Murphy's 'Classification of Australian Wine' (1974) does not mention chardonnay as a single varietal even though he had a great knowledge of the classical wines of France and was very aware of its importance.

More research is needed on the intruiging question of the origin of Australian chardonnay.

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The Answer is:

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