It is a common misconception to think of Australia as having little history of any significance, but the story of Tahbilk, one of the country’s oldest family-run wineries, which celebrates its 150th anniversary this year, proves otherwise.
Tahbilk’s story is one of innovation, entrepreneurship, survival and extraordinary continuity, one rarely witnessed in Australia’s wine history. Looking back at Tahbilk’s colourful history, the winery has much to be proud of: the largest single planting of the oldest marsanne vines in the world, its iconic 1860 shiraz block, five generations of family ownership since 1925 and the oldest family-owned winery in Victoria.
The wines have consistently featured on Society Lists for more than 50 years. The earliest entry in our ledger books dates back to 1960 with the inclusion of ‘a Hock-type hogshead from Tahbilk’.
The importance of place
Tahbilk is located in the Nagambie Lakes region of central Victoria. The property comprises some 1,214 hectares of rich river flats with frontage on the spectacular Goulburn River. Tahbilk has been identified as one of only six wine growing regions in the world where the mesoclimate is dramatically influenced by the inland water mass resulting in a cooler then expected climate and this, coupled with the unique red sandy loam soil which is high in ferric-oxide, has extremely positive effects on the quality of the grapes produced.
The vineyards are made up of 225 hectares of vines including Rhône varietals marsanne, viognier and roussanne for whites, and shiraz, grenache and mourvèdre for the reds. Alongside these are more traditionally grown varieties such as cabernet sauvignon, merlot, cabernet franc, chardonnay, riesling, semillon, sauvignon blanc and verdelho.
The origins of the estate can be traced back to John Pinney Bear who, in 1860, established the company and took the name Tahbilk from the Aboriginal ‘tabilk-tabilk’ meaning ‘a place of many waterholes’. In 1877, François Coueslant, considered the most knowledgeable vigneron and progressive farm-manager of his day, was employed as general manager. He was responsible for the construction in 1882 of the distinctive tower that surmounts the original winery and introducing irrigation.
Survival of the fittest
Tahbilk’s achievements haven’t been without obstacle, the largest of which was the phylloxera epidemic in the late 1800s. Over subsequent years floods, droughts, the Depression and the near collapse of the Victorian wine industry also hit the winery hard.
A new beginning
In 1925 Reginald Purbrick, Australian entrepreneur and later Member of the British House of Commons, purchased the property from the Bear family. (The Purbricks had actually had earlier connections with the property, James Escott Purbrick having constructed the underground cellar in 1875). Reginald’s son Eric took over management and winemaking responsibilities in 1931 and was then joined by his son John in 1955. John’s son Alister, a graduate of the Winemaking Course at Adelaide’s Roseworthy College, took over as winemaker and chief executive in 1979 and continues to this day.
The visionary approach of its founders is as alive today as it was in the early years and Tahbilk has led the way in a number of key areas. In 1931 they made the bold move away from focussing on fortifieds to concentrating on table wines. They were the first in Australia to introduce varietal labelling in 1952.
In 1953 Tahbilk Marsanne was selected and served at a luncheon for the Commonwealth Heads of State in the House of Commons as part of Queen Elizabeth II’s Coronation celebrations. The wine was described in a newspaper review of the event as being ‘drier than Empire whites usually are….and could stand up to many Continental wines for flavour and genuineness’.
The descendant of this wine, which won’t have changed that dramatically from the one served to the Queen, is a regular winner in our Wine Society Wine Championship tastings and was described by head buyer Sebastian Payne MW as ‘one of wine’s great gifts to the world’.
Tahbilk’s commitment to making wines in an unswerving traditional style is, more than anything, what has earned them a loyal following and led to their achieving something of an iconic status. In the words of Australian wine writer and critic James Halliday, theirs is a ‘priceless inheritence’.