Convicts and Immigrants Paved the Way for Australia’s Wine Industry

The residence of early wine pioneer John MacArthur / Alamy

With its diverse microclimates and soils that allow a wide range of varieties to thrive, it’s easy to forget that Australia has almost no native grapes of its own. All the vines that yield world-renowned Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon, Riesling and more had to be brought from somewhere else.

The origins and growth of the Australian wine industry are tied to the colonization of the nation, first by Britain as a penal colony for convicts, and then by immigrants from around Europe.

English colonizer Captain James Cook in New South Wales
English colonizer Captain James Cook in New South Wales / Alamy

The First Fleet of convicts

Around 1740, England began to experience a massive population boom. As the Industrial Revolution (1760–1830) took root, people migrated to cities like London in search of work.

For most, living conditions were abysmal due to overcrowding and little sanitation. Rampant poverty led many to resort to petty crimes like theft to get by, and the crime spike which led to packed jails. During the early 1700s, Britain shipped convicts to the U.S. colonies. However, after the Revolutionary War, in 1776 that was no longer an option.

Captain James Cook, an 18th-century colonizer, claimed the eastern portion of Australia for Britain in 1770. These “virgin” lands presented the perfect solution, despite the fact that Australia had native Aboriginal inhabitants.

Led by Admiral Arthur Phillip, the First Fleet, which consisted of 11 ships, six of which carried between 1,000–1,500 convicts, set sail from Portsmouth, England on May 13, 1787. Its mission was to establish a penal colony and Australia’s first European settlement in New South Wales. Many died on the journey.

All told, between 1788–1868, roughly 162,000 convicts from Britain and Ireland were sent to various penal colonies around Australia. Most convicts were sent based on an alleged list of “19 crimes,” which were largely minor offenses like theft that warranted transport, but not death.

Early wine pioneer Gregory Blaxland
Early wine pioneer Gregory Blaxland / Alamy

Along the way, the fleet crossed the Pacific to Rio de Janeiro in Brazil, and then the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa. In addition to securing food and other goods, the fleet also picked up vine cuttings.

In South Africa, the officers developed a taste for sweet Constantia dessert wine, made from Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains grapes. These are thought to be the first vines brought to Australia.

The initial cuttings arrived with the First Fleet on January 20, 1788. Dropping anchor in New South Wales’ Botany Bay, Captain Phillip then founded the colony that would eventually become Sydney.

The first vines were planted in Sydney’s Farm Cove, which is now the site of the Royal Botanic Gardens.

However, the vines rotted due to the intense heat and humidity and the planting ultimately failed.

“The first couple of years were about survival,” says James Boden, head sommelier of the National Wine Centre of Australia. “There were no farmers on the first arrival. The soldiers and convicts had no background in agriculture. They came in January, [and] it was very hot. So, none of those early vines survived. No one knew how to tend them.”

Riesling in the Adelaide Hills
Riesling in the Adelaide Hills / Getty

Most early colonists had no knowledge or experience in wine cultivation, but some local officials understood quickly that Australia represented prime winemaking real estate.

In an account of his voyage to Botany Bay and early years in Australia, British Admiral-turned-governor Arthur Phillip said that “in a climate so favorable, the cultivation of the vine may doubtless be carried to any degree of perfection and should no other articles of commerce divert the attention of the settlers from this part…”

In 1800, Francois de Riveau and Antoine L’Andre, two French war prisoners who hailed from the Loire, convinced the British to let them lend their talents to the cause in New South Wales in exchange for eventual freedom.

British officials agreed, eager to kickstart winemaking and provide a more “civilized” alternative to the cheap and destructive diluted rum option known as grog.

For several years, the duo grew “upwards of 12,000 vine cuttings” in Parramatta, a city just outside Sydney. And in New South Wales, its third governor, Philip Gidley King, encouraged other settlers and freed convicts to take up winemaking. He published a manual brought by the Frenchmen called Method of Preparing a Piece of Land for the Purpose of Forming a Vineyard in the Sydney Gazette in 1803.

The French winemakers were ultimately found to be frauds.

But efforts to establish vineyards continued. More successful attempts were made by early wine pioneers like Gregory Blaxland, John MacArthur and James Busby, the “father” of the Australian wine industry. They planted vine cuttings from South Africa, France and Spain in nearby locales like Parramatta and the Hunter Valley.

Jacob's Creek in Barossa Valley
Jacob’s Creek / Alamy

A new wave of winemakers

The pursuit didn’t pick up until immigrants with backgrounds in winemaking and agriculture started to arrive in Australia. The South Australian Company, which drove settlement by offering land to those willing to come, played a key role to bring immigrants from around Europe.

Notable groups included Swiss vignerons like Hubert de Castella and David Louis Pettavel, who came to Victoria starting in the 1840s and cultivated the Geelong and Yarra valleys.

Also, Irish ex-pats known as the “Wild Geese” escaped wars and famine during the 17th and 18th centuries to play key roles in winemaking regions like France, the United States and Australia’s Clare Valley.

Among the biggest influences on Australia’s burgeoning wine industry, though, were Prussian immigrants that settled in Southern Australia’s Barossa Valley near Adelaide.

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An initial group of six represented Australia’s first vinedressers: Caspar Flick, Georg Gerhard, Johann Justus, Friedrich Seckold, Johann Stein and Johann Wenz. They arrived in April 1838 to work on MacArthur’s Camden Park estate winery, considered to be Australia’s first commercial winery. A wave followed for the next few years.

The majority who made the long trip were Old Lutherans who sought religious freedom and to escape persecution by King Frederick William III’s attempts to unify the Reformed and Lutheran sects into a single church. With German vines like Riesling in tow, wine production started first for family enjoyment before it spread to widespread selling.

Jacob’s Creek producer, Orlando Wines, which was founded in 1847
Jacob’s Creek producer, Orlando Wines, which was founded in 1847 / Photo courtesy of Jacob’s Creek

“They knew how to work the land…they really drove the South Australia wine movement,” says Boden. Some of these early Australian wineries, like Jacob’s Creek producer Orlando Wines, founded in 1847 by Bavarian emigrant Johann Gramp, and Henschke, which dates to the 1860s, are still operational, although some have undergone changes in ownership.

Although the country is well-suited to wine production, it needed a helping hand from these early immigrants and colonizers. They were instrumental in turning Australia into a New World wine powerhouse.

Published on April 6, 2021
Topics: Drinks History