The late Douglas Adams once described alcohol as “a colourless volatile liquid formed by the fermentation of sugars” which he went on to explain was noted for its intoxicating effect on certain carbon-based life forms. (Adams: HHGG) It is unknown when the first of these “carbon-based life forms” discovered that the naturally occurring sugars in Vitis vinifera, the common grape of Europe and the Mediterranean world could be manufactured into a sort of consciousness altering yet palatable beverage, but all indications are that we were doing so from the moment we first learned to bend the elbow above those opposing thumbs.
The earliest archaeological evidence of wine production comes from Eastern Europe and dates to about 8000BC, which presumably also gives us a clear indication of a time for the first morning hang over. As the Greek historian Thucydides wrote reflectively two and a half thousand years ago, “The people of the Mediterranean began to emerge from barbarism when they learnt to cultivate the olive and the vine.” By the time of Thucydides, the cultivation and harvesting of grapes, or viticulture as it is more properly known, was going great guns and formed an important trade commodity throughout the Classical world.
Winemaking flourished during the age of European expansion and went with the settlers to their New Worlds. Vines were brought to Australia in 1788 on board the First Fleet and after a little trial and error, Australian made wine had become available for sale domestically by the 1820s. Monty Python might have dismissed Australian wine last century as little more than “Chateau Chunder”, but by then the very real success story of brands like Penfolds Vintage Grange showed that Australian wine was something to be taken seriously by oenophiles both here and abroad.
There are estimated to be nearly two and a half thousand wineries in Australia today and they are found in every Australian state across 65 winegrowing regions with one count putting the actual number of individual grape growers at something over 6000. There are more than 600 wineries in Victoria alone, which is more single producers than in any other Australian state. Many of these grape growers are boutique or family operated businesses but if you were to take into account every amateur making a few bottles in their kitchens or garden sheds as well, there must be many, many more. Here in Melbourne’s north for instance, the Eltham Winemakers Guild has for 50 years been promoting the concept of amateur wine making and their annual wine show regularly attracts over 500 entries in the most diverse categories offered of any such show nationwide.
The beginnings of this story in Victoria has its place in the first days of settlement of the Port Phillip District. It is commonly accepted that the first grape vines for wine making in Victoria were planted by Donald Ryrie at Yarra Yarra Yering in 1838, probably from cuttings provided by the MacArthur family of Camden. The Yering enterprise was a small experiment at first as the Ryrie property was initially intended to be a grazing concern, but with the arrival of James Henry Dardel, a Swiss national and experienced vine dresser, the work soon developed. The first Yering vintage wasn’t bottled until 1845 but to this day wine is still produced at Yering Station where it is proudly marketed to consumers as Chateau Yering, “the oldest vineyard in Victoria”.
In 1840 while still involved with Ryrie, Dardel joined his countrymen, the Belperroud brothers Jean and Alexandre on a project to plant a second vineyard in Victoria at a site well familiar to the readers of this blog. In 1840 the Belperroud brothers, assisted by Dardel, planted an acre of wine making grapes for the Messieurs John and Robert Bakewell at their Station Plenty thus making the Bakewell’s Yallambee the second oldest vineyard in what would become the State of Victoria.
“The Belperroud brothers… with the help of James Dardel… planted a one-acre vineyard on the Plenty River beside Ryrie’s Track, just above its confluence with the Yarra, on Thomas Walker’s Crown Portion No. 8. It was Victoria’s second acre of vines after Ryrie’s. The vineyard was the property of the Bakewells of Yallambie, Lower Plenty.” (Raymond Henderson, From Jolimont to Yering, p172, Roundabout Publishing, 2006)
Jean, later John (1801-1883) and Alexandre (1804-1875) Belperroud were skilled vignerons from Cornaux near the shores of Lake Neuchâtel in Switzerland. They arrived in Sydney in November, 1839 and by January the following year they were in Port Phillip where, “Fortunately, for the vignerons of 1840 contract work was available in the gardens and properties of the well-to-do.” (Dr David Dunstan, LaTrobeana, Vol10, No.2) The first of these gardens was the Bakewells’ Yallambee and after Ryrie, this was the second planting of vines overall.
