1833, a great year for Australian shiraz

In 2008 we had the first crop of grapes in the Royal Botanic Gardens for over 150 years. Eventually the harvest will be blended into a special vintage to honour George Wyndham, a pioneer in the Australian wine industry and the ‘father of the Australian Shiraz’.

The first vines were planted in Australia beside Governor Phillip’s tent in Sydney Cove, which was pitched just over the road near the Museum of Sydney. Phillip collected the vines from South Africa on route from England.

Although the first fruit was ready just two years after, and Elizabeth Macarthur described the fruit as ‘fine as any she had tasted’, it was nearly 50 years before the next vines were planted.

When the first head of the Gardens, Charles Fraser, died in 1831, he was replaced by Richard Cunningham, who happened to travel in Australia on the ship (the ‘Camden’) carrying the celebrated Busby grape vine cuttings.

James Busby had collected over 500 varieties of vine from France and Spain, mostly from Montpellier botanic garden in southern France (but also Shiraz from the Rhone Valley). He brought these to Australia in 1833.

This was a year before the Wardian Case was trialled for long sea voyages (see previous Passion for Plants) and they had to try all sorts of methods to keep the cuttings alive for the voyage, including jamming the cutting into a potato so that by the end of the trip the potato wasn’t in great condition but the grape vine was!

Cunningham and head gardener John McLean worked with James Busby to propagate and distribute the vines around the colony.

Seventeen of Busby’s varieties were planted in the botanic gardens, just near the new ‘vineyard’, and the rest found there way across the colony, particularly to the Hunter Valley. Like much of the agriculture trialled here, the vines failed – it would be a shock to those early settlers to see what we can do with a few tonnes of new soil and some great horticultural skills.

But interestingly Busby’s objective was to trial lots of different varieties in Australia – this was very much a traditional role of botanic gardens and something we still do today.

The mature shiraz vines planted here in July last year, remind us of the rich historic and cultural significance of the Gardens, but also our commitment to sustainable horticulture.

Viticulture sometimes has a reputation for using chemicals that damage the environment, but these vines are treated like all our plantings in the Gardens. We are using biological controls and avoid toxic chemicals or additives. And water comes more or less direclty from rainfall – either from above, or via a nearby rainwater tank.

Image: A Russian colleague, at Oxford University, wishing he was drinking Australian shiraz. This posting from the Radio Archives (February 2008).