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A Taste of History

A Taste Of History

One of the first permanent European settlements in Victoria occurred at Sunbury in 1836.

The first grapes in Victoria were planted by some Swiss settlers near Geelong in 1842. Remarkably, by 1876 Victoria was producing half a million gallons of wine a year, up from just 11,000 gallons in 1856. Much of this wine was exported to the UK, earning Victoria the title “John Bull’s Vineyard”. Whilst the discovery of gold in 1851 brought an influx of diggers (hence the hamlet “Diggers Rest” near Sunbury) and associated riches, the remarkable growth in wine production was due in large part to Sir Charles Gavan Duffy and his “Duffy Land Act” of 1862.


The Land Act sought to encourage closer agricultural settlement by offering smaller allotments of between 40 and 640 acres for sale by auction with a reserve of only £1 per acre. Although businessmen and politicians, who were far from the target market, largely took advantage of the scheme, it did achieve its purpose of breaking up the vast squatters holdings for agriculture, including vineyards, which flourished. Goona Warra Vineyard was no exception, being established in 1863 by James Goodall Francis who was both a businessman and a politician.




Francis was born in London in 1819 and arrived in Hobart Tasmania aboard the “Sarah” by steerage class on 14 February 1835 at age 16. He joined a firm of merchants and soon became a successful businessman in his own right. He came to Victoria in 1853 to open a branch in Melbourne where his mercantile interests led to his election as President of the Melbourne Chamber of Commerce in 1857. Two years later Francis won the legislative seat of Richmond, holding many portfolios before becoming Premier of Victoria in 1870. His ministry was notable for extending the rail network and, more enduringly, establishing the compulsory State education system that still exists today.


Ill health forced Francis to resign office in 1874 when he retired to his beloved Goona Warra Vineyard. He died in 1884. A staunch republican, Francis reputedly turned down the offer of a knighthood three times during his lifetime.


Francis called his winery “Goona Warra” meaning “resting place of black swan” in the local indigenous dialect. (Not to be confused with the much later – 1890 – planted region in South Australia called “Coonawarra” which translated as “Honeysuckle”.) Whilst the black swans have long since departed the area, platypus can still be found in adjoining Jackson’s Creek. Francis constructed the buildings at Goona Warra without sparing expense, using oregon from America and slate from Wales, although a fire in the winery later caused the slates in that building to be replaced with galvanised iron. Francis employed an Italian vigneron, a Senor Baldini, and planted vines in the European tradition on stone terraces constructed for the purpose at the staggering cost of £150 per acre. Sadly, only odd remnants of the terraces remain today. Of the early Black Swan labels that survive “Claret” was probably made from Shiraz and “Pineau” likely “Pineau de Loire”, known today as Chenin Blanc. Francis never exhibited his wines, but contemporary taste apparently prized the region’s whites over the reds.


The late nineteenth century was a time of great prosperity for Victoria, sparking an ongoing building boom and many agricultural advances. By 1870 a Department of Agriculture had been established and many agricultural societies and shows set up. Sunbury became an important grape growing area, boasting 8 flourishing vineyards along “Vineyard Road” alone, not to mention others, including Goona Warra Vineyard, elsewhere around the town. Victoria was producing half of Australia’s wine, but the dominance was to be short lived.


Two factors combined to oversee the demise of Victoria’s pre-eminence in winemaking.

First was the introduction of the dreaded vine louse Phylloxera that entered Victoria through the port of Geelong in 1876. Miraculously bypassing Sunbury, the louse reappeared in Victoria’s North East, devastating vineyards in its wake by being transmitted in soil attached to agricultural machinery. The result is a “Phylloxera Line” which still exists to this day across the centre of Victoria beyond which plant material cannot be removed. Air-borne for part of its life, the louse primarily lives underground, attaching itself to the root nodules and debilitating the vine. There is no cure, only co-existence by planting vines grafted onto the louse’s native American rootstock, which is tolerant of the louse. Back then, however, the government of the day introduced a vine pull scheme in a naive attempt to rid the country of the dreaded louse, as a consequence of which numerous vineyards were pulled out and lost forever.


The second factor reinforced the first. The 1890’s worldwide depression, peaking in 1893, was especially severely felt in Victoria following upon the unsustainable property boom that preceded it. The UK wine export trade collapsed. Businessmen were ruined, and as businessmen mostly comprised the early vignerons, they enthusiastically embraced the Phylloxera vine pull scheme. The legacy today is that South Australia now produces half of Australia’s wine, although Victoria has by far the greatest number of vineyards of any State.


The demise and renaissance of Goona Warra Vineyard follows the same path. Following Francis death in 1884, the vineyard continued for a time but eventually succumbed to the economic forces of the day. Goona Warra then covered some 352 acres and subsequently became variously a merino stud farm, a Clydesdale stud and piggery, and a cattle stud before being given over to dairying for forty years until 1983. In that year the property (then comprising only 17 acres) was purchased by Melbourne lawyer and architect couple, John and Elizabeth Barnier, who immediately replanted the original vineyard and set about restoring the magnificent bluestone buildings. The first “new” vintage occurred in 1986, almost 100 years after the last. The “new” wines of Goona Warra proudly wear a recreation of the original Black Swan label.


Two early "Goona Warra Vineyard" lables from 1871


The original label from the Troedell collection in the Latrobe Library in Melbourne


The recreation label used today


The original buildings, now restored, remain a tribute to the skills of the artisans who constructed them over 140 years ago.The original coursed stone rubble cottage constructed in 1858 and the homestead constructed over a period 1863 to 1875 are overshadowed by the massive bluestone winery.


Spectacular and unique, the Cellar and Great Hall located in the original bluestone winery have been carefully restored to provide a memorable food and wine experience in a delightful garden vineyard setting just 30 minutes from the centre of Melbourne. A true venue with a difference, the original winery and surrounds today offer a variety of unique environments to cater for all manner of weddings and events, formal and informal, ranging from cocktail parties to sit down dinners. Lazy Sunday lunches at Goona Warra are an institution.

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