For over 30,000 years prior to the arrival of the Europeans, the Aboriginies lived in the Hunter region. They roamed within their tribal territories according to the seasons and with a very close relationship with the land and Hunter River. At Port Stephens, the waters teemed with fish with foreshores covered in oysters and the bush full of wild game and fruits.
According to the Aboriginal Dreamtime, there was once a greedy frog called Tittalik. One day he decided to drink up all of the water out of the pools and springs. He drank and drank, growing bigger and bigger, until there was no water left for the other animals. In desperation they called a meeting and agreed that if Tittalik opened his mouth for long enough, the water would spill out. Someone suggested “make him laugh!”
First the Emu tried but he did not succeed, then the Kangaroo, but he also failed. All the animals tried but none of them could make the frog laugh. They were just about to give up when along came the Platypus, who began to walk up the hill towards Tittalik. But on the way up he tripped over a rock and tumbled back down. Then he picked himself up and again started climbing, only to roll back down the hill.
All of a sudden the Kookaburra started laughing and one by one the other animals joined in. The laughter became so infections that eventually Tittalik began to laugh. He laughed and laughed and all the water from the pools and springs gushed out of his mouth and down the hill. Finally the water came to rest in a gully and became a great river. This is how the Hunter began.
The Europeans first discovered the Hunter Valley when Lieutenant John Shortland was searching for escaped convicts in 1797. The Hunter Valley’s initial value was as a source of timber and coal for the steamships that provided much of the transport for Sydney and its surroundings. As the colony of New South Wales expanded, further exploration took place under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Paterson, who chartered the harbour and the river, and on his advice a settlement was established at the mouth of the Hunter.
Newcastle, which lies at the mouth of the Hunter River was named after Newcastle in England due to the discovery of coal. The valley itself was named after the 2nd Governor of NSW (1795-80) John Hunter. Along with coal, cedar trees were in abundant so cedar gangs moved further into the hinterland where good stands of timber were cut from the areas around the river. These cedar gangs comprised of convicts and in these early days, very few free settlers headed to the Hunter Valley.
When a road was built between Sydney and the Hunter (1825) it became a major artery for free settlers which eventually lead to the growing of wheat, tobacco, barley, oats and wine. Grapes were planted “to increase the comforts, and promote the morality of the lower classes of the colony”. At this time there was a rum monopoly in Sydney which he hoped to destroy along with it’s “mischievous results”.
The vines arrived in The Hunter Valley at the end of the 1820′s with the first major planting taking place in the 1830′s when James Busby, an amateur viticulturist returned to NSW after travelling throughout Europe and South Africa collecting cutting from ove 500 vineyards. Some of these cutting were sent to the newly established Royal Botanical Gardens in Sydney and the rest planted at the family estate named Kirkton situated on the Hunter River between Singleton and Branxton – establishing what was arguably the first vineyard in the region.
Although Busby is widely regarded as the founder of the Australian wine industry, another pioneer George Wyndham also planted vines in 1830 with cuttings given to him by Busby. His first attempts failed, but he persevered and made his first vintage in 1835. By this time there were 10 vineyards in existence varying in size from less than half to little over one hectare.
From these humble beginnings the Hunter Valley wine industry grew rapidly in the state. At first vineyards were established along the fertile, alluvial plains of the Hunter River, but by the 1860′s plantings of vineyards began to move toward the foothills of the Brokenback range near Pokolbin and Rothbury (Lovedale) where many of the most well established and highly regarded vineyards of the Hunter can be found today. It was at this time that the familiar names of Audrey Wilkinson, Tyrrell, Drayton and later Tulloch and Mount Pleasant appeared on the scene.
Between 1866 and 1876 the Hunter Valley wine industry grew at a spectacular rate – much like the boom that followed a 100 years later. While plantings started to decline after 1876, the industry continued to be prosperous right up until the economic depression of the 1890′s.
Sydney was a lucrative market for the Hunter Valley, largely due to regulation in place at the time that placed prohibitive duties on wines from other areas such as Victoria and South Australia. The Australian Federation in 1901 put an end to these trade barriers and allowed wine to enter the state free of tariffs and the Hunter found it difficult to compete against the higher yielding regions such as South Australia. this coupled with the arrival of downy mildew in 1917 and the rise in the popularity of fortified wines, signalled a period of fast decline for the Hunter Valley with vineyard area reduced to 552 hectares in 1936 and 187 hectares by 1956.
Many returning soldiers from WW1 were given grants of land in the Hunter Valley but the Great Depression and devastating hail storms between 1929 and 1930 caused many of these new landowners to abandon their vineyards. Some of the land was bought up by the larger and more established land owners at the time who would later become the driving force behind the Hunter Valley’s wine industry.
The turning point came during the 1950′s and 1960′s which once again saw a shift on consumer tastes, but this time toward the drier styles of wine. This brought about a significant increase in demand from private family and corporate investors seeking to acquire vineyards.
What followed was a dramatic increase in plantings and expansion into the area of Broke-Fordwich and into the Upper Hunter north of Singleton. Wineries such as Belbourie, Chateau Francois, Dawson Family Estate, Hungerford Hill, George Hunter Estate, Lakes Folly, Saxonvale, Rothvale. Tamalee, Allandale, Brokenwood, Peterson’s, Rosemount, Tamburlaine and Terrace Vale all appeared in the few years that followed. Unfortunately some of these wineries have since either changed name, ownership or simply closed down.
While Semillon, Shiraz and Chardonnay remain the principal varieties of the region, other popular varietals amoungst the whites include Verdelho which is planted in large quantities and Viognier which is proving a good variety for the Hunter as is Gewurztraminer. Amongst the reds are Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir and Chambourcin.
In recent years, there has been an increase interest in Italian Grape varieties in the Hunter Valley – mainly due to their ability to adapt to certain climates in Australia, high natural acidity, lovely testure and ability to adapt to heat spokes. Popular Italian varieties include the hugely successful Pinot Grigio, Sangiovese, Nebbiolo considered the most noble of Italy’s varieties and Barbera which is the most widely grown grape in Piedemont.
Today the Hunter Valley is recognised as Australia’s oldest wine region with a wine history that is made up of more than 125 wineries and a total of 6,000 hectares of vineyard. Total annual wine production exceeds 40 million litres with a estimated sales value of over $275 million – sold throughout Australia and exported to over 50 countries worldwide.
It’s amazing what has been achieved in 180 years – wonder where we’ll be in another 18o years!