Tracing our chardonnay boom, and busting some fairytales
This is an intriguing story that pops up at wine dinners from time to time, usually at the late, mellow stage of the evening as it did a few weeks ago when the old front benchers got together at Peter Bourne’s. It’s pretty common knowledge that Murray Tyrrell made the first Chardonnay down under, in our time: Vat 47 Pinot Chardonnay, but that’s not true. Nor did he steal Chardonnay cuttings from Penfolds’ HVD vineyard, as the story goes.
I drank a bottle of Vat 47 a few weeks ago, a 1991 in wonderful condition. Funny thing is, I don’t remember Tyrrell’s making Vat 47 as far back as 1971. The first time I saw Vat 47s from the early seventies was in a retrospective tasting arranged by Murray Flannigan from Tyrrell’s in Peter Bourne’s Cleveland Street emporium some time in the late eighties.
Pieter van Gent reckons that Murray’s first effort wasn’t even labelled Chardonnay: ‘Tyrrell’s may have had Chardonnay in 1972 at the same time as Craigmoor,’ he writes, ‘but it was labelled as Pinot Blanc, not Chardonnay.’ And my mate Reg reckons they were making Chardonnay in Mudgee long before Murray did. Jack and Ferdie Roth were his uncles, but we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
Murray jumped the barb-wire fence
‘One man in Australia changed the course of history for Chardonnay,’ the official story goes. ‘In 1967 Murray Tyrrell jumped the barb-wire fence to “liberate” Chardonnay cuttings from Penfolds experimental HVD vineyard.’ http://www.uncork.biz/tidbits12.htm
This ‘Murray hopped over the fence’ story is repeated in so many places that it’s become self-replicating, but I don’t believe it. Here’s why: the labels of the Penfold’s White Burgundies from the HVD vineyard said they were made from White Pinot.
I remember drinking some of them in the early seventies. I can’t find any of the labels today, in fact the internet hasn't proved all that useful in researching this story. I did find a Pinot Riesling Bin 365 label, on the inside cover of Hunter Winemakers by Max Lake.
Now why would Penfolds have ignored the significance of these rare chardonnay vines they had, when the variety became the Holy Grail everyone was chasing in the early seventies? Why did they keep labelling their wines as Hunter White Burgundy and Dalwood Pinot Riesling? They weren’t that stupid, I’m sure. Here’s a story about an old 1973 Pinot Riesling, which repeats the Murray ducking over the fence myth http://www.theherald.com.au/news/local/news/general/a-bottle-full-of-vineyard-tales/2320286.aspx .
Chardonnay under our noses for 100 years?
The last story also adds a new twist: ‘The chardonnay was grown on the HVD vineyard at Pokolbin, planted more than 100 years ago by the great-grandfather of Climate Change Minister Greg Combet and owned by Penfolds from the 1930s.’ That led me down another trail, to a curious story in the Newcastle Herald by John Lewis in 2007. The story, writes Lewis, ‘involves a French seminarian and a nun who ran away to marry in Australia, one of the Hunter Valley's greatest vineyards and the high-profile master tactician of the nation's peak union body, ACTU secretary Greg Combet.’
The story tells how Greg’s great grandfather Alex and wife Marie Antoinette came to Australia from France, where Alex was a Catholic seminarian [and assistant altar wine maker] and Marie Antoinette a nun. They fell in love and left their respective orders behind, married in Maitland in 1902 and lived at Allendale. Alex became the manager of the new Hunter Valley Distillery venture a few years later.
‘As the HVD venture got under way in 1908,’ Lewis says, ‘it seems likely that Alex Combet oversaw the planting of HVD vineyard to chardonnay, semillon, clairette and trebbiano vines. Grapes from the vineyard and surplus fruit bought from other winegrowers were used to run the HVD distillery, which was built near the Allandale rail underpass.’ http://www.familyrecords.com.au/family-records-articles/2007/4/7/vintage-heritage/
Anyhow, Alex’s son Ivan went to work for Penfolds at Minchinbury in 1919, and became wine and champagne maker-manager there. He was succeed by his son Todd (who was born at Minchinbury; the whole family lived and worked there) in 1967 but Todd Combet died of cancer not long after when his son Greg was just 13. Soon after, Minchinbury was sold to developers and the Combets had six weeks to rearrange their lives.
