"And yet, the man who could sit under the shade of his own vine, with his wife and children about him and the ripe clusters hanging within their reach, in such a climate as this and not feel the highest enjoyment, is incapable of happiness and does no know what the words mean". James Busby - A Treatise on the Culture of the Vine & the Art of Making Wine.
The Wonnarua ("people of the hills and plains") were the first inhabitants of the (Coquun) Hunter Valley, with the Worimi to the north eastern shores, and the Awabakal to the south eastern shores. The Wonnarua have occupied the upper Hunter for at least 30,000 years, with traditional knowledge holding that occupation extends back to the early stages of the Dreaming.
The three tribes traveled along an ancient trading route between the Sydney area and the Hunter Valley, to exchange goods and perform ceremonies at various sites along the way.
With the arrival of European settlers in the early 19th century, the lands of the Hunter Valley were estranged and transformed by occupation, clearing, cultivation and building, driving out Aboriginal communities and greatly reducing their numbers through disease.
The first sighting of the Hunter River by European settlers was in 1797, when it was discovered by chance by Lieutenant John Shortland during a search for escaped convicts. 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.
The first overland route to the Hunter was discovered in 1820 by John Howe and a road-way was constructed largely along his path from Windsor to Singleton in 1823. This is now the Putty Road, familiar as a picturesque, if rather winding, shortcut for travellers from western Sydney to the Hunter Valley. Howe’s Valley, towards the northern end, commemorates the route’s pioneer.
The First Road
The first road between Sydney and Newcastle crossed the Hawkesbury River at Wiseman's Ferry then travelled via Judge Dowling's Range to Bucketty and on to Wollombi where it split. One branch headed North to Jerrys Plains (between the modern townships of Muswellbrook and Singleton) and the other headed East to Newcastle through Cessnock and Maitland. Built by convicts between 1826 & 1836, visitors can still see many of the original convict-built features when travelling along Tourist Route 33 to Wollombi.(Note: For more detail on the Great North Road - recognised as the single most significant civil engineering project in the first century of the colony’s history, visit the website www.convicttrail.org )
Road transport quickly opened up the Hunter Valley to new settlers, who found that the sandy banks of the river flats were suitable for many types of agriculture. With the arrival of the free settlers agricultural and pastoral activities rapidly grew to rank with timber and mining in economic importance and it was at this point - the early l820s - that wine grapes were first introduced to the valley.
The early Vineyard History (1820 – 1900)
By 1823 some 20 acres of vineyards had already been planted on the northern banks of the river and what is now the Dalwood /Gresford area between Maitland and Singleton.
The early pioneers of the Hunter Valley’s long winemaking history were George Wyndham of Dalwood, William Kelman at Kirkton and James King of Irrawang.
The Hunter Valley’s future was further assisted by the arrival of amateur viticulturalist James Busby - an opinionated gentleman who, returning from the second of two extensive study tours of the winegrowing regions of Europe, arrived back in the Colony of New South Wales with a collection of some 500 vine cuttings drawn from collections and private plantings in Europe and South Africa.
It was a replica set of more than 300 varieties and clones from these cuttings which established the Hunter Valley’s claims to viticultural fame. When Busby had first arrived in the Colony, he was accompanied by his sister, Catherine, who became enamoured of another fellow passenger, William Kelman. The couple married and took up one of the first official land grants at Kirkton on the Hunter River near today’s Morpeth. With a small vineyard already established, the Kelmans happily accommodated James’ replica benchmark vine collection. By 1840 the Hunter Valley’s registered vineyard area exceeded 500 acres.
From these beginnings, the Hunter Valley flourished, with several families establishing vineyards in the area. The Tyrrell, Wilkinson and Drayton families’ history all started in the latter part of the 19th century as did the viticultural pursuits of Dr Henry Lindeman.
Modern Vineyard History (1900 – 1970)
By 1930 the Pokolbin area had built a reputation for quality wine production. A number of qualified winemakers enhanced the Hunter Valley’s reputation in Sydney and Melbourne, led by the famous Maurice O’Shea of Mount Pleasant, arguably the father of Australian table wine. At Lindeman’s Ben Ean, two pioneer winemakers helped establish the reputation of the Hunter Valley, Hans Mollenhauer and Karl Stockhausen. The great families of the Hunter Valley, of which some have been in the area for six generations, also made significant contributions to what the area is today. The Tullochs, the Tyrrells and the Draytons are considered pioneers of the Australian wine industry and to this day continue to leave their mark on the Hunter Valley and the wider industry.
In the late thirties until the sixties the Hunter Valley experienced a decline in vineyard activity due to the depression and war as well as the public's general preferences for fortified wines that were produced more cheaply in other vineyard areas. Some winemakers, such as Maurice O’Shea, and the Tyrrells and Elliotts continued to pursue their passion for fine table wine against all adversity and financial hardship. A strong following of wine merchants greatly supported their craft and ensured that Hunter Valley wines were not forgotten. Some of the greatest Hunter Valley wines that can still be found today are from those years of struggle and unyielding passion.
In the 1950’s and 60’s the market changed. Fine, dry table wines were gaining in popularity and the wine industry could once again flourish. In 1963, Dr Max Lake established Lake’s Folly, the first new vineyard planted in the nineteen hundreds, and thus marked the beginning of a great flurry of development. A proliferation of boutique wineries ensued, which is what still characterises the Hunter Valley today.
Today, the Hunter Valley is certainly one of Australia’s most well-known wine regions, which, since its foundation, has produced many fine, world recognised wines. There are over 150 wineries producing a wide array of exceptional wines reflective of their origin. Hunter Valley Semillon enjoys a very special place in the world wine industry because, as award-winning Australian wine writer Campbell Mattinson puts it, “it produces a wine (...) that is acknowledged as the best in the world, the benchmark. It is the same kind of advantage enjoyed by Burgundy and Bordeaux and Champagne.”