In our bustling busy metropolis, it is easy to forget that not so long ago rural life and all that it offers, including vineyards and wine making, was not so removed. It may surprise you to find these connections still being made.
Melbourne’s founding fathers would have soon discovered that establishing one of the world’s great cities was thirsty work — and in a new country bursting with fertile soils, vast countryside and loads of sunshine, it wouldn’t be too long before a few grape vines were planted. It makes perfect sense when you think about it.
The first vineyards were cultivated in what would have been seen as hinterland in the early days, but that our modern perceptions would call inner city. Areas such as modern day South Yarra, along the river’s edge, and along Punt Road on both the southern and Richmond sides, boasted quite extensive vineyards.
However one surprising fact of which a lot of people are unaware is that there is still an operating vineyard in Melbourne, right on the banks of the Yarra and right next door to the inner city.
Studley Park Vineyard is owned and operated by Geoff and Claire Pryor, and is situated along the Yarra in Kew, only three kilometres from the edge of the CBD. It is small, with only about one acre under vine, but what Studley Park lacks in quantity it more than makes up in quality.
Geoff has concentrated on one variety for his vineyard, cabernet sauvignon, and all his wine is made exclusively from grapes grown on his veritable haven in our bustling city. The actual wine making is carried out at Macedon by renowned winemaker Llew Knight, who takes great care in the wine making process to preserve the particular style of this singular, city-grown fruit. The small size of the operation means that licensing restrictions dictate that wine cannot be made at, sold from or even stored on the premises.
The vineyard is quite protected from the elements, bounded on the south by the Yarra River, on the north and east by leafy residential areas and on the west by the Yarra Bend National Park. Just across the river from the Skipping Girl Vinegar sign, the vineyard is visible from a nearby footbridge, and has provided a pleasant surprise vista for many people taking a constitutional amble along the Yarra.
Being remote from other commercial wine growing areas, Studley Park is also quarantined to a large extent from vineyard diseases. “Pests are not a huge problem for us,” says Geoff. “We are a long way from other vineyards, and the problems they can have with say fungus, that can be endemic in some areas, is less so here. We are isolated from that. In fact, we have a big urban safety belt all around us, which is very unique.” No pesticide is used at Studley Park. In fact, Geoff says that their biggest headache as far as pests go are blackbirds.
The Pryors established the vineyard in 1994, on land that had been used primarily for market gardening for more than a century. Being on a flood plain, the area had been saved from urban development for all the intervening years, and when it was put up for sale Geoff and Claire jumped at the chance.
Not only have they possibly saved one small parcel of open space (as technologically advanced development methods could certainly have stepped in) but they have preserved a link to Melbourne’s early wine making history. Geoff has copies of early records that show that a vineyard was present on this same piece of property. A license to “divert water and cut races” was re-issued in 1917 for the irrigation of an “orchard and vineyard”. It was signed by the Governor himself. In fact the creation of Studley Park has renewed an association with Government House. “A friend was at a dinner there one evening,” says Geoff, “and comment was made that the wine being served was very local. He said that he knew of a vineyard even closer. So they put a small order in, just to try it, and have been getting some off us ever since.”
They find no need to irrigate these days, as the natural water table is high enough to reach the vine root system. But even though water supply is not a problem, the yield from the vineyard can still vary greatly. “One year we’ll manage 3000 bottles, but the next only perhaps 1000,” says Geoff, who adds that they do nothing to control yield. They just see how each year goes. “Although interestingly we’ve found that the higher yielding years have produced wines that are on par with, if not better than, the lower yielding years,” he says.
Winemaking in early Melbourne
In Melbourne’s early history, grape growing and wine making naturally grew out of the great demand coming from a rapidly growing population. Settlers adept at vineyard skills in the old country naturally had an eye for land that suited grape production, and as water was an essential element in this, land along the Yarra River became prime vine growing property.
In his excellent book “Better than Pommard! A history of wine in Victoria”, Dr David Dunstan of the National Centre for Australian Studies at Monash University describes the 1860s region of Boroondara as one of the leading wine growing sub-regions of the colony. Then, the quite rural Boroondara took in today’s suburbs of Hawthorn, Kew, Camberwell and Balwyn. Interestingly, one contemporary leading vigneron, Andrew Murray, built himself a brick home that he called “Balwyn”, from a Gaelic word “bal” and a Saxon word “wyn”, which he interpreted as “home of the vine”. It is hard these days to imagine 30 acres of grapes growing in this comfortable suburb.
Geoffrey Blainey, in his “History of Camberwell”, records 42 acres of vineyard in the Melbourne district in 1861. This would have included David Ogilvy’s vineyard on the slopes of Punt Road hill in South Yarra (named for the punt that transported people and vehicles over the river before a bridge was built). Parts of his Airlie Bank Vineyard were still visible abutting Alexandra Avenue in the 1920s, and Airlie Street marks its former location. Tooronga Vineyard, south of Toorak Road, gave its name to a future road as well. There were also vineyards at Windsor, more along Punt Road on the Richmond side and even more along the river on the Richmond flat.
Blainey observes that the acreage under vine trebled into the 1870s, but that by 1890 “one had to search for an acre of grapes”. No doubt the expanding metropolis that was fast becoming “marvellous Melbourne” claimed these prime locations for the “higher value” use of suburban housing.
Thankfully, one acre of grapes has been re-created, and serves not only as a tangible reminder of Melbourne’s wine making past but is providing today’s generation with a classic, high quality wine to enjoy.
And for Geoff and Claire Pryor, one acre is enough. “We like the set up as it is,” says Geoff. “If we were seeking a gentler lifestyle I don’t think that having a winery is going to do that. I think a lot of people have a dream about waltzing around a vineyard with a glass of chardonnay in their hand. It’s not really like that, and it’s certainly not something you would go into on a part-time basis to try to make money out of.”
Studley Park is keeping its head above water, but Geoff concedes that if it were their only source of income they would be struggling. “No one can live off a single acre of vines,” he says. “You’d need a minimum of five to 10 hectares to make a go of it. But then again, it is very pleasant to have this vineyard. We consider ourselves very lucky to have had the opportunity.”
This first appeared in Victorian Lifestyle Property magazine