Why did they plant more grapes? After all, the Hunter Valley Distillery was set up to turn the big surplus of wine grapes into spirits at a time when people weren’t drinking much table wine (the reason for that is a story for another day). So why would you plant more grapes at this time? Unless you wanted to improve the quality of the mix, but then you wouldn’t plant Chardonnay, Semillon or Clairette for Brandy making – you’d plant Trebbiano, Folle Blanche and Colombard. Trebbiano also went by the name of white Hermitage or white Shiraz in the Hunter (ergo the term ’black’ Shiraz).
Very confusing. More so since Chardonnay is hardly mentioned in the wine books of Oz before 1970. Yet the vine, it seems, was already here. How did Murray know what it looked like, when it took a French ampelographer to tell it apart from its close cousin Pinot Blanc?
‘White Pinot in the Hunter has seen better days,’ Max Lake wrote in Hunter Winemakers (Jacaranda Press, 1970), ‘but is known to make superb white wine. It will be fascinating to watch the evolution of a Chardonnay style in the Hunter as more of this variety is planted.’
Who was planting Chardonnay? According to a chapter in the same book written by Graham Gregory (in 1969), Jim Roberts planted Chardonnay at Belbourie: ‘... the whites include Semillon, Rhine Riesling, Chardonnay ...’ The other place was Rothbury Estate where Murray Tyrrell was in charge of vineyard development. He planted ‘70 acres of Semillon and ‘black’ Shiraz’ as it was called then. Further plantings in 1969 included ‘smaller areas of Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and Blanquette ...’ Where the Chardonnay came from Gregory doesn’t say.
The Dutch version
Pieter van Gent worked for Penfolds for a decade until Christmas Eve 1970, when he took over winemaking at Craigmoor in Mudgee from the late Jack Roth. His account goes: ‘In 1969 a nameless grape variety was identified by Professor Denis Boubals, an ampelographer from Montpellier as Chardonnay, one of the best disease-free clones he had seen. In this way, Mudgee became the first wine-growing area in Australia to grow Chardonnay.’
The healthy condition of the Mudgee vineyards at the time is confirmed by the late Len Evans, who wrote in Cellarmaster Says: ‘I went to visit Jack Roth of Craigmoor Wines and saw his vineyards and those of Ferdie Roth and Alf Kurtz. These vineyards were in immaculate condition, among the best I’ve seen, with strong vigorous wood and healthy grapes in abundance.’
Van Gent’s ‘nameless grape variety’ comment is puzzling. As we shall see, Alf Kurtz knew very well what the variety was called, and so did Ferdie Roth. There’s also evidence in Max Lake’s Hunter Winemakers that a few others had worked out that we had Chardonnay vines, what they looked like and where they were, before Boubals came over.
‘I made Chardonnay in 1971,’ Pieter recalls, ‘but there was only one hogshead which was not enough to bottle. Dr. Ray Healey and I were both aware that this was the first time the Chardonnay grape was made into a wine in Australia.’
Pieter van Gent at Craigmoor – photo by Douglass Baglin
And here comes another twist: ‘[In 1972] Craigmoor marketed straight Chardonnay under the Chardonnay label,’ says Pieter. ‘… Tyrell’s may have had Chardonnay in 1972 at the same time as Craigmoor, but it was labeled as Pinot Blanc, not Chardonnay.’
This makes some sense because the two varieties are like peas in a pod, but Murray never sold a Pinot Blanc to my knowledge. Pinot Riesling, yes. ‘Pinot Blanc and Pinot Chardonnay were often mistaken for each other,’ says a Wikipedia article, ‘since the leaves of each plant have near-identical shape and structure … This confusion ... was very pervasive throughout northern Italy, where the two vines grew interspersed in the vineyard and were blended in winemaking. Not until 1978 did the Italian government dispatch researchers to try to distinguish the two vines. A similar situation occurred in France, with the two vines being commonly confused until the mid 19th century, when ampelographers began combing through the vineyards of Chablis and Burgundy, identifying the true Chardonnay ...’
The Wahlquist version
Rothview was the only early Mudgee winery to survive until World War II, writes journalist and winemaker Gil Wahlquist (Botobolar). William's son Alan (Jack) Roth took over the winery in 1935, changed its name to Craigmoor in 1940 and produced prize-winning wines until his death in 1969.’
