A Tour of Australia’s Historic Wineries

Home to some of the world's oldest vines, here are 10 Australian wineries that have stood the test of time.
Vineyard workers at Penfolds circa early 1900s / Photo courtesy of Penfolds

Envision a noble stone winery, one where cobwebs intertwine bottles that lie sleeping in a hand-dug cellar below. Outside, gnarled vines older than any living human penetrate deep into soils formed some 200 million years ago.

You’re picturing somewhere in Europe, right? France, perhaps? Italy?

Actually, this is Australia. Home to many of the planet’s oldest vines, this New World country boasts a rich history of wine production that stretches to the mid-1800s. Dozens of these lovingly preserved wineries still dot the landscape, vinous gems that can feel as though the winemaker went out for lunch 150 years ago and never returned.

Take a step back in time to ten of Australia’s most treasured historic wineries.

Old timey men mid-harvest, some carrying barrels, others bag full of grapes
Workers in the Concongella Vineyard circa 1900 / Photo courtesy of Best’s Great Western

Best’s Great Western

Great Western/Grampians, Victoria
Founded in 1866

Most famous wines: Bin No. 0 Shiraz, Sparkling Shiraz, Old Vine Pinot Meunier, Foudre Ferment Riesling

Past: Like many at the time, brothers Joseph and Henry Best turned to wine in the wake of a waning gold rush. In 1865, Joseph planted vines at what’s now Seppelt winery, another historic Australian gem. A year later, Henry purchased nearby land, and Best’s was born. He and his family planted the land to vineyards in 1867, while miners assisted him in building a winery and underground cellar that are still in use today. Upon Henry’s death in 1920, Best’s was purchased by Frederick P. Thomson, a neighboring winegrower. Today, Thomson’s grandson, Eric Viv Thomson, is the fourth-generation vigneron, with more than 50 consecutive vintages to his credit.

Present: Best’s is a history lover’s paradise. Beneath ancient red gum slabs and surrounded by relics, visitors can sip current releases and often some older vintages, too. Tour the perfectly preserved underground cellars, or head outside to the Nursery Block vineyards, which may be the most extensive pre-phylloxera plantings in the world. The 39 varieties planted, eight of which are so rare they remain unidentified, are made into a white and a red field blend that are available only in the tasting room.

Older man and woman in Victorian dress, three men to the right of them, large homestead behind
From left: Paul Gotthard and Johanne Mathilde Henschke with family in 1898 / Photo courtesy of Henschke

Henschke

Eden Valley, South Australia
Founded in 1868

Most famous wines: Hill of Grace, Mount Edelstone, Julius Riesling, Cyril Henschke Cabernet Sauvignon, Henry’s Seven

Past: The Barossa Valley and neighboring Eden Valley possess an embarrassment of riches. They boast ancient vines, historic stone buildings and families long entrenched in the area’s development. But few can claim a 151-year-old lineage that traces to the region’s earliest settlers like Stephen Carl Henschke can. He and his wife, Prue, have been tireless champions here. Stephen took the reins from his father, Cyril, in 1979, though the family’s stewardship extends five generations to 1868, when the first commercial sale of Henschke bottling was recorded as a single-vineyard table wine. The style was out of step from the fortified wines that were in fashion at the time, showing remarkable vision.

Present: Henschke’s stone winery and tasting room built in the 1860s are modest, considering the brand’s iconic status. They represent Henschke’s past and present: low ceilings and narrow archways, portraits of family members, open concrete fermenters and an old basket press. While the winery is romantic, it’s the Hill of Grace Vineyard that really takes one back in time. Planted in the 1860s, the gnarly vines of Australia’s most famous vineyard are perched, like sentinels, across from a Lutheran church of the same age.

Black and white headshot of a man in a button-down, color image of an old homstead with a newer addition
Left: Murray Tyrrell in 1963; Right: Tyrrell’s cellar door and old hut / Photos courtesy of Tyrrell’s

Tyrrell’s Wines

Hunter Valley, New South Wales
Founded in 1858

Most famous wines: Vat 1 Semillon, Vat 8 Shiraz-Cabernet, Vat 9 Shiraz, Stevens Single Vineyard Shiraz

Past: The Tyrrell’s family tree can be traced to the early 11th century, when Walter Tyrrell arrived in England with William the Conqueror. Fast forward to 1858, when Edward Tyrrell snapped up one of the last available properties in the Hunter Valley, two hours north of Sydney, and founded the namesake winery. Tyrrell’s infrastructure was built in 1863, and the brand’s first vintage was 1864. Today, the family produces some of the country’s finest and most ageable Semillon.

