Lindemans Wines celebrates 150 years

Dr Henry John Lindeman and James Busby were great shapers of Australian wine making. Their achievements last century still survive in our modern industry. Busby provided Australia’s vine nursery, while Lindeman founded a winemaking dynasty that survived as a family company for 110 years before going public in 1953. This year it celebrates 150 years since Dr Lindeman planted grapes in the Hunter Valley.

By the time Lindeman established vines at ‘Cawarra’ on the Paterson River at Gresford in 1843, winemaking was well established in the district. James Halliday in The Hunter Valley (McGraw-Hill, Victoria, 1979) reports that by 1832, 9.5 acres of vines were listed. By around 1840 this had grown to 200, and by 1850 to 500 acres. Interest in winemaking was strong enough for a viticultural society to have been formed in 1847.

Much of the spread of viticulture had been made possible by James Busby. He took up a 2000-acre grant, ‘Kirkton’, between Singleton and Branxton in May, 1825. Apparently he left this in the care of his brother-in-law, William Kelman, and headed off to Europe in 1831, returning in 1832 with a collection of over 400 vines. These were propagated at Sydney’s Botanical Gardens, and distributed through NSW from there. Kelman bought the ’Kirkton’ vineyard which passed to Lindemans in 1914, becoming immortalised in the ‘Kirkton’ Chablis label.

It’s not known for certain who planted the first vines in the Hunter. But it seems to have been around 1830 and was either at ‘Kirkton’ or George Wyndham’s ‘Dalwood’.

What wine drinkers today think of as the lower Hunter centres on Pokolbin, near Cessnock. Plantings of those early pioneers tended to be a little further north and east of where the best sites are now located. Dr Lindeman’s ‘Cawarra’, for instance, is a solid hour’s drive north of Cessnock. How much greater the distance must have seemed in the days of dirt tracks and horse-drawn vehicles.

Vine planting at Cessnock, according to Halliday, commenced around 1860. Many no longer exist. But of the survivors (remember most were and still are mixed farms, so founding dates do not necessarily equal vine-planting date), Tyrrells was founded in 1858, Draytons in 1860, Ben Ean in 1870, McWilliams in 1893, and Tullochs in 1893.

The northern and eastern lower-Hunter vineyards may have disappeared. But the wine experts of last century praised the same Hunter grape varieties we do in 1993. By 1844, James King’s ‘Shepherd’s Riesling’ (semillon in modern parlance) was winning praise. In 1845 William Kelman’s red hermitage was written up, along with his white pinot. I wonder if that was the Hunter’s first chardonnay? Verdelho was also by then well proven.

The delicacy of the area’s wines, and the same propensity for long cellaring we know today show in a comment that ‘Dalwood’s’ 1836 vintage was drinking well in 1849… a remark telling us as much of the area’s winemaking skills as it does of grape quality.

Visiting the area last week for a Lindeman 150th anniversary celebration, I asked several winemakers what they saw as the area’s best varieties. Semillon, shiraz and verdelho were top of the list, just as they were one hundred and thirty years ago. And all agreed on chardonnay, not widely planted, if at all, last century. These were the unanimous choices of Jay Tulloch, Patrick Auld, Karl Stockhausen, Trevor Drayton, and Bruce Tyrell. Tasting experience confirms their views.

Until 1912, when it bought the Ben Ean winery at Pokolbin, Lindemans made wines at ‘Cawarra’. The first cellars were destroyed by fire to be replaced by a stone building, completed in 1853. It still stands intact, with much of the original tin roofing in place.

Next to it stands Dr Lindeman’s rather grand house, still occupied not just by his original furniture, but by his descendants, Tim and Helen Capp.

By the time Dr Lindeman died in 1881 (you can see his grave at St Ann’s Anglican Church, Gresford), his company had been exporting wine for 23 years and had set up headquarters, including bottling and storage facilities, in Sydney. By then, Cawarra wines had won some recognition abroad and, of course, became a household word in Australia during the present century. (Unfortunately, like ‘Moyston’, and ‘Kirkton’, the name was corrupted during the wine boom years of the 1970’s and 80’s).

The very energetic Dr Lindeman laid the foundation for the unique Hunter wine styles still made today. As well, he left an energetic and prosperous company that, in the 112 years since his death, has acquired Leo Burring Wines (1962), a big swathe of Coonawarra (including Rouge Homme, 1965), and led the way into Padthaway (1968).

Lindeman went public in 1953, was acquired by Phillip Morris in 1972, by Penfolds in 1990 and South Australian Brewing Holdings in the same year. It’s one part of a big company, but the regional integrity of the various bits, including the Hunter tradition founded by Dr Lindeman still underpin the whole operation.