A light-hearted glimpse into how Hunter Valley Wine Country came to be

With thanks to a few John's and James', Hunter Valley wine country is today one of Australia's most well-known wine regions.

Not into history?  That’s cool.  If you want to know how the Hunter’s Wine Country came to be but don’t have the time or inclination to delve into Hunter History 101 read on.  This highlight reel will give you a snap shot of one of Australia’s most beloved wine regions in about three minutes or at the most, the time it takes to enjoy your first delicious glass of Hunter Shiraz after a long day’s work!  Perfect, light reading really during the commercial break of your favourite DIY show.

Where it all began…

Traditionally owned by the Wonnarua people prior to European Settlement, the Hunter Valley was discovered by accident in 1797 by one Lieutenant John Shortland who was, some might say, ‘hunting’ for escaped convicts.  The esteemed Lieutenant stumbled upon something far more profitable however – a source of timber and coal for the big smoke.  I know what you’re thinking.  Did he ever find those cheeky convicts?  We’ll never know, but one thing’s for certain, we humble wine lovers owe those outlaws and Lt. John of course (among the many other esteemed settlers and convicts) a great deal of thanks, or at the very least, a raised glass of delicious aged Semillon.  Cheers!

It was a quarter of a century later in 1823 that a road-way was constructed from Windsor to Singleton after literally another John (Howe) discovered the first overland route.*  Spanning close to 100kms traversing vast forests, valleys and virtually every landscape you can imagine, Putty Road commemorates the route’s pioneer. 

Now with “easy” access to this new bushy utopia, settlers, well settled, in what was a veritable free for all for anyone willing to give agriculture, lumbering or mining a go.  It was during this time that the first wine grapes were planted in the valley and here’s where stuff starts to get exciting.

Having previously studied viticulture in France, James Busby arrived to the Hunter region with his parents and sister and 500 odd vine cuttings collected from Europe and South Africa in 1824. Just how this industrious young Scott came to possess this prized collection of cuttings is anyone’s guess but aren’t we glad that he did.  From a replica set of James’ cuttings, the 20 acres of vines that were already in the ground around the Dalwood/Gresford area, grew quickly to 500 acres by 1840.  The growth of the Hunter Valley viticultural area was aided by James’ sister Catherine marrying William Kelman, a fellow passenger the Busby’s met en route to the colony.  Together they took up one of the first official land grants on the Hunter River at Kirkton, (near today’s Morpeth).

A little later on, four, now well-known wine families, planted vineyards in the area along with Dr. Henry Lindeman – the Drayton’s, Tulloch’s, Tyrrell’s and Wilkinson’s.  Fast forward to 1930 and thanks to these pioneering wine families and a young Maurice O’Shea, the Pokolbin area of the Hunter was starting to gain a reputation for producing quality table wines in an era when fortifieds were all the rage.  Considered by many a Master Blender, O’Shea who studied oenology (que fancy word for winemaking) in France, purchased land in Pokolbin in 1921, building the now famed Mount Pleasant winery and planting vineyards around the estate.  Often called “Burgundy’s” and “Chablis” as was the custom of the day, O’Shea’s fine table wines started our country’s love affair with the many unique styles and varieties of Australian wine we (and the rest of the world) enjoy today.

Of course, no Hunter wine history lesson would be complete without mention of the late Len Evans OBE AO, Australia’s first wine commentator who, a few years after making his sojourn into wine writing, founded the Hunter’s Rothbury Estate.  The year was 1969 and at that time, Australia’s love affair with table wine was still but a drop in the fortified wine ocean. Len most certainly helped to change that.  In addition to Rothbury Estate, he owned Evans Wine Co and most notably, Tower Estate in the Hunter Valley.  His passion and tenacity put Australia on the world wine map and helped turn the fortified tide.  

In his early 70’s Len started The Len Evans Wine Tutorial in the Hunter Valley.  An exclusive, annual wine class aimed at improving and developing the quality of wine show judging in Australia.  Despite Len’s passing in 2006, the Tutorial continues to be a coveted rite of passage for aspiring scholars and is today run by Australia’s leading wine commentator, James Halliday and other esteemed wine alumni including Iain Riggs (of the Hunter Valley’s Brokenwood Wines), Ian McKenzie, Gary Steel and Michael Hill Smith.

These days in the Hunter, we are very spoilt for choice.  There’re now over 150 wineries producing classic Hunter Semillon and Shiraz, Chardonnay and cool ‘alternate’ varieties like Tempranillo, Albariño and other wines whose names are equally hard to pronounce.  

So, what does the future hold for this most beloved Valley?  Judging on days gone by and an ever-growing, innovative and passionate wine community I’d say, more great wine.  Visit us sometime soon and find your happy ever after in a bottle of the Hunter’s best.

*Author’s Note: To see more convict-built roads, try ‘Scenic Route 33’ heading north from Sydney to the charming colonial towns of Laguna and Wollombi.