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First Australians Bring Culture and Ecological Expertise to Winemaking

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The Australian wine industry has found new ways to help the country grapple with its troubled past. Like the United States, Australia has an Indigenous population with vast, varied and sophisticated cultures that thrived for tens of thousands of years before Europeans arrived in 1606. Today, in Australia, as in many former European colonies, the gap between Indigenous people and their non-Indigenous compatriots in the realms of health, economic status and mortality rate remains distressingly wide.

The country is currently in ecological crisis, too, which makes a cultural reckoning feel increasingly urgent. This year, wildfires have burned almost 25 million acres of land and affected hundreds of animal and plant species.

As Australians process the scale of the disaster and how to best address potential future problems, many experts point to how Indigenous Australians historically set small, controlled fires to target grasses and undergrowth. This would help protect ancient trees and canopy from more destructive blazes.

In a similar vein, a growing movement of wine producers in Australia have championed Aboriginal culture. They’ve used wine as a way to forge meaningful, lasting change in First Australian communities.

Allan Arnold and Garry Green of Australia's Mount Yengo Wines
Allan Arnold and Gary Green/Photo courtesy of Mount Yengo WInes

Modern Aboriginal Wine Culture

“It’s a very complicated issue in Australia,” says Gary Green, a Gamilaraay and Githabul from New South Wales and co-founder of Mount Yengo Wines in Australia’s Hunter Valley, regarding support for Indigenous Australian communities. “There’s a lot of ignorance among the wider community of Australians, but there’s also this fear of appearing racist, so a lot of people don’t ask questions.

“There are so many well-meaning people in affluent suburbs who want to support Aboriginal communities and learn more about them, but they don’t know where to start. Wine provides an opportunity for both.”

Green, whose father was a successful businessman and leader in the Aboriginal community, has worked all his adult life to help bridge the gaps between Indigenous and non-Indigenous populations.

“I have always tried to use brands and companies as a platform to provide opportunity to Aboriginal communities, because you don’t get successful social outcomes without commercial success,” says Green. “We’re able to make a difference only if we make great wine.”

And in Australia, wine is a big business. Winemaking contributed about 45.5 billion Australian dollars (about $30.04 billion U.S.) to the country’s economy in 2019. Australian wine currently has an annual growth rate of about 3% per year since 2015, according to AgEconPlus.

Wayne Quilliam's artwork next to an image of the wine label
Wayne Quilliam’s artwork adorns the label of Mount Yengo’s 2019 sparkling wine/Photo courtesy of Wayne Quilliam

Murrin Bridge Vineyard was the first wine business owned by First Australians. It released its first vintage in the early 2000s from Chardonnay and Shiraz vines planted on their own land in 1999. While the response was enthusiastic, the company ultimately closed after the 2005 vintage. Now, companies like Mount Yengo Wines have moved into the niche Murrin Bridge created.

Green linked up with Ben Hansberry, a winemaker who also brought 15 spirits brands to the Australian market like Broker’s Gin and Patrón Tequila through his former company Blue Sky Beverages. The two introduced Gondwana Wines in 2016, which was rebranded as Mount Yengo last year.

Like many Australian producers, Mount Yengo uses art made by Indigenous Australians on its labels. Additionally, for every bottle sold, 1 Australian dollar (about 69 U.S. cents) goes to the artist, and 2 Australian dollars (about $1.37 U.S.) helps fund Aboriginal digital literacy programs in remote regions.

“Obviously the funding for literacy programs directly affects the lives of Aboriginal people, but we’ve found that the art on the labels is a conversation starter for people who want to understand more about our culture,” says Green. “We also decided to use art this year made by a world-renowned artist, professor and curator, Wayne Quilliam, who just happens to be Aboriginal, because we think it breaks stereotypes about Aboriginal people, who get put in this box as simple, unsophisticated people.”

Green is also excited about a program that he and Hansberry are considering.

