70 Years of Australian Wine with Vintage Cellars, Part 2: the 1960s
The swinging sixties. A time of change, a time when convention was upended, and a new generation refused to conform. It was a time when the future was pushed in an entirely new direction. And while Australian wine may not have had its dramatic equivalent of the moon landing, Woodstock or the Beatles, it too was irrevocably changed. From pioneering new territory, to technological advances, to taking the conversation to a public that at first didn’t want to listen, the ’60s saw some of our greatest wine figures break new ground and help shape the wine culture that we so cherish today.
The 1960s saw the modern Australian wine scene start to take shape, both from the production and consumption side of the ledger. The fortified wines that had dominated the scene for decades were still a powerful force, but their magnetic attraction was waning. Aided by advances in technology, purer, fruitier wines of reliable consistency were becoming more common, and the public started to lap them up.
In this second instalment of a seven-part series produced in collaboration with Vintage Cellars – 70 years of supporting wine in Australia – we look at Australian wine in the 1960s, at the influence of technology, the birth of iconic styles and the personalities that shaped that most pivotal decade.
The technological revolution that would reshape Australian wine had begun some years prior in South Australia. To retain freshness, refrigeration had been used when fermenting and maturing in white wine as early as the 1930s, but in rudimentary form. Steel tanks came along somewhat later, as did refrigerated pressure tanks, which made it possible to make sparkling wine very efficiently and in a controlled manner (in the same way that Prosecco is made).
Colin Gramp made the most of German equipment in the 1950s, which he convinced Orlando’s board to import, finally launching Barossa Pearl (named after German Perlwein) in 1956. A fruity sparkling wine, Barossa Pearl was a phenomenon without precedent for Australian wine, and by the 60s several producers had jumped on the bandwagon. Many of those competing wines were made at Kaiser Stuhl, with a young Wolf Blass (who was sponsored to emigrate from Germany in 1961) running the production under Ian Hickinbotham who had also mastered the techniques.
Blass also introduced fruit-flavoured sparklings called Cheri Pearl and Pineapple Pearl (which even had a little plastic crown in imitation of a pineapple’s leaves), alongside making such things as Leo Buring’s Sparkling Rheingolde and Pearlette for Yalumba. There were competitors from further afield, too, with the Hunter Valley’s Lindeman’s making the equally infamous Porphyry Pearl.
These wines did not stand the test of time – though Barossa Pearl did make an ill-fated comeback not so long ago. They exploded like supernovas, captivating a drinking public that then moved on, and often looked back in amused shame that they used to drink such kitsch things. But the moment is more important than that, with everyday Australians now drinking wine, setting the scene for the industry to expand exponentially.
Wineries were getting cool
The investment in new technology was also used by Gramp to significantly advance the production of still white wine, evolving purer more fruit-driven styles – particularly in respect to riesling – that Australia became famous for. The technology was also shaping some other famous styles in the 1960s, helping to make this country’s mark on the world stage as a serious wine producer.
Varietal, dry semillon is an Australian icon, or more specifically the style of semillon made in the Hunter Valley, where grapes are picked ultra-early and the wines made into sleek, acid-etched affairs that age for decades, picking up toasty flavours along the way.
That style of wine was not an easy thing to make in the early decades of the 20th century, indeed in the warmth of the Hunter it would have been near impossible. One of Australia’s most celebrated winemakers, Maurice of Shea of Mount Pleasant made some of this country’s greatest red wines from the 1930s into the ’50s. He employed an intuitive approach to blending and a sophisticated use of oak, with many of his techniques learnt at Montpellier University, France – though his cellar was a rudimentary one with a dirt floor and basic equipment.
O’Shea was also celebrated for white wines (though less of these survived to be tasted by later generations), and notably for semillon under the ‘Lovedale’ and ‘Elizabeth’ banners. The Lovedale vineyard was planted in 1946, with the first commercial wine released from the 1950 vintage. O’Shea’s expressions of semillon were celebrated, age-worthy wines, but they still would have been somewhat removed from the style that the Hunter is now synonymous with.
It was not until the ’60s that refrigeration and preservation of fruit purity and freshness by protecting fermenting wine with inert gas were introduced. Lindeman’s was the first to make use of the methods, under the direction of Ray Kidd. And it was in 1967 that the technology was added to the winemaking shed at Mount Pleasant, just over a decade after O’Shea’s untimely death – all the wines made under his stewardship were made not just without modern technology but without electricity.
Rise of the Hunter
By those in the know, O’Shea was a much-admired maker in his day, but his legend was truly established after his death as his wines blossomed into greatness over many decades. O’Shea had laid the groundwork for the modern Hunter, and it was in the 60s that it started to bloom.
In fact, the Hunter had been in general decline over O’Shea’s career, with no new vineyards thought to have been planted until DR Max Lake founded Lake’s Folly in 1963, opposite Mount Pleasant’s Rosehill Vineyard. That was to become a Hunter touchstone, both for the wine quality and the wide ranging brilliance of Lake who authored many books on wine, food, medicine and philosophy.