In another piece, Wahlquist wrote: ‘The discovery of chardonnay in the late 1960s at Craigmoor vineyard was a springboard for the Mudgee wine industry, and the vineyard became the source block for much of the chardonnay produced around Australia.’ http://www.mudgeeguardian.com.au/news/local/news/general/the-history-of-mudgee-wine/1251306.aspx
However, several others point to Mudgee Wines as the source block for our Chardonnay.
The German version
Jack Roth’s brother Ferdie (on the book cover above) had a vineyard next to Craigmoor, and so did cousin Alf Kurtz. Alf’s great grandfather Andreas Kurtz migrated from Bavaria to Australia in 1854 and planted the vineyard in 1856. He was also known as 'Farmer Kutz' (sic) in Henry Lawson’s poem The Days When We Went Swimming. ‘He leased a forty-acre block, and thought he owned the county’. http://www.middlemiss.org/lit/poetry/dayswim.html .
Ivor Roberts met with Alf Kurtz and his wife Laura in late ‘72/early 73. Roberts writes that ‘Laura Kurtz now produced their 1971 Chardonnay, then the 1972, and here’s what she told him: ‘Dr Boubals, and expert from Montpellier, came out from France early in 1970. He went to Merbein [the CSIRO viticultural research station near Mildura] and other wine districts in Victoria, and to South Australia and New South Wales. He also visited our vineyards and told us that ours was the only true French Chardonnay he had seen in Australia. He came when the fruit was still on the vine.’
The last is a crucial point since the best way to tell Chardonnay from Pinot Blanc is when the grapes are ripening - Chardonnay grapes tend more to gold-green than those of Pinot Blanc. ‘And these two vintages are 100% Chardonnay?’ asked Roberts. Mrs Kurtz confirmed that they were, and Alf said: ‘I have one earlier Chardonnay left, either a ’69 or ’70. We’ll try that one too.’ It was a 1970 Chardonnay, which means Alf Kurtz was making Chardonnay before Murray or Pieter van Gent.
James Halliday wrote in the Weekend Australian, in October 2003, that ‘Alf Kurtz obtained what turned out to be an exceptional, virus-free clone of chardonnay when he established his own business, Mudgee Wines, in the 1960s. It became the source block for much of the early plantings of chardonnay across Australia through the 1970s and 1980s.’ That doesn’t answer the question about where the chardonnay vines came from, but it confirms that Mudgee was the place to get the best cuttings from in the late sixties, and Alf Kurtz's vineyard the most likely source.
The Ray Healey version
Dr Ray Healey is the marathon wine man of Oz, one who knows everybody who matters in the wine business from here to London. In the late 1950's, Ray joined André Simon's Wine and Food Society in London, and in 1963 joined the fledgling NSW W&F Society. I couldn’t find a bio for Ray, but Philip White had this to say when he wrote about the Chardonnay wave in Australia’s 80s on his blog: ‘Len Evans, OBE, flushed, no doubt, with magnificent Burgundian Chardonnays he’d pillaged from the astonishing cellar of his mentor, the surgeon Ray Healey, was running around the country saying that Chardonnay would be “the vanilla of the Australian wine industry”. http://drinkster.blogspot.com/2011_04_01_archive.html
Ray was kind enough to help me work through this mystery during a phone call. He confirmed Pieter van Gent’s version, and also what Alf and Laura Kurtz had told Ivor Roberts almost 40 years ago: that Mudgee had Chardonnay vines which were sixty years old and disease-free. Healey said he’d made a ‘71 Chardonnay with Pieter van Gent and bottled two Methuselahs. He said the wine was still going strong when opened 15 years later for his son’s wedding.
Ray thought it unlikely that Murray would’ve jumped the fence and purloined Chardonnay cuttings from the HVD vineyard in the late sixties because ‘there wouldn’t have been much Chardonnay in the HVD vineyard.’ More likely, he said, Murray would’ve got the cuttings from the Roths or Alf Kurtz at Mudgee.
The Andrew Caillard version
‘The release of the 1971 Tyrrell’s Pinot Chardonnay created a major shift in sentiment,’ writes Andrew Caillard, Fine Wine Principal at Langtons. ‘After drinking great bottles of white Burgundy with Len Evans and art dealer bon-vivant Rudi Komon in 1968, Murray Tyrrell tracked down Chardonnay cuttings from Alfred Kurtz in Mudgee.
