The History of Wine in Rutherglen

Rutherglen, Wine History

Dig Gentlemen Dig!

The history of the Rutherglen Wine region traces back to the 1850's. Whilst the exact year of commencement is unknown it is thought to be in the mid to latter part of the decade. Lindsay Brown had selected his 'Gooramadda Run' in the late 1840's and is credited with being the father of the local wine industry when he planted his four acre vineyard to the west of Rutherglen some ten years later

Brown has been credited with a quote that has endured through the years -

'Dig gentleman dig, but no deeper than six inches, for there is more gold to be won from the top six inches than from all of the depths below'

More plantings soon followed and the wines of the north-east soon found strong favour throughout the colony. It is incredible to think given limitations of the time that just thirty years later Rutherglen would be considered a wine power, with some of the largest estates in the world within it boundaries.

Many wineries established at this time are still flourishing today. This includes -

  • Gehrigs - 1859
  • Chambers Rosewood - 1859
  • Morris- 1859
  • Mount Prior - 1860
  • St Leonards - 1860
  • All Saints Estate - 1864
  • Campbells - 1870
  • Stanton & Killeen - 1875

The vineyards of the region expanded mightily into the 1880's. With more than 3000 acres of vines spread across 50 recognised vineyards (and considerably more smaller farm orchards), Rutherglen was producing approximately a third of all wine in Australia. Show success soon followed with Rutherglen wines winning prizes internationally in the London, Paris and Bordeaux exhibitions, and exports back to the 'Mother Country' flowed.

The largest holdings of the time included George Francis Morris whose Fairfield property grew to 650 acres under vine, the Graham brothers of Netherby (350 acres), Alex Caughey at Mount Prior (350 acres) and George Smith of All Saints Estate (250 acres). The flow of wine was followed by a flow of money and a number of grand cellars and country estates were built, many of which still stand today.

The Scourge of Phylloxera

Rutherglen would continue to prosper well into the 1890's, but local winegrowers feared that a scourge would soon be at their door. Phylloxera, a root sucking aphid that feeds on the nutrients of the vine, had been detected near Geelong in the late 1870's. At the time their were no known remedies, and affected vineyards needed to be uprooted and burnt without delay. In May 1899 the news that many had been dreading swept the district; phylloxera had been detected in Rutherglen. The vine disease slowly but surely took hold across the district decimating vineyard after vineyard, and forcing many to turn to other agricultural pursuits, or abandon the land altogether. It was particularly devestating coming at a time when many had invested heavily in vines to take advantage of Rutherglen's strong and still growing reputation.

One small stroke of good fortune amongst the collective misery of the region's grape growers was that the Rutherglen Viticulture College has been established just two years prior at a site south of the township. Whilst it was not known at the time of establishement, the Rutherglen Viticulture College would play the key role in re-establishing a wine industry in Rutherglen and elsewhere around the country.

The New Century

Many hardy souls remained committed to the the wine industry, and indeed some vineyards were spared from pyhlloxera for a number of years. Those planted on sandy soils seemed to be less susceptible, meaning many bordering the Murray River were able to continue operations for a time with minimal impact.

By 1905 phylloxera had claimed all but a few isolated pockets and studies into the pest had been continuing at pace at the Rutherglen Viticulture College. Research had centred on developing phylloxera resistant vines by taking rootstock from a genus of north american vine that had proven resistant to phylloxera and grafting on the desired cuttings suitable for table wine production from the vitis vinifera genus. A trial vineyard was planted at Wahgunyah and after some early problems in establishing the vineyard it was deemed successful, and they soon had a vineyard of some fourteen acres in production.

The program would be boosted further by the appointment of Francois de Castella as the Victorian State Viticulturist in 1907. A highly skilled botanist who had studied in Switzerland, de Castella travelled to Europe to collect suitable cuttings for the Australian climate that would be developed at the Rutherglen college. This included the introduction of Durif in 1908. Needless to say the regions winemakers remain eternally grateful to this day.

Over the next thirty years more than 5 million resistant rootlings were supplied by the Rutherglen Viticulture College to re-establish vineyards in Rutherglen and further afield.

The Next Chapter

As resistant vineyards came to bear Rutherglen was well positioned to regain marketshare, and some did so particularly well. The Burgoyne Brothers operation at Mount Ophir grew to a mammoth 700 acres with much of the production bound for England. Graham's large Netherby enterprise grew to 700 acres also.

The scale of the regions vineyards waxed and waned for some thirty years in line with market demands. The lack of colonial trade barriers meant that South Australian wine found its way on to Melbourne shelves. Later import duties would affect the demand for Australian wines in Britain, and consumer tastes would change as they are perpetually bound to do. It became clear that the Golden Age for Rutherglen producers was over.

The Modern Age
Thankfully a number of family wineries stuck to their task through the 1950's and 60's in what must have been trying times. The majority of wineries in Rutherglen were mixed farming businesses with an income derived from cropping, cattle or perhaps wool (for many this is still the case today). This served in spreading the risk and allowed a family to focus their energies accordingly during tough periods. You just hoped that not all of the agricultural markets were down at the same time! There remained a solid domestic market for Rutherglen fortifieds on account of their quality and carriage loads of hogsheads, gallon jars and flagons found their way to Melbourne by rail.

In the mid sixties it is said that there were 21 registered vineyards in Victoria and 13 of those were in Rutherglen, which highlights just how far into disrepair the industry had fallen. Two things would change this bleak outlook for Rutherglen.

In 1967 the Rutheglen wineries bonded together to hold the very first Rutherglen Wine Festival, all financed on the back of a $50 loan from Rutherglen local Moss Harkness. The festival ws an outstanding success with 5000 people flocking to the region for the inaugural festival. Evidently the $50 stake was quite safe, and the balance of the proceeds were used to erect the steel top of the giant wine bottle which still dominates the Rutherglen landscape today. To that point in time the wine bottle has been a rather inocuous looking water tank.

The next year event organisers were shocked when more than 12000 people attended, and the festival would continue to grow from that point on. The Rutherlgen Wine Festival would later morph into the modern day Winery Walkabout with the majority of activities dispersed to the wineries rather than the town itself.

The second agent of change for Rutherglen at this time actually took place across much of the country. The influx of migrants to the country through the late fifties and early sixties slowly but steadily increased the demand for wines, particularly table wines. Being largely producers of fortified wines to that point, the winemakers of Rutherglen were able to adapt their offering and expand into table wines accordingly. In the 1860's Rutherglen's burgeoning reputation was built on 'burgundy', 'claret' and other table wine styles, and some 100 years later it seemed the industry had finally come full circle. This period laid the foundation for the modern Rutherglen wine industry - boutique, family owned, quality driven winemakers producing a full range of sparkling and still red and white tables wines, and still making the world's finest fortifieds.

*Excerpts of this article were taken from 'Rutherlgen - Wine Centre of North East Victoria', written by Brian Lloyd and John Kennedy in 2007. Copies of this fascinating book are available from the Rutherglen Wine Experience

Rutherglen, Wine History
Rutherglen, Wine History