Henderson states that the Bakewell vineyard was located at what is now the back of Kardinia Drive where it looks east over the present day soccer ground and north across the high voltage electrical easement. If this was the site, this initial location was possibly not a success as the Gilbert and Bateman pictorial evidence shows grape vines and hops growing later, on the river flat further north, below the site of the Bakewell prefabricated house and existing Homestead. In the late 1850s William Howitt would describe this site:
“From the brow of the hill on which the house stands, on a lawn of rich Kangaroo-grass, the bank descends steeply to a flat of from four to five acres, which is laid out in a garden, orchard, and vineyard… From the hill near the house you have a full view of the whole garden. The fruit-trees were nearly all in blossom, and the vine-plots were well dressed and kept. They cut their vine-stocks there generally much shorter than in Germany, little more than a foot from the ground, and give separate sticks to each. Mr. Bakewell’s were an exception. I was surprised to see the flat of this garden planted with the vines, and the sloping sides of the hills only partly planted with them. But as they grow the grapes chiefly for market, no doubt they obtain much heavier bunches, but they would not produce so finely-flavoured a wine. ” (William Howitt, Land, Labour and Gold, 1858).
James Dardel and the Belperroud brothers were pioneers of the early wine industry in Victoria and after working at Yallambee the Belperrouds, followed later by Dardel, moved to the Geelong area where they were involved in establishing a successful and highly respected wine growing region which flourished there until grape phylloxera saw its demise later in the century.
In spite of Superintendent La Trobe’s best efforts for them, as Swiss nationals the purchase of land remained difficult and expensive for these emigre viticulturists. In his correspondence, La Trobe called them “a superior class” of emigrant but until the land situation was remedied by a new Act of Naturalization in 1849, foreign vignerons inevitably worked at vineyards owned by British subjects, or on other activities altogether. Jean Belperroud offered French lessons in an advertisement in the Port Phillip Gazette in October, 1840. James Dardel managed a cheese factory in Bulleen.
In 1841 with the economy contracting, Jean Belperroud commenced working on a new project – Berramongo, a vineyard at Dewings Ford on the Barwon River. The new vineyard was planted on land owned by Charles Swanston, a merchant and leading member of the Port Phillip Association and Swanston’s business partner, his son in law, Edward Willis. This was the same Edward Willis who was squatting on the lower reaches of the Plenty River in 1837. It would seem reasonable to assume therefore that the Willis/Belperroud association commenced at Yallambee at the time the Belperrouds were showing their vine planting and vine dressing skills to the Bakewells.
The Belperrouds are considered to have been key figures in the pre-phylloxera wine industry of Victoria. In 1859 Jean won a horticultural prize of 150 guineas for a treatise he wrote on wine making in Victoria which was afterwards published sparking “a wider debate among would be authorities on viticulture in the new land.” (Dunstan, ibid) It’s a debate that continues to the present day as any simple search of the internet will tell you.
I don’t pretend to know much about this subject beyond how to pull a cork out of a bottle but a pal of mine used to write a wine buff’s blog, The Inquisitive Palate which impressed by how much can be said on this subject. People have been writing about wine since the time of Thucydides and probably will be doing so for as long there are drinkers. A recent story in the news told a tale about how a dozen bottles of wine had been sent up to the International space station to be aged for a year in a weightless environment. Not quite sure what the point of this was but the boffins claimed that the journey had changed the wine on a molecular level. When the first bottle was opened after it arrived back down here from orbit, the wine cognoscenti said it “tasted like rose petals, smelled like a campfire and glistened with a burnt-orange hue.”
So there you go. I don’t suppose any of us will ever get a chance to taste this sort of Space Age plonk, but here’s the idea. Get yourself a bottle of Aussie Chateau Chunder from the corner shop. Decant it. Throw in some rose cuttings from the garden, some charred orange peel and let the resulting mixture stand next to the Webber while you’re putting a prawn on the Saturday afternoon barbie.
Voilà. You’ll either have a drink that’s out of this world, or vinegar. A drink perhaps not unlike something they made around here 180 years ago.