Present: Tyrrell’s is like a living shrine. The original slab hut, built in 1858, beckons those who visit to delve deeper into the family’s beginnings. In the winery, rows of old oak vats stand against walls of corrugated iron, one of Australia’s most iconic building materials. In the tasting room, portraits of the Tyrrells of yesteryear keep watch as you taste the fruits of their descendants’ labor, but history speaks loudest from the vines themselves. Tyrrell’s owns seven of the Hunter Valley’s 11 blocks of own-rooted vineyards that are more than 100 years old. Each one is a reminder of the Hunter’s important role in Australian wine history.

Older man looking at wine in a glass, long line of wine bottles and wine on table below
Max Schubert circa 1970s / Photo courtesy of Penfolds

Penfolds Magill Estate

Adelaide Hills, South Australia
Founded in 1844

Most famous wines: Grange, St. Henri, Bin 707, RWT

Past: Penfolds may be Australia’s most famous export, but it’s also one of its most historic producers. Established in 1844, Dr. Christopher Penfold and his wife, Mary, planted French vine cuttings they brought on their voyage from England on nearly 500 acres just east of Adelaide. As demand for the doctor’s medical services grew, Mary increasingly took over viticulture and winemaking at the estate. She expanded the business exponentially before passing it on to her daughter, Georgina, in the late 1800s. By 1907, Penfolds had become South Australia’s largest winery. Since the shift from fortified bottlings to table wines starting in the 1940s, there have been just four chief winemakers here.

Present: On the outskirts of Adelaide, the juxtaposition of this urban winery as both contemporary and historic is striking. While the tasting room reflects Penfold’s sleek modernism, the underground cellars evoke history. An array of famous figures—like Helen Keller, who visited in 1948—have lurked in its lairs. It’s also where Penfolds’s first chief winemaker, Max Schubert, made his famed Grange wine in secret, before his peers accepted the atypical blend. Back above ground, Grange Cottage, the original 1844 home, is a beautiful glimpse into the lives of the founding Penfolds. Nearby, the 118-year-old still house is where some of Penfolds’s first spirits were made.

Older woman and man in casual wear, assorted tools behind them
Sandra and Guill de Pury in 2013 / Photo courtesy of Yeringberg

Yeringberg

Yarra Valley, Victoria
Founded in 1863

Most famous wines: Chardonnay, Marsanne-Roussanne, Red blend

Past: One of Yarra Valley’s earliest winegrowers, the family-run Yeringberg remains as low tech as it was when Swiss Baron Frédéric Guillaume de Pury purchased part of the original Yering Station in 1863. The region’s winegrowing fortunes plunged in the early part of the 20th century, and the last of Yarra’s original vines were pulled out in 1921. The Yeringberg winery sat untouched until 1969, when the Baron’s grandson, Guill, replanted vines. He was one of the first to revive the local wine industry, which now thrives.

Present: Yeringberg is now run by Guill’s daughter, Sandra. The winery invites the public to visit just twice a year, but that’s not without its advantages. Partly because it has seen so little foot traffic, the winery is almost exactly as it was during the time of Sandra’s great-grandfather. Like a glimpse back in time, a horse-drawn carriage gathers dust beside a large vat and hand-operated corker, while tools from a small cooperage sit nearby. Up a set of narrow wooden stairs, small carts are parked along railway tracks, seemingly halted midway through receiving and transporting grapes. In the active cellar, new barrels sleep beside antique tools. The winery is a rare and treasured relic, yet still a fully functional operation with an annual production of 20,000 bottles.

The Supreme Australian Cabernet Sauvignon Regions

Mount Pleasant

Hunter Valley, New South Wales
Founded in 1921 (First vines planted 1880)

Most famous wines: Maurice O’Shea Shiraz, Lovedale Semillon

Past: Considered one of Australia’s most talented, forward-thinking winemakers, Maurice O’Shea began to plant grapes and make wine in Hunter Valley in 1921. O’Shea’s mother purchased land from Englishman Charles King, a portion of which was planted to vines in 1880. In 1932, the McWilliams family, well-known fortified producers, purchased half of the winery, and they bought the rest in 1941. The family retained O’Shea as chief winemaker and manager. In an age when Aussies favored primarily fortified wine, O’Shea was crafting beautiful, long-lived, dry table wines.

Present: O’Shea died of cancer in 1956 at 59. But his legacy lives on at Mount Pleasant in several forms. A flagship Shiraz bears his name, and his original wagon and press are on display, along with photos that depict O’Shea in action. The best way to channel O’Shea’s spirit, however, is to stroll the vineyards and take in the landscape that’s changed very little since his stewardship.

Old photo of an assembly line filling wine bottles
Filling wine bottles by the batch / Photo courtesy of Yalumba

Yalumba

Barossa Valley, South Australia
Founded in 1849

Most famous wines: The Signature, The Caley, The Virgilius Viognier

Past: Fresh from England and employed as a gardener for one of Barossa’s founding families, Samuel Smith started to plant his own vineyards. By 1852, he purchased 80 acres and released Yalumba’s first wine the following year. In 1894, Smith’s grandson, Fred Caley Smith, a horticulturist, brought cuttings back from his adventures around the world. Those vines still produce fruit today. Yalumba’s now-iconic winery and clocktower were built in 1908 from local Angaston marble. Smith’s son, Sidney, died just after its completion. Yalumba was managed until 2015 by Robert Hill-Smith, who represents the fifth generation of the family. Today, he chairs the company’s board.

