The Hunter Valley needs no introduction to wine lovers. Along with South Australia’s Barossa Valley, it has put Australian wines at the top of the world’s list of great wine growing regions. This didn’t happen overnight, though and the history of viticulture in the Hunter Valley is a fascinating one.
Lieutenant John Shortland stumbled across the Hunter River in 1797 while looking for escaped convicts. While he did not find the convicts he was looking for, he did find a verdant valley rich in natural resources. Shortland spread the word about the Hunter Valley and as soon as land access to the region was established, settlers started planting vines: by 1823, over twenty acres were already planted.
George Wyndham, William Kelman and James King were a few of the early Hunter Valley wine producers, but an amateur viticulturist, James Busby, is credited with having a big influence on the Hunter Valley’s future. After two study tours in Europe, Busby returned with over 500 vine cuttings. Many experts credit Busby as the man most responsible for turning the Hunter Valley into a major wine growing region.
James Busby had a sister named Catherine. She fell in love with and married William Kelman. Many of Kelman’s first vines were some of those brought over by Busby. Others followed suit and by 1840, there were over 500 acres of vines in the Hunter Valley. Before the turn of the century, many of the most famous names in Hunter Valley wines were already established, including Dr. Henry Lindeman and the Tyrell, Wilkenson and Drayton families.
The first half of the 20th century, plagued by wars and depression, saw no further growth in the Hunter Valley, but in the prosperous 1960s, the region began another growth spurt. In that era of increased prosperity, the dry table wines that the Hunter Valley produced became popular. The sixties were also a period of expansion in the Hunter. After over a century of domination by a handful of growers, Dr. Max Lake set the stage for the future when he started Lake’s Folly in 1963. His success led to the establishment of dozens of other boutique wineries. Today, there are over 120 wine producers in the Hunter Valley.
Before the 1960s, wine was shipped out of the Hunter Valley, but very few consumers travelled to the Hunter Valley. That changed with the road improvements between Sydney and the Hunter Valley. After it became so quick and easy to get to the Hunter Valley from Sydney, the area became a popular weekend destination for Sydneysiders. In an effort to compete for tourist dollars and attract more visitors, the wineries began offering entertainment, food and wine festivals and family attractions.