Pokolbin 50 years on…”and the rest is history”
Having a quiet drink and pizza at Peter Drayton’s new Brewhouse on a Friday evening I was pleasantly surprised to be given a copy of the Newcastle Morning Herald and Miner’s Advocate, May 1967. This had been handed to Peter that afternoon by someone who thought he might be interested!
Looking out from the deck at the dry brown “grass” the first article to catch my eye was titled ‘Recovery from drought!’ Back then for some 2 1/2 years, the valley farmers and graziers had lost more than $13million in production and gone through hell with sheep, cattle and dairy cows dying for lack of feed and water. Still, as always, as the drought broke an air of optimism could be detected in the stories written for the Herald. It contained a special feature being an industrial survey with many interesting facts about the growth and future of the wine industry.
The year 1967 was when Max Lake produced his first vintage of Cabernet Sauvignon and, in many ways, it was the beginning of the boutique wine industry, although they didn’t know it.
One advertisement in the special feature (sponsored by Drayton’s Bellevue, Elliotts Oakvale, Tullocks Glen Elgin and Tyrrell’s Ashman’s vineyards) is interesting on a number of levels. It is promoting Hunter Valley Reisling (known as Semillon now), unusually the wines are grown and bottled at Pokolbin (most wines were transported to Sydney for bottling in those days-similar to Bordeaux), it is an example of the wineries working together to promote Pokolbin and it shows Pokolbin vineyards extending over the Geographical Indications Committee (GIC) defined subregion of today.
At that time the Hunter Valley produced about 300,000 gallons of table wines, less than 1% of the Australian production of 37.5 million gallons.
Interestingly outside the Hunter half the total wine production was used for distillation and two-thirds of the remainder went into making fortified wines. The rest went into table wines. So Hunter wines really made up 5% of all table wines and as the report says were “the cream of the crop”
Nineteen sixty-seven was a time of optimism with expansion plans “being carried out by the major vineyards expected to treble the production of Hunter Valley wines” The impact of small boutique vineyards had not yet emerged.
The paper reports Penfolds spending about $2million at Wybong, near Muswellbrook to set up the biggest vineyard in the valley. “So far it has 300 acres under vine, with plans to have up to 1000 acres under vine”. The aim was to produce about 700,000 gallons annually, more than twice the production in the valley at that time.
A little bit of reassurance is introduced in the article where it states “Pokolbin remains the heart of the Valley’s wine industry, as it has always been”. Well, they got that right as we have seen!
The article notes Tyrrell’s is expanding production as quickly as possible with an increase of a third in four years. From the 90 acres under-vine, they have produced just over 30,000 gallons a year, quite high by Valley standards.
“Mr. Tyrrell is planting from 10 – 12 acres more a year. He has 1000 acres suitable for vines, but does not think they will all be planted in his lifetime.”
Drayton’s Happy Valley had expanded from 25 to 83 acres, Barry Drayton said: “extra acres are constantly being planted and on maturity, production will be trebled”. The Bellevue vineyard also was expanding by some 30-50 acres with the aim of doubling their production to 22,000 gallons.
Tulloch’s had planted 50 acres since 1963 giving them about 300 acres with the expectation of increasing output from 50,000 to 70,000 gallons.
Lindemans similarly had planted an additional 50 acres bringing them up to 250 acres and a 25% increase in production
McWilliams also increased plantings by 60 acres and planned another 100 acres. With more than 300 acres their production will have doubled.
The one “boutique” vineyard – Elliott’s Oakvale, was planting about 3 acres a year!
Nine new vineyards were reported, the largest being Hungerford Hill, formally a Friesian stud farm run by Allan Hungerford. About 50,000 vines planted on contours determined by the NSW Soil Conservation service, consisting of “Hermitage and Semillon” varieties.
Another “large vineyard is being planned in association with Mr Murray Tyrrell and a group of investors of about 300 acres”.
McWilliams has bought 53 acres at Rose Hill and plans to plant 40 acres of vines.
Lindeman’s have bought about 90 acres at Hungerford Hill and are establishing a vineyard to be called Stevens Vineyard of some 70 acres.
At a cost of more than $1000 an acre, the expansion was expensive but these pioneering vignerons were confident that Australia wide demand for quality table wines would continue to grow.
In the 1965/6 season, 1835 tons of wine grapes produced about 300,000 gallons from 1206 acres. The expectation from the new plantings was for the Hunter to produce 15 to 20 percent of Australian table wine grapes.
What was not seen at the time was the drop off in demand for Fortified wines, Sherry, and distilled wine products. So elsewhere in Australia wineries moved over to making table wines and as wine is fashion they undertook new plantings to reflect the change in demand.
The drinking habit change also occurred in the UK, then our major export market, and the industry had yet another challenge. Included in the international mix somewhat later was the arrival of Spain and Chile in the UK market.
So we never made it to the 15 – 20 % market share, remaining around the 3% mark but fortunately, the size of the market has increased with Australia doubling its population since. We have always been leaders on the quality front, however, winning medals and trophies well beyond expectations for our size. Our popularity in the Sydney market has helped sustain us and more recently of course China.
Now the international market is again changing, we have moved on from a wine glut to an increase in demand for wine worldwide and with prices on the rise more takeovers by the large players are expected. As our Pokolbin industry responded to the changes of the 60’s we will yet again need to develop a means of possibly meeting even greater challenges.
Author: Robert Lusby AM
©Around Hermitage Association Inc.