James Busby's Vinous Ark

By James Halliday

James Busby was a quite extraordinary man. Born in Scotland on 7 February 1801, he emigrated to the colony of New South Wales with his family in 1824. Before he left Scotland, and with no prior knowledge of viticulture or winemaking, he spent some months in France’s wine regions, learning as much as he could about these activities.

James Busby, courtesy of Wikipedia

His motivation was the need he perceived for the colony to develop exports that could survive the long sea trip to England and meet existing market demand. He published two books on viticulture and winemaking after his arrival in Sydney, one in 1825, the second in 1830. Around this time, Gregory Blaxland, the explorer, and Captain John Macarthur, of merino sheep fame, had also obtained and planted vine cuttings, Blaxland sending the fi rst Australian wine to England in 1822, and Macarthur (and his two sons) travelling through Europe collecting vines and planting his fi rst vineyard in 1820. But it was the trip through Spain and France that Busby made in 1831 that was of pivotal importance in the establishment of today’s Australian wine industry. Busby kept a meticulous record of each day’s travel, and of the vine cuttings he collected on the way. His notes were published in 1833 as Journal of a Tour (and in lesser typeface) through some of the Vineyards of Spain and France. He dedicated the Journal to his father, John, who designed and built Sydney’s fi rst system to supply fresh water.

Busby’s tour began in Cadiz, Spain, on Monday 26 September 1831 and ended on Thursday 22 December 1831 in Aÿ, Champagne (thereafter in Paris). Busby’s ‘bible’ was a list of 570 vines created by the Botanic Garden of Montpellier, and which are listed, one by one, in the Catalogue Third (pages 126–38 of the Journal). In fact, only 433 were supplied, and of the missing 137, he obtained 110 from the Luxembourg Gardens in Paris. Of these, 363 survived the trip to Sydney, packed in moss, sand and soil, and were planted in the Sydney Botanic Gardens. There are numerous gaps in the catalogue, and the names vary from the utterly mysterious (sevent noir, de l’Hérault; passadoule Bougie), to the intriguing (barbera noir, Pô; Pineau fl euri, Côte d’Or), to the commonplace (grenache, entered several times; pineau noir, Viene; pineau noir de l’Yonne; and pineau, Côte d’Or).

But the most important were listed in the Catalogue First (pages 112–20), and were mainly collected by Busby direct from the vineyards, where the owners were usually in attendance. They included (using Busby’s spelling) carignan, grenache, mataro, mourastrell, blanquette, muscat, grenache blanche, mãcabeo, chasselas
and cinque saut, all names easily recognised. Most have been grown in Australia at one time or another – or are about to be grown. In the heart of this catalogue are the core varieties of the northern Rhône Valley, Burgundy and Bordeaux. It remains to briefly complete James Busby’s story. In 1832 he accepted an appointment as British Resident in New Zealand, departing in 1833 with some of the cuttings he had obtained, and accompanied by his wife Agnes. A house had been built for him at Waitangi, and while his duties as British Resident were to protect British commerce, he quickly became involved in matters of lasting national importance. First, an offi cial New Zealand fl ag was chosen by Maori chiefs at a meeting in his house on 20 March 1834. In 1835 when he learnt that a French baron was proposing to declare sovereignty over New Zealand, he drafted the Declaration of Independence of New Zealand, signing it with 35 chiefs from the northern part of New Zealand in November of that year. Finally, he coauthored the Treaty of Waitangi that was signed on 5 and 6 February 1840 on the lawn outside his residence.

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