As one of Australia’s most beloved and iconic reds, Shiraz has a long history in our country that dates back to the early days of colonisation. However, the history on when the first Shiraz vines were imported into Australia are a little hazy. Before we delve into that though, let’s take a further look back to the origins of Shiraz.
Prior to its rapid spread across the new world wine countries such as South Africa, Chile, USA, Argentina, and Australia well ahead of the pack, Shiraz was mainly found in the Rhone Valley of eastern France. Shiraz, or Syrah, as it’s spelt in the old world wine countries, was theorised to have been introduced there from its home in Persia, now Iran. There are two popular theories regarding how the red grapes got to the Rhone Valley, whether by the Romans, or the Greeks or Phoenicians after they established their colony of Marseilles roughly around 600 B.C.
The latest theory, backed up by new DNA research, actually suggests the Shiraz vine is indigenous. Using DNA typing and the extensive grape referencing material available at the viticulture research station in Montpellier, it was concluded that Shiraz was in fact the offspring of grape varieties, Mondeuse and Dureza.
First importation to Australia
So, now that we know (more or less) where Shiraz (or Syrah) originated from, how did it end up becoming so widespread in Australia? There are many theories on this topic and several claims over the years, but no-one can completely agree on which one holds the most merit. Whilst the first ever vines to come to Australia were collected by Governor Phillip from Rio de Janerio and Capetown in 1787, these vines were not Shiraz. The French Revolution began two years later and vine gathering expeditions conducted by Englishmen in France and Europe was simply not possible until Napoleon fell in 1815.
The first to do just that after the French Revolution ended was John Macarthur and his two sons James and William. Not only is he considered the Father of Australia’s sheep industry, but Macarthur was also responsible for our country’s first major importation of vines from France in 1817. He then went on to establish a vine nursery and vineyard on his main property, Camden Park. This nursery served as the sole distributor for the rest of the colony and was the main source of vine root stock in the early days of Australia’s colonisation.
To support the theory of Macarthur being the first to import Shiraz into Australia are his original papers that outline the plants left alive on his ship, the Lord Eldon, upon arriving in Australia. Included in this list were Syracuse and also Hermitage, both old names of Shiraz. Other such old world names include Antourenein Noir, Balsamina, Candive, Entournerein, Hingnin Noir, Marsanne Noir, Schiras, Sirac, Syra, Syrac, Serine, Sereine. Today, almost 40% of all red grapes planted in Australia are Shiraz.
Vine transportation methods
Mention should be made of the extraordinary lengths the Englishmen went to in order to preserve the Shiraz vines throughout the six to eight-month journey from Europe to Australia. Originally, they attempted to use hot houses on the top of their ship’s decks, but these were damaged too frequently in storms. Next they tried sealing each end of the vines in wax, or inserting the vine into a potato. The final method was to tie the vine cuttings into bundles and store them in barrels packed full of moist mulch or straw. Australia was viewed as having great potential for not only sheep and cattle, but for producing wine too, something England was in short supply of thanks to the French blockades during the Napoleonic wars.
Ultimately, we owe our forefathers a great deal of gratitude for providing our country with such a thriving wine industry and for turning us into one of the largest, and most sought after suppliers of Shiraz.