“Ben and I have been invited to an Aboriginal community, way in the north of Australia this year,” he says. “They have Australia’s one native grape growing there, and they want to see if they can turn them into good wine. To me, that would be the ultimate way to celebrate Australia’s terroir, its past and its future.”

Hughie Ahwon's label for Happs Wine
One of Aboriginal artist Hughie Ahwon’s labels for Happs Wines/Photo by Hughie Ahwon

Inspired by the Land

“For two centuries, Australians borrowed the term ‘Claret’ to discuss blends of Cabernet and Shiraz, but we stopped doing that and slowly started adopting our own appellation-style naming system,” says Erl Happ, co-owner/winemaker at Margaret River’s Happs Wines, which produces about 15,000 cases per year. “But if we want to make a truly Australian product, it needs to incorporate Australia’s original people. They have defined the country with their art, their agricultural practices, their deep connection to the land. If Australian wine is going to reflect its true terroir, it has to involve First Australians.”

In 1994, Happ established Three Hills, his second vineyard, on the southwestern tip of Australia. The Indian Ocean sits to its west, with the Southern Ocean to the south and east. His goal was to allow the vineyard’s fruits, which receive mellowing maritime influences, to express themselves without the influence of oak.

Happ is inspired by the Indigenous Australians’ attitude toward land management. It’s a deeply philosophical approach that encompasses reciprocity and sustainability. It gives back to the land as much as it takes. Early settlers “farmed like First Australians, by working with nature, rather than trying to suppress it,” he says.

To that end, Happ avoids insecticides as he believes they are counter to a holistic relationship with nature.

Image of Happs land
Happs winery in Australia/Photo by Frances Andrijich

“Using insecticide is often the worst thing you can do on a farm,” says Happ. “In nature, there are predators that jump into action when there is a surplus of food available. It’s better to wait until predators arrive, like the cavalry, keen to take care of the problem.”

Avoiding industrial chemicals and machines can create more work in the vineyard and winery. However, Happ finds that sensitivity, observation and logic in the vineyard—tools he borrows from the First Australian community—is superior in the long run.

“When Europeans came to Australia, they were amazed at the ability of the First Australians to track people, work out where they were going, follow the leads and eventually find them,” he says. “Some would look at my vineyard and be unimpressed, with grass right across the row and no sheet and leaf trimming. I don’t see it that way. I see the shoots and leaves as my solar array, sucking in sunlight and making sugars to create the building blocks for the plant.”

An artist and art lover, Happ also wanted to incorporate visual culture. Indigenous Australians have produced art consistently longer than any other group in the world, for more than 30,000 years.

“First Australians who still live in traditional communities often rely on their artwork as a means of getting by,” says Happ. “We use organizations that support First Australians to help us track down potential artworks. We choose a new work of art for our wine labels every year, pay a fee for the rights for one year, and in that way contribute and give back to the community.

“It provides the artist with exposure and gives us a new way to reflect and showcase Australia’s terroir on the outside, as well as the inside, of the bottle.”

Artwork at Mitchelton Winery in Australia
Mitchelton Gallery/Photo by Simon Shiff

Wine and Identity

A country’s wine culture is often used as shorthand for its collective soul. Just think of the way wine is made, marketed and consumed in France or Italy, and the way it reflects our perception of the country, its history and the character of its people.

Mitchelton Wines, a winery with a hotel and spa attached to it in the Goulburn Valley, in Nagambie, Victoria, has opened a gallery dedicated to art from First Nations Peoples. The collection was built over three decades in partnership with Aboriginal art specialist Adam Knight and Mitchelton’s co-owner Gerry Ryan. It represents work from more than 15 First Australian communities and internationally recognized Aboriginal artists, including Gabriella Possum Nungurrayi and Linda Syddick Napaltjarri.

Mitchelton’s decision to add a cavernous, elegantly appointed gallery space, dedicated to what was historically perceived to be “primitive art,” set in a luxury property that just received a $16 million design and architectural upgrade from Hecker Guthrie, speaks volumes about how Australia wants to define itself now, and tomorrow.