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Early Days of Winegrowing in South Australia

Part two: William Gilbert and Wongalere

WHEN in January 1848 Joseph Gilbert, founder and owner of Pewsey Vale, married Anna Browne (1812-73) she was given a property, Wongalere, at nearby Williamstown. This had previously been run as a pastoral enterprise by her two brothers, Dr William James Browne (1815-94) and Dr John Harris Browne (1817-1904). John Harris Browne gained fame for being the surgeon who accompanied Charles Sturt on his 1844-46 expedition to the interior of Australia, and is credited with saving Sturt's life. The two brothers had extensive landholdings throughout South Australia, and at one time were the colony's leading exporters of wool.

Probably in the late 1850s, Joseph Gilbert planted a vineyard at Wongalere, mostly with cabernet, shiraz and malbec. In 1857 Joseph's brother William came out from England and decided to stay, leasing Wongalere for 10 years. After that, Joseph and Anna's only son, another William (1850-1923), managed Wongalere, as well as his father's many pastoral properties in South Australia and the Northern Territory. Benno Seppelt, who was what we would today call a contract winemaker, at one stage made Wongalere's wines.

In 1893 the vineyard covered 18 acres. Journalist Ernest Whitington noted that by 1903 there were 23 acres of vines, all red grapes. Eighteen acres were bearing fruit and in that season yielded 8000 gallons, or 440 gallons to the acre, of shiraz, cabernet and malbec. This compared with Pewsey Vale's 29 acres of older vines - shiraz, cabernet and riesling, whose red grapes produced 6000 gallons, and whose riesling, picked two weeks later, yielded 3000 gallons, making a total from Pewsey Vale of 9000 gallons from 29 acres, or 310 gallons per acre.

Joseph Gilbert's busy and productive life ended in December 1881, whereupon his son William inherited Pewsey Vale. Wongalere was then run by a managing caretaker, Arthur Springbett. From 1882 both Pewsey Vale and Wongalere wines were sold under the Pewsey Vale label. William retired in 1914 and handed over the running of both properties to his son, another William (1887-1967). After his father died in 1923 William junior sold Pewsey Vale but kept Wongalere.

When another journalist, Oswald Ziegler, visited Wongalere in 1929 he observed there had been considerable growth over the previous 26 years: vineyard plantings, all of which were trellised, had increased to 53 acres, still mostly shiraz and cabernet. Most of the fruit went into port wines and claret, with about 16,000 gallons a year being made. Ziegler was impressed with Wongalere's "compactly built cellars", which could hold 30,000 gallons, and "quite modern machinery", which provided "every facility for the making of a first-class product".

The original 1840s house at Wongalere had been demolished a few years before Ziegler's visit, and the modern homestead, close to the South Para River, overlooked the vineyard, orchard and some remnant scrub. In 1949 the property was compulsorily acquired from Joseph Gilbert's grandson, William, and was drowned under the South Para Reservoir.

William's son, yet another William, was briefly involved in the industry following World War II, while he lived at Wongalere, and then at Abbaston, at Mount Crawford, near the Barossa Valley. His son, Joseph's great-great grandson, Simon Gilbert, has revived the family's active participation in the wine industry and, after being winemaker for various companies, now runs, with his wife Mandy, his own custom winemaking and consultancy business, Wineworks of Australia, which operates from Roth's Wine Bar in Mudgee.

Meanwhile, Pewsey Vale suffered from the effects of the change in demand to fortified wines, and the vines were destroyed. But history has a habit of repeating itself, and Pewsey Vale would rise again. In the late 1950s winemaker Norman Hanckel (a distant cousin of mine) persuaded the then proprietor of Pewsey Vale, Geoffrey Angas Parsons, to consider planting a new vineyard on the celebrated property. Hanckel approached nearby Yalumba's owner Wyndham Hill Smith about the suggestion, and found an appropriate site, just over the hill from the original Pewsey Vale cellars.

By December 1961 Angas Parsons and Yalumba had signed a joint partnership agreement, and the old name was set to be revived. A vineyard was promptly established, mainly with riesling but also some cabernet, and some smaller trial plantings of other varieties, among them semillon, pinot gris and gewurztraminer. The first vintage of the reborn Pewsey Vale Riesling was the 1966, made in very small quantities and not available commercially. The following year, 1967, saw its first commercial appearance, appropriately 120 years after what was probably the first Pewsey Vale wine. The first Pewsey Vale Cabernet Sauvignon was released in 1972, and in 1977 the Pewsey Vale Riesling was one of the first commercial wines in Australia to be bottled with Stelvin. Joseph Gilbert would have approved.

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