As one of the oldest winemaking regions in Australia, the Hunter Valley is rich in the history of the industry. While a trip to the region’s countless cellar doors will give you a literal taste of its winemaking traditions if you want to sample more of the Hunter’s heritage make sure you pay a visit to the winemaking museum at Audrey Wilkinson Vineyard in Pokolbin.
Planted in 1866 and originally named ‘Oakdale’, it was the first vineyard in the Parish of Pokolbin. The vineyard site itself was selected by Audrey’s father, Frederick Wilkinson, who had trained for several years in Burgundy and Alsace.
The north-facing natural amphitheatre, where the current Audrey Wilkinson Vineyard sits, was one of the site’s key attractions in Frederick’s eyes. However, it was a surprise element that proved to be the site’s most successful feature. Unknown to the Wilkinson family at the time, the site sits on eight different soil types, introducing unparalleled natural variation in growing conditions and allowing for a multiple of varieties to be grown.
Audrey Wilkinson was 15 years old when he assumed the daunting role of running the family vineyard following the death of his father.
While Frederick had garnered a rare body of winemaking knowledge from his time spent in France, which he put into practice by producing still table wines in the European style at a time when most other Australia winemakers were just producing fortified wines, Audrey famously relied on his incredible sense of smell, as well as his amazing knowledge of the land he had inherited, to help him produce some of Australia’s finest wines.
These days the Audrey Wilkinson Vineyard is owned by the Agnew family, and General Manager James Agnew said that when his family took on the vineyard, they also inherited the Wilkinson family photo album, which documented the Wilkinsons at work and play from the late 1800's through to the early 1900's.
This gave them the perfect opportunity to showcase the rich history of one of the pioneering families of the Australian wine industry.
“These were the pinnacle years for the Wilkinson family in the Hunter Valley, and yet it was striking how little was known about the Wilkinsons in the modern era,” he said.
“They were truly the forgotten pioneers of the Australian wine industry, let alone the Hunter Valley.
“At the same time, there was standing history in the form of the reconstructed Old Winery, which now forms half the cellar door, which also contained the historic cement fermentation vats.
“Our founding Chairman, Brian Agnew, saw this as a story too good not to be told and so set about engaging some of Australia’s best historians and museum curators to research and develop a museum to be housed in the Old Winery, which celebrates the achievements of the Wilkinsons and the Hunter Valley wine industry more broadly.”
Among the key attractions of the winemaking museum are the heritage awarded open cement vats, a cutting edge improvement in winemaking technology that Audrey helped to develop in the early 1900's.
“Today, one of the hot alternative ‘emerging’ winemaking methods is to use concrete fermentation vessels once more,” James said.
“Yet on 12 November 1902 (a date very conveniently scratched into the wet cement of one of the vats), Audrey Wilkinson was at the bleeding edge of winemaking technology when he oversaw the installation of a number of these cement vats – a vast improvement from the notoriously fickle wooden fermentation vessels used up to that point.
“The great benefit derived from using these cement vessels was the moderation of temperature during fermentation. When grape juice is fermenting, the temperature of the liquid can rise to close to 40°C, which can sometimes bring about unwanted aromas and flavours in the finished wine.
“The cement vats help moderate these temperature spikes and were critical in producing fine, dry table wines styles as was the goal for the Wilkinson clan.”
The museum is free to visit and provides a unique insight into the winemaking practices of the past, housing one of the best displays of antique cooperage tools in the country, as well as the heritage awarded cement vats and some of the fabulous old photographs from the Wilkinson family album.
Find Audrey Wilkinson at 750 De Beyers Road, Pokolbin open 10am – 5pm.