The shape of the Hunter was not just being formed by newcomers, though, with the esteemed Tyrrell’s, which had supplied many harvests of high-quality grapes to O’Shea, transforming itself into a beacon of quality and progression.
In 1968, Tyrrell planted chardonnay from a stolen cutting from the Penfolds HVD vineyard, arguably setting in train the chardonnay obsession that would grip the country in decades to come. And which remains the dominant white grape of the country, and – perhaps surprisingly – the most planted grape in the Hunter, red or white.
Murray Tyrrell took the helm of the family business in 1959, and he set about reshaping it to increase the quality and prestige of the wines. He introduced the ‘Private Bin’ system in 1961, narrowing down the best parcels and naming them by vat numbers. Around the same time, he also started to build consumer interest centred around cellar door visits and a mailing list to buy wine – one of the first to do either.
In 1968, Tyrrell planted chardonnay from a stolen cutting from the Penfolds HVD vineyard, arguably setting in train the chardonnay obsession that would grip the country in decades to come. And which remains the dominant white grape of the country, and – perhaps surprisingly – the most planted grape in the Hunter, red or white. In 1965, Tyrrell also introduced a range of the best wines of the vintage that were marked with the vat numbers: ‘Vat 9’, ‘Vat 1’ etc. He was counselled by a young Len Evans at the time, who would arguably end up moulding Australian wine in the 20th century more than anyone else.
Strength of personality
Aside from wine producers pushing new boundaries, Australian wine in the ’60s was marked by the arrival of a public conversation about wine. It was also when this country’s greatest wine personality began to make his mark. Len Evans emigrated to Australia in 1955, trying his hands at many jobs, even testing his skills on the professional golf circuit, before he launched Australia’s first regular wine column in 1962.
Len Evans was a mentor to many that would help shape the wine culture to this day, including a young James Halliday who was practising as a lawyer in the 60s. Halliday went on to co-found Brokenwood in the 1970s, with Evans famously transporting the first harvest to the rudimentary winery in his Bentley.
A brilliant communicator, Evans had the ability to demystify wine for the everyman at a time when drinking wine was still seen as a bit of hobby for toffs. In 1965, he established the Australian Wine Bureau, which played a critical role in exposing local wine to the world, with the London office of particular importance, establishing an export market that remains incredibly strong to this day. He also founded Rothbury Estate in 1969, as well as Bulletin Place, the legendary Sydney restaurant that was to become the centre of the universe for many wine lovers until the early 1980s when it closed.
Evans also had a peerless palate, and he was as generous with his criticism as his praise, ruffling many a feather but definitively advancing the Australian wine story. He was also a mentor to many that would help shape the wine culture to this day, including a young James Halliday who was practising as a lawyer in the 60s. Halliday went on to co-found Brokenwood in the 1970s, with Evans famously transporting the first harvest to the rudimentary winery in his Bentley.
Halliday would later establish the Yarra Valley’s Coldstream Hills as well as pick up the baton from Evans to become Australia’s most influential wine communicator, writing or contributing to over 40 books, as well as countless articles and presiding over an equally countless number of wine shows and events.
The 1960s was also a decade where the tentacles of the Australian wine industry were extending into both new regions and those that had been successful in the 19th century but had either been wiped out by the devastating vine pest phylloxera or suffered economic decline to the point where all vines were removed.
The Yarra Valley had its last commercial vintage in 1921, which was quite the fall for a region that produced some of the country’s most awarded wines of the 1800s, with the last vines thought to be removed in 1937. That decline was due to unfavourable economics, but the renaissance began in the 1960s, with Reg and Bertina Egan first planting Wantirna Estate. Dr Bailey Carrodus followed in 1969, establishing the great Yarra Yering. The next decade would bring a flood of famous names, such as Seville Estate and Mount Mary.
Also in Victoria, Geelong’s vinous baton was picked up in the ’60s, after cruelly having its vines removed in the 19th century by governmental edict to protect Rutherglen and other economically important wine regions from phylloxera. Macedon was also just beginning to be explored as a wine region, with Tom Lazar turning from black cherries to vines in 1968 for his Virgin Hills label.
Tasmania was just starting out, too, with Jean Miguet planting La Provence (now Providence) in the north and Claudio Alcorso down south when he establisheed Moorilla. Both planted in the late 1950s, but it was in the ’60s that they started to make an impression.
In Western Australia, a trial block was established at Forest Hill in Mount Barker in 1965, which just snuck in before Margaret River’s first trial vineyard in 1966. That latter block was planted by Kevin and Diana Cullen with a group of friends, but it didn’t survive, accidentally being poisoned, then grubbed up.
It was directly across the road at Vasse Felix that the first enduring vines were planted, with Dr Tom Cullity planting shiraz, cabernet sauvignon and riesling in 1967. It was to be cabernet (along with chardonnay, a little later), though, that Margaret River would become one of the nation’s most important regions, with Vasse Felix standing today as an enduring leader alongside such other pioneers as Cullen and Leeuwin Estate.