Present: The manicured grounds and Yalumba’s Wine Room gives visitors a taste of the winery’s history. The wine room was once the company’s brandy bond store, and now it serves as a tasting room that showcases family artifacts. For a deeper dive, embark on one of Yalumba’s themed guided tours. You can explore everything from the winery’s unique onsite cooperage to its underground cellar and several treasured old vineyards.

An antique basket machine and a photo of a lush vineyard
Kay Brothers basket press and their pre-phylloxera Hermitage clones / Photos courtesy of Kay Brothers

Kay Brothers

McLaren Vale, South Australia
Founded in 1890

Most famous wines: Block 6 Shiraz, Basket Pressed Grenache

Past: After brothers Herbert and Frederick Kay purchased their Amery property in October 1890, they began to write a meticulous diary of daily life there. The writings document seven years where they planted more than 90 acres of vines, built a gravity-fed stone winery and produced their first 2,403 gallons of wine using grapes crushed by hand with a spiked wooden roller. After 57 years in business, the brothers’ winery passed to Herbert’s son, Cuthbert. It was later run by Colin Kay, who now holds a director title, along with with several family members.

Present: The Kay Brothers’ rich history is evident across the Amery property. The family homestead, partially built before the winery existed in the 1850s, perches behind a tasting room that’s housed in a former 1920 storeroom. The family diaries are displayed there. A tour of the historic working winery yields a 1928 basket press and the original open fermenters. The renowned 1892 Block 6 vineyard sits in a picturesque valley below.

Multi-floor warehouse with men posing for the camera on stairs
Seppeltsfield’s Employees in the gravity cellar in 1890 / Photo courtesy of Seppeltsfield

Seppeltsfield

Barossa Valley, South Australia
Founded in 1851

Most famous wines: 100 Year Old Para Vintage Tawny, Para Liqueur Tawny

Past: Joseph and Johanna Seppelt purchased 158 acres here in 1850 after the couple emigrated from Silesia. After an ill-fated tobacco farm in the Adelaide Hills, the Seppelts moved to Barossa Valley and their focus soon shifted to wine and spirits. In 1867, Joseph drew up plans to build a bluestone cellar. It would be completed 11 years later by his son, Benno. In 1878, Benno began the long tradition of maturing single-vintage tawny Port for a century before release. The winery is also a treasure trove of old Australian Sherry (also called Apera) and boasts the country’s longest-standing wine brand, Para.

Present: The tasting room inside the former 1900 bottling hall is fairly sleek and contemporary, but modernity stops there. History lovers will ogle over the 1851 Seppelt homestead, 1877 distillery and 1860s blending cellars. They can also taste barrel samples from any year since 1877 in the atmospheric Centennial Cellar.

Australia's Underdog Wine Region

Chambers (Rosewood Vineyards)

Rutherglen, Victoria
Founded in 1858

Most famous wines: Rare Muscat, Rare Muscadelle

Past: William Chambers, originally from Norfolk, England, established his winery in the small town of Rutherglen with his son, Phillip, in 1858. Today, Stephen Chambers, who represents the family’s sixth generation, runs the show. His father, Bill, a well-respected figure in Australian wine, is still heavily involved in the business. Stephen crafts wines primarily in the style for which Rutherglen is famed: decadent and long-lived fortified wines. Some of these come from vines more than a century old and from a solera started by the family in the 1890s.

Present:
A visit to Chambers is a rustic, understated affair, particularly considering the stature of its top wines. The winery has changed little in 160 years. The tasting room is housed inside what feels like a large corrugated-iron shed. Guests can taste more than 30 dry and fortified wines, some from rare grape varieties. Historic winemaking equipment and old barrels, some with fascinating stories attached, are found both above and below ground on the property. Outside, the gnarly old vines of the Rosewood vineyard whisper of the winery’s rich past.

Published on February 15, 2019
Topics: Wine History
About the Author
Christina Pickard
Contributing Editor

Reviews wines from Australia and New Zealand

A native of New York who has spent years living abroad in London and Perth, Australia, Pickard’s work has previously appeared in publications such as Australia’s Gourmet Traveller Wine, James Halliday’s Wine Companion, Scoop Magazine, Decanter and Wine Enthusiast. She was the co-host of the popular podcast, The Crush, as well as a regular presenter on various TV shows. Pickard is excited to share her vast knowledge and great passion for the wines of both Australia and New Zealand.

Email: cpickard@wineenthusiast.net



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