For Dr Julie McIntyre, wine represents history in a glass. "It's a way of being able to travel in time....

The Hunter Valley: driving our taste for wine

For Dr Julie McIntyre, wine represents history in a glass. "It's a way of being able to travel in time. Each glass of wine is a fascinating and very complex encapsulation of the climate, land and work of people at particular points in time," said McIntyre.

Julie McIntyre, Jay Tulloch, Brian McGuigan
From left: wine producers Jay Tulloch and Brian McGuigan with Dr Julie McIntyre in Pokolbin

Australian wine has driven the contemporary wave of wine globalisation that began in the 1990s. As an Australian historian focusing on wine, McIntyre is interested in documenting how this particular drink has become a crucial part of Australian culture in the last 50 years and in international wine markets over the last two decades.

More than other forms of alcohol, there is a sense of a meaning and identity around drinking wine, and that has been influenced over the generations by the wine producers themselves. Today, the making, selling and drinking of other alcoholic drinks, tea, coffee and many foods is closely linked to place of origin and production communities. Therefore, much can be gained from close attention to Australia's oldest wine region, the Hunter Valley.

A key reason for the Hunter region's resilience as a wine region is its long history of family farming, including wine growing.

"This focus is important in an age of greater global focus on the consequences and security of food and drink production coupled with consumer awareness driven by questions of food and drink provenance and taste," said McIntyre.

McIntyre's fascinating research forms part of Vines, Wine and Identity, an Australian Research Council (ARC) Linkage Project that includes sociologist Professor John Germov; historian Dr David Dunstan (Monash University); and two partner investigators: Brian McGuigan from Hunter Valley Wine and Tourism Association and Julie Baird from Newcastle Museum. The project aims to study the Hunter Valley's history and heritage and understand how Hunter Valley producers have driven changes in taste and drinking habits in Australia and internationally.

Newcastle is the only Australian university undertaking interdisciplinary wine studies research in humanities and social science, with collaboration between researchers from history, social science, business and tourism. While, internationally, wine researchers focus on trade and consumption, Newcastle's attention is on the under-researched historical and sociological areas of production and its relationship with trade and consumption. 

As an historian, McIntyre's sources for her contribution to Vines, Wine and Identity include archival material held in local, state and national archives and libraries, private correspondence between industry producers in the colonial period, official statistics, royal commissions on alcohol consumption, and oral histories from the wine producers of the Hunter Valley.

The starting point for the ARC project is to paint a picture of the rich history of the Hunter, so McIntyre has begun touring the valley with leading wine producers Brian McGuigan and Jay Tulloch, using a GPS to map the areas where vineyards historically grew. She will go on to match these sites with stories from oral history interviews and archival material.  

In addition to the standard scholarly journal articles, the project will also generate material aimed at a broader audience, including a book and an exhibition at Newcastle Museum in 2017. It will also add value to Australia's $5.5 billion wine industry.

"A key reason for the Hunter region's resilience as a wine region is its long history of family farming, including wine growing," said McIntyre. "As shown in the declaration of 2014 as United Nations International Year of Family Farming, there is increasing emphasis on the connection between family enterprises and the future of global farming. And, because family farms need markets, our project asks why consumers drink wine from certain places, particularly vineyards with long histories of family production."