A few years earlier a visiting French ampelographer Dr Denis Bourbals (sic) had identified a patch of Kurtz’s vines as Chardonnay. The origins are a little unclear, but the genetic material may have come from the Smithfield Winery [Kaluna] around 1930, when winemaker Colin Laraghy supplied Bill Roth (later of Craigmoor) with planting material.’
This would explain a lot but the claim that Boubals came out several years before 1970 is an odd one. Caillard adds: ‘Murray Tyrrell initially planted one hectare of Chardonnay. He released a 1970 Vat 63 Pinot Riesling (Chardonnay Semillon) beginning an Australian blending genre admired throughout the world. Although 1971 was one of the worst vintages on record in the Hunter Valley, the 1971 Tyrrell’s Vat 47 neither fermented nor matured in new oak, marked the beginning of an Australian love affair with chardonnay.’
Rudy Komon by Eric John Smith, Archibald winner 1981
David Farmer’s version
David's story picks up on the Kaluna vineyard near Smithfield in the early 1900s, where h e says Ambrose Laraghy had planted Chardonnayis. His son Arthur gave cuttings from those vines to Bill and Jack Roth at Westcourt [Craigmoor] in the 1930s. ‘One of the workers at Craigmoor,’ writes Farmer, ‘Alf Kurtz, planted his own vineyard, called Mudgee Wines, three kilometres north of Mudgee and was so impressed by the grapes produced from a section called white pinot (or pineau) at Westcourt that he planted these, perhaps in the early 1960's, knowing they had been grown from the Kaluna cuttings.’
Farmer writes that ‘In 1971 Tyrrells released an unwooded chardonnay and followed this a year later with the first of the wooded wines, the now famous Vat 47 Pinot Chardonnay 1972. In the late 1960s Craigmoor at Mudgee made a white which was probably chardonnay and was possibly labelled as pinot blanc. Other Mudgee growers may also have unwittingly made 100% Cardonnays. Pieter Van Gent released in 1970 or 1971 a Craigmoor Chardonnay.’
David then says that ‘Murray Tyrrell acknowledges that the vines that made the Tyrrells chardonnay were developed from cuttings from the Penfolds Wybong Park property, presumably in the mid or late 1960s.
Murray getting his Chardonnay cuttings form Penfolds’ Wybong vineyard is an interesting idea, but a strange one: Penfolds was in the process of establishing and expanding these vineyards, so Max Schubert and Ivan Combet would’ve been bringing cuttings to Wybong, not giving them away.
The second John Lewis version
I found an earlier (2005) story by John Lewis written for the Newcastle Herald, and this one talks about Brian McGuigan planting chardonnay cuttings in 1970 that came from Mudgee and the HVD vineyard. ‘… both sources probably trace back to the original chardonnay cuttings brought to Australia in 1831 by James Busby,’ says Lewis. ‘Then known as white pineau or pinot blanc, the cuttings were planted in the … historic Kirkton vineyard at Belford by Busby's brother-in-law William Kelman. In the 1830s, George Wyndham was given cuttings, more than likely including chardonnay, from Busby's vines and these were planted at Wyndham's Dalwood vineyard near Branxton.’
So according to Lewis, the original Chardonnay cuttings came from Kirkton, not Kaluna. Penfolds bought Dalwood in 1904 and the chardonnay cuttings from there found they way into the HVD vineyard, Lewis explains. Then he comes back to Murray and his desire to make wines like the French white Burgundies, and writes that he got in touch with Graham Gregory at the NSW Department of Agriculture ‘who unearthed two small plantings, one on Alf Kurtz's property at Mudgee and the other at Penfolds' HVD vineyard at Pokolbin.’
Murray told Lewis that the Kurtz chardonnay vines were intermingled with other varieties, therefore his preference for the HVD vineyard as a source. Lewis adds that ‘Penfolds, which used the chardonnay grapes with semillon to produce the Dalwood pinot riesling whites, was not keen to give HVD cuttings to a competitor. And so, one moonlit Pokolbin night in 1967, Murray Tyrrell climbed over a fence into Penfolds' vineyard to filch some discarded vine cuttings.’ “Seeing the cuttings were destined to be burnt in any case,” explained Murray, “I felt my actions were honourably in order.”
