The Pyrenees Wine Region

The history of wine in Australia is as long and as varied as the history of the colonial country itself. Not for nothing are we called the Lucky Country: vines were included on board the ships that carried the first European settlers in 1788, who obviously needed sustenance after their long journey late in the eighteenth century. Captain Arthur Phillip, the first British governor of New South Wales, wrote to his superiors in London that

‘in a climate so favourable the cultivation of the vine may doubtless be carried to any degree of perfection, and should no other articles of commerce divert the attention of settlers from this part, the wines of New South Wales may perhaps hereafter be sought with civility and become an indispensable part of the luxury of European tables.’

Within days, these vines were planted in what is now downtown Sydney, but the local summer weather proved too warm and humid.

Other early attempts continued to flounder, because although the vintage of 1790 was described as ‘tolerably good’, the wine industry lacked the one, essential key ingredient: a market. Although several distinct vineyards had sprang up not long after settlement, with the original vines in New South Wales prospering and with an initial native wine culture apparent almost immediately, it was soon clear that the success would be shortlived. Early settlements were made up of the lower social classes, and were used to ale and spirits, primarily rum, overwhelmingly the drink of choice in the Australian colonies. Mainly because of this, early attempts at viticulture were short lived, and did not emerge again until the middle of the nineteenth century.

As explorers expanded across the Australian countryside, they were closely followed by settlers, seeking the finest land and the opportunity to make the most of their situation. While some went north and south, hugging the coast in order to maintain links with the original community and to stat within reach, others moved inland, seeking out what Australia had to offer. And so it fell to Mr. Thomas Mitchell, who set out from Sydney in 1788 in order to explore the interior of what would come to be known as Victoria, with particular attention to the region’s unknown interior. It was Mitchell who named the area the Pyrenees, declaring at the time that it closely resembled the eponymous Pyrenees Mountains in Europe. More importantly than its visual identity, however, was the lush green countryside he found in the area, describing it as  ‘Australia Felix’.

Not long after, enterprising ‘stragglers’ from both south and east made their way to the area, in search of the right terrain upon which to found their new life. Their paths crossed at what’s now the historic town of Lexton, and the early communities prospered over the next few decades, with the region’s development spurred by immigration and Melbourne’s importance as the nation’s capital and centre of commerce. Mild compared to the surrounding areas, the region clearly offered excellent opportunities to develop pastoral land, as the focus for the farmers.

Then, in 1848, everything changed. The discovery of what would eventually prove to be the world’s richest gold deposit in Ballarat transformed the region from a modestly attractive pastoral region of Victoria into the most exciting in the nineteenth century world. The region was inundated with prospectors from all over the world, all seeking their fortune. The spectacular number of hopefuls  dwarved the more storied California Gold Rush, and in the space of a decade the state’s population had risen twelvefold, as people from across the globe scrambled to make the most of what would prove to be the richest gold field in history.

Gold made a profound and lasting impression on the region. Ballarat and Bendigo, backwaters previously, became prosperous and important country towns virtually overnight. Avoca and Maryborough’s populations grew exponentially as they developed as key strategic sites for the development of gold: and, with a vibrant, dynamic population, came an according growth in associated industries. It was in this period of rapid growth that the Pyrenees began to develop as a wine region of its own. Matched by similar efforts both in the Barossa in South Australia and by Hunter Valley in New South Wales, the Pyrenees offered a unique context for the development of viniculture. The terrain offered a series of microclimates, ideal for the production of specialist wines with a true sense of terroir, with the slightly elevated temperatures compared with the surrounding areas lending itself in particular to more robust styles. and the importation of mainly French techniques for the production of wine, particularly with the Blue Pyrenees move of 1953, saw a  steady growth and development of wines in the area.

Mackereth’s Hedon Farm was the very first winery in the area, now combining a rich sense of heritage  with the growers in the area.