The Weekend Australian Magazine, Nov 2019

Wine in the blood

November 8, 2019

With hundreds of years of winemaking between them, these famous families have deep roots in the Australian soil.

For more than 185 years, Australians have been growing grapes and making wine. There have been many twists and turns as the population has grown and society has become more sophisticated and affluent. Wine has played an important role in this transformation.

A number of key events had an impact on ­viticulture in the fledgling country, including the arrival in the Barossa Valley of Silesian (German) immigrants fleeing religious persecution in the 1840s; the discovery of gold in the 1850s; and the 1886 arrival of the Chaffey brothers, who planned irrigation systems that transformed the red desert sand along the banks of the Murray River into a verdant fruit and vegetable bowl.

World War I saw the establishment of returned soldier settlement schemes, and waves of immigration brought Italian families to the Riverina and Riverland. Later, South-East Asian immigrants introduced new cuisines. All this created a diverse society with an appreciation of wine and food; the Australian wine industry would go on to expand rapidly through the 1980s and 1990s.

Wine is now an internationally traded commodity, and methods of marketing are changing at a pace inconceivable even 20 years ago. But it is unlikely that this Brave New World will disadvantage those deep-rooted producers who in 2009 banded together to form Australia’s First Families of Wine – respected multi-generational winemakers including those featured here, but also the ­Taylors, Henschkes, Tyrrells, Barrys and more.

Whether wine is truly made in the vineyard is a moot point, but it is certainly the starting point for great wine. Members of these families spend time either personally working in their vineyards or talking to the viticulturist to decide on strategies for the future. And there’s a continuous link between vineyard, winery and consumers, which allows them to maximise the quality of their wines and make informed decisions on style and price. The outcome is wines that routinely overdeliver.

The 11 wineries that make up Australia’s First Families of Wine come from regions across four states. Collectively, they own more than 5000ha of vineyards and represent many generations of winemaking experience. Nowhere else in the world could such a group be assembled, their ­history told through the voices of the family members and the wines they present


Milawa, Victoria

John Charles Brown’s wine collection. Picture: Kimbal Baker

Mr Brown has about ten acres, principally ­Hermitage and Riesling, in addition to which he has several other sorts. The wines I tasted were of excellent quality.

So wrote Victorian government viticulturist François de Castella in 1891, after he had visited John Francis Brown’s fledgling winery near Milawa in the picturesque King Valley, north-east Victoria. It was just the sort of thing that the ­audacious 23-year-old had hoped de Castella would say about his wines. Importantly, it vindicated his decision six years earlier to persuade his immigrant ­parents to plant vines in the ­fertile soils of the ­valley, and to sell wine in and around the thriving Beechworth goldfields.

John Francis had watched closely the experience of wineries in Rutherglen, 56km to the north, and was convinced that King Valley, with its reliable rainfall, was ideal for growing grapes and making wine. He and his father planted 4ha of vines, mostly ­riesling, muscat and shiraz. What John Francis lacked in winemaking experience was more than offset by his ambition, ingenuity and determination. By the end of the 1890s, in spite of a depression in Victoria, he had built a weatherboard winery and cellar, and bought oak barrels and other equipment from failing wineries. He added special equipment for the ­production of muscat and port. He also listened to de Castella, who convinced him to plant table wine varieties; by 1910 he had 16ha under vines, including shiraz, malbec, pedro ximenez, muscat, riesling, tokay and golden chasselas.

John Francis and his wife Ida Peady would have four children: Bertha, Clarice, Ida and John Charles, who joined his father in the business in 1933. They were a bold partnership, making tawny port for London and table wines for local Italian migrants. John Charles persuaded his father that the way to increase sales and reduce their reliance on expensive distributors was to open a cellar door, which proved successful. The winery doubled in size, and grapes were bought in. They also planted new varieties including white grenache, white hermitage and palomino. 

When John Francis died in 1943, aged 76, John Charles was already running the business. He had inherited his father’s qualities of endurance, optimism and innovation, which allowed him to overcome several setbacks, including drought, a plague of locusts that destroyed the 1938 vintage, and the outbreak of World War II, which decimated the local labour force. 

In 1939 John Charles married Patricia Mathews and they had four sons, John Graham, Peter, Ross and Roger; all of them except Roger, the youngest son, went on to work in the business. After frost ruined the 1968 vintage, the family bought nearly 35.5ha in the Murray Valley – then went into ­serious expansion mode, establishing the Hurdle Creek vineyard near Milawa and buying the St Leonards winery at Wahgunyah and land in the Upper King Valley. They then added land at Banksdale in the western King Valley and more than 200ha near Heathcote in central Victoria.''

The floating of the Australian dollar in 1983 opened up export markets for Australian wine producers. Brown Brothers now crushes 16,000 tonnes of grapes a year and turns over $115 million, which puts it in the top 10 winemakers by revenue in Australia.

John Charles and Patricia died in 2004, having achieved so much for winemaking in Victoria. John Charles had overseen 70 vintages and his advice to his sons was simple: “One vine cutting is easily broken, two cuttings are hard to break. Together four cuttings are unbreakable. This is the strength you can have if you work together.”

Ross Brown says he and his brothers have always followed this advice: the third and fourth generations now work side-by-side in the business, across winemaking, marketing and senior leadership. Peter’s family took the reins of All Saints winery in Rutherglen, purchased by Brown Brothers in the 1990s. After he died in 2005, his children took on roles across both Brown ­Brothers and their Rutherglen properties. Fourth-generation winemaker Katherine Brown takes delight in quoting her uncle, John Graham, whose words boldly adorn the walls of the cellar door at Milawa: “If you don’t ruin one wine a year you’re not working hard enough.”

Edited extract from Australia’s First Families of Wine by Richard Allen and Kimbal Baker. 

 Read the full article here.