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A Toast to the Father of New Zealand wine
by Sue Courtney
6 February 2007

On February 6th, we celebrate Waitangi Day. It is a National Holiday. It was called New Zealand Day for a while but now it is called Waitangi Day because it commemorates the day the Treaty of Waitangi was signed by representatives of the British Crown and the Maori Chiefs in 1840. It marked the start of a new nation. Originally declared as a public holiday, a national day of thanksgiving to honour the treaty, for some it is a day of controversy and protest while for others, it's just another holiday.

So what does this have to do with wine? Quite a lot, actually, because the Treaty was signed in the grounds of the residency of James Busby, who was the the first British Resident of New Zealand. This is the same James Busby who is regarded as the father of Australian and New Zealand wine.

busby.jpg

Born in 1801 in Edinburgh, James Busby's interest was firstly agriculture and later viticulture and winemaking, which he studied in France before travelling with his parents and siblings to New South Wales, Australia, arriving there in 1824. On the way, via South Africa, Busby made a tour of the vineyards around Capetown. After their arrival in Australia, the Busby family had received a land grant of 2000 acres in the Hunter and James planted his vine cuttings there. While his brother-in-law looked after the vineyard, Busby took up a position at the Boys Orphan School at Liverpool, west of Sydney, where he taught agriculture, viticulture and looked after the farm. There is now a suburb in that area named Busby.

In 1825 Busby published his first book, "A Treatise on the Culture of the Vine, and the Art of Making Wine", drawing on the writings of Chaptal and other illustrious French writers plus his own notes from his studies.

I find it interesting that even in 1825, the health benefits of wine were being extolled. The following extract is from a chapter entitled "Of the Virtues of Wine" .

"Of all the liquors which the ingenuity of man has drawn from the productions of nature, wine may said to be, at the same time, the most varied in nature, the most excellent in its quality, and the most extended in its use. Besides its tonic and strengthening power, it is more or less nutritious and salutary in every respect. The faculty of fortifying the understanding, was attributed to it by the ancients, Plato, AEschylus, and Solomon, being agreed in according to it, this virtue. But no writer has treated better the properties of wine, than the celebrated Galen, who has assigned to each kind it proper uses, and described the differences effected in it by age, climate, &c."

Busby also writes ... "Excess in the use of wine, has in all ages excited the censure of the legislators......."

So, nothing has changed much, really.

Busby wrote a how-to book on viticulture in New South Wales before returning to England in 1831. He had written a number of reports for the Colonial Office and his report on the state of New Zealand (even though he had never been there) gained him the position of first Official British Resident for New Zealand.

While in the Northern Hemisphere, Busby made a four month tour of the vineyards of France and Spain, compiling extensive notes and collecting hundreds of grapevines cuttings, which were shipped back to Australia.. Busby collected 437 cuttings from the Montpellier Botanical Gardens and 133 from the Luxembourg Gardens all of which were gifted to the government in order to establish an experimental vineyard at the Sydney Botanical Gardens. He also collected cuttings for himself from the vineyards that he regarded as the best in France and Spain.

He would later publish the record of the visits in two publications - "Journal of a Tour Through Some of the Vineyards of Spain and France (1833); and "Journal of a Recent Visit to the Principal Vineyards of Spain and France (1834)". But first he would take up his position in New Zealand.

He arrived in this country for the first time, with his bride, Agnes (they married after Busby returned to Australia in 1832), on the H.M.S. Imogene on the 10th May 1833. The land he bought for his residence was at Waitangi and there he planted the vegetables, fruit and grapevine cuttings they had brought with them. Busby's vines were not the first to be planted in New Zealand, but they were the first planted exclusively to make wine.

Busby's garden's had much acclaim. A visiting American, J .B. Williams of Salem, Massachusetts, wrote the following in his journal ....

"A more delightful and romantic spot it would be difficult to find in the Bay. ..Mr Busby has displayed great taste about those parts of the grounds he improves, doubtless Mrs Busby must share in the credit as his worthy spouse. .. I well remember the first call I made at their pretty, neat and hospitable Mansion embodied in a grove of trees and shrubs, with flowers sending forth a rich fragrance. Mr Busby has quite a large farm under cultivation, and a fine grapery propagating fast."

In 1840 the historic treaty of Waitangi was signed at Busby's residence and I'm sure a glass of Busby's wine would have been drunk that day.

Although the vineyard no longer exists, the vines would have no doubt been a source for many other vineyards in the north over the next few years - perhaps even the source for some of the vines growing here today - syrah, for example.

Busby seems to have been largely forgotten in New Zealand as Treaty issues take precedence, although the house and gardens were gifted to the people of New Zealand in 1932 as part of the Waitangi National Trust. But this prominent political figure is the father of New Zealand wine and we, as wine lovers, should not forget him. So Waitangi Day is a day for wine lovers all over the world to drink a glass of New Zealand wine - a day to toast Busby's foresight in establishing viticulture and winemaking in New Zealand.

Read more about Busby from the Encyclopedia of New Zealand .

© Sue Courtney
6th February 2007.

Footnote: The vines Busby planted in 1833 failed to take and the vineyard was replanted in 1836.

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