So now they were discarded vine cuttings? Destined to be burnt? And Penfolds didn’t want to give cuttings to a competitor? What a lot of ignoble rot! Murray could’ve picked up the phone and simply asked Max Schubert (shyness was not one of Murray, traits), and Max would’ve been delighted to give him some Chardonnay cuttings. That’s what they did in the old days. Murray was, of course, known for his sense of high drama, so it’s more likely he just had some fun with this story that people kept bugging him about.
The Marble Hill Clone
Jeni Port wrote an article in The Age in 2006, in which she interviewed Con Moshos, the new winemaker at MountAdam. He said the late Adam Wynn always thought they had a special clone, a ‘cutting grown in the summer residence of the governors of that time, a place called Marble Hill in the Adelaide Hills, and Wally Boehm, who was the Wynns' viticulturist in the 1950s, identified it as chardonnay, took cuttings from it and propagated it up at their Morphrey Estate [Modbury?], now in the suburb of Wynnvale.’
This is the same story Philip White tells in his blog: ‘David Wynn claimed his cuttings for his bold high country vineyard at Mountadam were not stolen from Murray Tyrrell’s little Chardonnay vineyard in the Hunter, as ran the court titter, but were propagated from a single vine found near Norton Summit at Marble Hill, the 19th century summer residence of South Australia’s governors. As the vine, and the ruins of the mansion were cindered in the Ash Wednesday bushfires in 1983, we’ll never really know.
Mountadam became Australia’s first seriously-planned big Chardonnay vineyard, as Wynn commenced work there in 1969, and planted it through the ’seventies as he acquired the land.’ http://drinkster.blogspot.com/2011_04_01_archive.html
My mate Reg’s version
This is the last version, I promise, and the simplest one. ‘My uncle Ferdie [Roth] had a property [a vineyard] adjacent to Craigmoor,’ Reg recalls, ‘and Murray Tyrrell used to buy Shiraz grapes off him. Uncle Ferdie and Murray both told me the same story that Ferdie had chardonnay vines and gave some cuttings to Murray. He may have got some cuttings from the Hunter as well, but Murray never mentioned that to me - I had a long chat with him when he was staying down at Milton Park in 1987.’ Reg was one of the shareholders of Milton Park at the time.
The end of the story
There are still a few gaps in the story but we can be fairly sure that Murray Tyrrell didn’t jump the barb-wire fence to nick Chardonnay cuttings from Penfolds’ HVD vineyard. The more robust evidence points to Mudgee as the cradle of Australia’s Chardonnay. But, if it was there all along, why didn’t winemakers show interest in this variety much before 1970? Was it really Ray Healey and Len Evans opening their eyes with French white Burgundies?
Let’s say it was – how come Jim Roberts and Murray Tyrrell were planting Chardonnay in 1969, before Denis Boubals came out to identify the good Chardonnay clones? The answer is that, by the late sixties, others must have had an idea. John Lewis mentioned Graham Gregory, the chief viticulturalist at the NSW Department of Agriculture. Did he bring Boubals out to confirm his own suspicions? Or was it Alan Antcliffe at CSIRO at Merbein?
Did Murray really make a Vat 47 in 1971? And what of Pieter van Gent’s claim that Murray may have made a 1972 but labelled it Pinot Blanc? Let’s go back to Ivor Roberts who went to see Murray before he went to Mudgee.
Roberts says Murray made a ‘Vat 63, a 50-50 blend of Semillon and Chardonnay’ in 1972. This is a curious description since Vat 63 was labelled Pinot Riesling for many years. Then Murray tells him that ‘we are in the final stages of establishing a large vineyard of Chardonnay,’ and adds ‘did you know that we made a straight Chardonnay this year?’
The year was 1972, and Murray’s question clearly suggests that he didn’t make a straight Chardonnay in 1971. Ray Healey confirmed this, saying the 71 Chardonnay Murray made had a lot of Semillon in it. Was it perhaps the Vat 63? Roberts mentions that wine but not the Vat 47. Nowhere. So where did the 1971 Vat 47 come from that appeared later?
I guess it wouldn’t be true mystery story of everything were resolved now, would it? I’ll leave you with a few wise words from the NSW Wine Industry Association website: ‘Australia’s two most popular wine varieties – Chardonnay and Shiraz, both had their start in NSW. Shiraz was first planted by John Macarthur on his vineyard in Camden in 1833; and Chardonnay was first made by Mudgee pioneer Alf Kurtz in 1862 (sic).
Alf Kurtz must have had the longest life of any vigneron in the history of winemaking.
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