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The tradition of wine grape-growing in the Bendigo region is nearly as old as Bendigo itself, with the planting of vines being documented as far back as 1855. Ebenezer Ward's account of a visit to the Bendigo district in 1864 in which he saw vines at a vineyard on the Campaspe River "which cannot be less than fourteen or fifteen years old." Ward, who had been hired by the Melbourne Age to write a survey of Victorian vineyards, found "more than 40 vineyards, most of which were still in their infancy, spreading from Bullock Creek in the west to the Campaspe River in the east."
Credited by 19th century wine writer de Castella with being Bendigo's first vignerons are Jacques Bladier and a German named Delscher "both of whom planted vineyards at Epsom about 1855,"and Jean-Baptiste Loridan, whose vineyard of 10,000 vines on the Sheepwash Creek was noted in the May 1856 Bendigo Advertiser as being two years old.
In the 1850s Bendigo was not yet properly a winemaking area. In 1859 the total area under vine in the district was only thirty-nine-and-a-half acres, with little wine being made and most of the produce still being sold as fresh fruit. But as little as two years later, this had more than doubled to 120 acres of vines and Bendigo was the fourth largest vine-growing district in the colony.
Winemaking in the district had began in earnest in 1862, according to Bleasdale, and by 1869 it could boast 489 acres under vine. Growth stabilised in the 1870s and by 1880 the area under vine comprised 534 acres. In his History of Bendigo George Mackay records a further increase to 972 acres and a yearly production of 87,940 gallons of wine. For an area dominated by small holders, with few vineyard holdings exceeding thirty acres, this was an impressive advance.
The connection between the discovery of gold and the proliferation of vineyards in the middle of the last century is made in a number of ways. Benwell believes that when the "easy gold" ran out, viticulture was something which "the scattered labour force, uncommitted, used to hard work and still ready to gamble" could easily turn to. But the lasting legacy of grape growing and wine making in the Bendigo district is more to be found in those who benefited from the prosperity the gold rush produced while drawing upon skills and tastes acquired in their European homelands of Germany, Switzerland and France.
Carl Pohl who arrived in Australia in 1848 and "became a wholesale and retail butcher at White Hills, retaining an interest in mining companies as a shareholder and director. By 1880 he had six acres of vines, principally shiraz and riesling."
George Bruhn, a native of Holstein who arrived in Bendigo in 1853 and, following poor returns from crops of grain, planted vines. At the White Hills Exhibition of 1862 he obtained first prize for his red and white wines and in the following exceptionally good growing year made 4,000 gallons of wine from three acres of vines.
The Heine brothers and their partner and successor, Wilhelm Greiffenhagen, who "arrived from Germany in 1854 became miners at Epsom and by 1868 had twenty-five acres under vine, of which thirteen were bearing. These included hermitage (shiraz), burgundy, cabernet sauvignon, mataro, verdeilho, riesling and chasselas.
Jean Theodore Deravin, of French descent, who emigrated to Victoria in 1852 and took up six acres of land five miles from Bendigo on the Sheepwash Creek in the Parish of Mandurang. In 1866 he planted a quarter-acre vineyard at Chateau Dore which by 1893 he had expanded to seventeen acres.
Frederick Grosse who in 1864 "purchased a forty-acre farm on the Emu Creek near Bendigo. This he named the Tooronga Vineyard and planted cabernet sauvignon, shiraz, riesling and verdeilho with the object of producing table wines. With the purchase of the adjoining Emu Creek vineyard of Albert Bruhn, he became the largest grape grower in the Bendigo district with a total holding of sixty-eight acres under vine.
The wines of Bendigo gained international recognition at an early stage, showing quality and a style which would come to be associated with the region. Dunstan notes,
The strongest testimony we have for the quality of Bendigo district wines is not their success or failure in the limited colonial marketplace but the regular appearance of names like Bruhn, Fischer, Greiffenhagen, Grosse, Kahland and Pohl in national and international award lists, and notably at the 1880-81 and 1888-89 International Exhibitions held at Melbourne.