The 60s – a wealth of riches
There was much else that happened in the ’60s. Max Schubert arguably made Australia’s greatest ever red wine. And it wasn’t a Grange. His 1962 Bin 60A was made from a blend of Coonawarra cabernet and Kalimna shiraz. It is odd, given its success as one of the most awarded wines on the show circuit, as well as being fawned over by international critics, that it was only made one other time, in 2004. It created a near-mythical legend, though, and one that helped further cement Australia as a quality wine producer. It was even listed in Decanter magazine’s top ten wines of all time in 2004.
The successes of those fruity sparkling wines also buoyed the financial futures of many wineries, which allowed for investment in some more serious wine projects, with Yalumba, and others, investing in the cool of the Eden Valley – projects that would be critical to the riesling boom that was to come. In warmer Barossa territory, Peter Lehmann had started his tenure at Saltram, refining a style of red wine that would echo through the coming decades.
Around the same time, Karl Stockhausen made Lindeman’s most famous red wines. The legendary ‘Hunter River Burgundy’ pair of ‘Bin 3100’ and ‘Bin 3110’ were from the 1965 vintage and proved to be extraordinarily age-worthy, with the wines cropping up at all manner of events over the decades where they rarely failed to dazzle. The fruit for both wines was picked somewhat later than was normal, and the wines weren’t released until well into the 70s when they settled into themselves. They were a little atypical, a little riper, but they were unmistakably Hunter, and they grew the reputation of shiraz in the region immeasurably.
The 60s also saw pioneering Melbourne wine bar owner Jimmy Watson’s legacy immortalised by the first Jimmy Watson Memorial Trophy in 1962. He had passed away the same year, which is also the same year that Robin Boyd’s iconic whitewashed minimalist design of Jimmy Watson’s Carlton wine bar was completed. Still firmly in family hands, it’s an institution that thrives to this day.
Today, the ripples of the 1960s are still felt. Those that saw the potential of regions like Margaret River – against many naysayers at the time – Tasmania and Macedon, as well as the value in rekindling the Yarra Valley have been vindicated in the most striking of ways. What are familiar parts of our wine identity were mere tadpoles back then, and those successes encouraged even more exploration, with vines now grown from Queensland right down to the deep south-east and south-west of the country, and successfully so.
The technology of the day helped shape a revolution that influenced winemaking, and it’s one that endures. It helped foster a public appreciation for wines of great purity, and it also helped winemakers to understand the technical processes, leading to greater consistency. But we have long left the times where we made simple, technically correct wines, rather makers are armed with all the tools now, and they can choose to see them how they see fit. Knowledge is power, after all.
The other great legacy of the 60s is the conversation about wine. No doubt, even without the input of Evans we would have embraced talking about wine, but who knows when and who knows how deeply. Today, the conversation is as robust as it is varied, with the education of professionals (in no small part to the Len Evans Tutorial he founded in 2001) and the public at a very high level. From a country wedded to sweet fortifieds, we have become some of the most dedicated wine consumers in the world.
2014 Mount Pleasant Lovedale Semillon, Hunter Valley $70 RRP
With a golden hue and aromas of honey and toast – along with fruity pear and savoury straw – this semillon is showing the benefits of seven years bottle age. The wine is still so youthful with primary pear characters continuing on the light and refreshing palate, along with strong mineral element and a salivating finish.
2019 Tyrrells Hunter Shiraz, Hunter Valley RRP $20
A pleasurably fruity expression of shiraz with with blueberries, raspberries and crunchy red cherries all evident on the nose, along with complexing oak and a forest floor note. The bright fruit flavours continue across the fresh and juicy palate along with a jubey like aniseed note. Medium bodied with just a subtle tannin grip at the end.
2018 Vasse Felix Estate Cabernet Sauvignon, Margaret River $49 RRP
This is a classic youthful example of cabernet sauvignon with intense blackcurrants, capsicum and tobacco aromas combined with an overlay of vanilla oak. The palate is tight, with all these primary varietal characters bound up along with some green olives and wild strawberries in this early stage of development. Concentrated and viscous, the finish is lingering and the firm tannins promise to preserve the fruit and nurture the wine over the next decade.
The riesling landscape has become somewhat richer in the last little while, with a wealth of wines that combine electric acidity with balancing deposits of sugar. It’s a very exciting category, one that produces wines that are seductive in their youth and can age astonishingly well, as well as pairing with myriad cuisines.
Today’s broad stylistic diversity of shiraz (or, syrah) in Australia is increasing at a rapid rate. The 2021 YGOW Awards Top 50 features Charlotte Dalton Wines, Minimum, White Gate Wine Co., The Stoke, Silent Noise, Weathercraft, Made by Monks, Dirt Candy and Wangolina, who are all championing new expressions of shiraz. Tasting notes appear at the end of the article.
Macedon takes the prize for being the coolest wine region on the mainland, with some touting it as the best territory for chardonnay and pinot noir in the country. Evidence of that potential, aside from some glittering exceptions, haven’t exactly been crowding wine store shelves over the years, but much has changed, and there’s a dynamic community ensuring that potential is being tapped in exciting ways.