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On the origin of Hunter River Semillon

Updated: Apr 28, 2020

On the origin of Hunter River Semillon; Bob’s Blog from Around Hermitage.

I recently went to the Mitchell Library in Sydney where there is an interesting exhibition called ‘Dead Central” which is an account of the Devonshire Street Cemetry that gave way to the building of Central Railway station.

The cemetery opened in 1820 and was “occupied” by some 30,000 souls. It was rapidly filled and eventually became overgrown with many graves and monuments becoming exposed. In 1901 the government announced it would clear the cemetery and build the much needed Central Railway station.

Thomas Shepherd of Darling Nursery

Before the removal of the bodies, a Surry Hills couple - Josephine and Arthur Foster, undertook to photograph and record hundreds of headstones before they were lost forever. They highlighted the fading inscriptions and captured the stories of those buried.

The exhibition shows many of these headstones and among them, I noticed one belonging to a Thomas Shepherd, a native of Scotland who died on August 30, 1836, aged 56 years.

The timing rang a bell with me --- could this be the Thomas Shepherd the horticulturalists famous for observing the natural ability for the Semillon grape to produce a fine white wine here in the colony of NSW?

The very same man whose name was attached to the variety then known as Shepherds White, and the varietal that thrived in the Hunter known as Shepherds Riesling, Hunter river Riesling and finally by its varietal name-Semillon.

In all probability, Semillon came to NSW with Governor Phillip and the First Fleet in 1788.

At Cape Town they collected vines where the variety known as Green Grape/groendruif (Semillon) was the most widely planted white wine grape. While many of the cuttings did not survive the first summer at Sydney Cove, some did and were transplanted to the fertile crescent at Parramatta. Other cuttings arrived on the Minerva in 1824 and were grown in the Botanical Gardens.

Further development awaited the arrival of Thomas Shepherd. He was born in Fifeshire, Scotland on the estate of the Earl of Crawford where his father was the head gardener. Shepherd became landscape designer and nurseryman, moving to London where became very successful and highly respected with an established business and nursery in Hackney, London.

During the Joint-Stock Company mania, he came south as the Principal Superintendent of The New Zealand Company, which aimed to grow flax. Once there and being fairly astute, he assessed the venture as unprofitable and recommended its abolition. This brought him to Sydney at the age of 48 with his wife and children in 1827.

1842 map showing location of Shepherd's Nursery

He was given a grant of 28 acres of land by Governor Darling at Black Wattle Swamp and established the Darling Nursery.

The soil was rich and suitable for intensive agriculture.This was the first commercial nursery in the colony, located between Parramatta Road and Cleveland Street in Chippendale. Today Vine, Shepherd, Pine, Myrtle and Rose streets just below Sydney University, commemorate the site.

With his horticultural expertise, Shepherd was looking for disease-resistant vines that thrived in the new environment. In fact, shepherd endured drought in his first two years and observed these lush white vines developing in spite of the weather.