The Beginning - History of McLaren Vale - Part 1

Picking Grapes at Reynella in 1896 (c) SA Library

Reynella. They named a town after him He must have been pretty important in his day.

The story of Reynella is well known, as it should be, it is the first story in what compiled becomes the history 'McLaren Vale wine'. Of course at the start it was nothing so grand. There was no marketing, no parades and no wine shows, just one man, his wife and a section of land in the Hurtle Vale.

Even early in our wine history if you were into viticulture in South Australia you owed a debt to John Reynell. He was the first settler to fence his property, on of the first settlers to plant a vineyard and the first to dig a wine cellar. Most notably, in 1850, he took on a young man named Thomas Hardy to help him to tend to the vineyards. By the 1860's he had twenty odd vintages under his belt.

Reynell as a young man.
Fellow McLaren Vale wine pioneers Dr Alex C. Kelly and George Manning got their inspiration from John Reynell. The three regularly traded grape cuttings, wine and ideas.

Sir James Hardy, the great grandfather of Thomas Hardy, reflected in 1984, on the day that Thomas walked down John Reynell's driveway and asked for a job. He wondered what they would have thought about the wonders of 1980's wine technology.

Sir James said,"I wonder what they would have thought about what we are doing today..."

I would answer, they would have been amazed by our technology, but we should be equally amazed that they made grape growing work without it, in a hostile land, without anything more complicated than a horse, cart and hand tools. These were flesh and blood people. Creative, bold and daring.

I think John would be amazed we remember him.

A pruning demonstration in Reynella in 1923 (c) SA Library.

The first vintage John Reynell produced was in 1842, in a time before yeast was discovered and he built the Old Cave cellar in 1845. This was his low tech version of temperature control.

The cellar survives in part of the grounds of Constellations Wines Australia Head Office.

John Reynell was born in Bristol, England, on February 9, 1809. After his father’s death when he was only 14, Reynell left England and worked in Egypt, America, Europe and Russia. He worked to better himself.

At age 29 he emigrated to South Australia, arriving in 1838. He had a shipboard romance and married fellow-passenger, Mary Lucas, in 1839.

Reynell's tough working life had given him a strong sense of resourcefulness. He was a capable, strong minded man, and with the support of his wife, he was an ideal pioneer.

John Reynell's own letters claim he was the first settler to enclose his entire 80-acre (32 ha) section of settlement land. A little later he had to cut his fences to allow for the alignment of a proposed road for the passage of a regular mail run to Encounter Bay which was established by the end of 1839.

The path that the mail route took became the 'Great South Road,' now Main South Road.

In 1841, Reynell began the planting of his vineyard with cuttings he had planted the year earlier at a temporary site on the banks of the Field River, now part of the suburb of Hallett Cove.

His first vineyard was called Stony Hill and he would have planted his vines as one year old rootlings. The next year he continued planting his farm establishing vineyards on his home farm which is now the winery site across the road.

By 1854 there was a demand for land for housing in the area and in February of that year, John Reynell drew up a Notice of Sale for a portion of his Reynella Farm for the establishment of the township of Reynella.

Reynell subdivided his farm and they named the town after his wine label.

By 1866 the town had a steam flour mill, hotel, post office, general store, school and chapel. However by the end of the Nineteenth Century as many farmers had moved to the Northern agricultural lands, Reynella was said to be "a village of the past, as several ruined houses along the road remain to testify.”

John Reynell died in 1873 and is buried at Christ Church, O’Halloran Hill. His sons, Walter and Carew Reynell, took over the wine production.

In the 1950s and 60s the town of Reynella became engulfed in urban expansion and has become largely a residential area. In a twist of fate, the company former Reynell employee Thomas Hardy created, Thomas Hardy and Sons, ended up purchasing the Reynella Winery in 1982.

Stony Hill Vineyard pictured in 2009 before it was subdivided into housing.
Ironically, today there a much debate today about plans to subdivide Reynell's original Stony Hill Vineyard, together with Reynella home block they have lasted into the modern age. The buildings are heritage listed, but Stony Hill has become separated.

The value of buildings can be measured, however old farming land less so. What value does the efforts of the Reynell's have? What value is the site where Thomas Hardy sweated in the summer sun, while John Reynell taught him how to weed using a horse drawn plough? On pure economics very little.

As a vineyard those original vines Reynell planted have long since gone. The Stony Hill vineyard has replacable stock, the oldest current vines date back to 1968. The vineyard no longer has significant value as a farm. Yet it remains as a link to a pioneer who we all owe so much. At the very least it is a living link to a man to took pride in his resourcefulness.

In today's wine world the name Reynella survives as the Chateau Reynella wine range and other similarly named products from Constellation Wines Australia.

More obtusely Geoff Merrill Wines also remembers those pioneering days as his Mt Hurtle Winery. Mt Hurtle was purchased by Mostyn Owen in 1897 and named after the original name for the wider Reynella area - Hurtle Vale. Geoff Merrill was the winemaker for Chateau Reynella during the 1980's and is a living link between the pioneering winemakers and the present age.


Burden, Rosemary – Wines & Wineries of the Southern Vales (Adelaide 1976)
Reynell, Lenore & Margaret Hopton – John Reynell of Reynella: A South Australian Pioneer (Adelaide 1988)
Hardy, Sir James - Age Newspaper, Oct 23 (Melbourne 1984)
White, Philip - (2009)


This is brilliant James. Well done!
Grant said…
Hi James,

A report prepared for Devine by Peter Bell in the Australian,25197,25730592-5006787,00.html

unequivocally concludes that the vineyard "is of no heritage significance" and that much of the lore around it originated in wine marketing campaigns.

"In past decades, both Chateau Reynella and Thomas Hardy & Sons for their own reasons exaggerated John Reynell's role in establishing the wine industry,"

That report should make for interesting reading if it ever sees the light of day

Grant (aka phoenix)
deoriginalone said…
A most informative post James, well done!

The claim that this site is of 'no heritage significance' is absolutely incredulous.

How can anyone be so blind? If a shack in Williamstown can't be removed by its landowner, how can this devastation be allowed to proceed?
Grant said…
Hi James, Following my earlier posting about the Bell Report seeing the light of day, it now appears in an Onkaparinga Council report here;

Your excellent work above is referenced, but Bell's research completely dismisses your work and the work of others. Hopefully Bell's report can be critically assessed
James Hook said…
On whether John Reynell was the first to plant vines and have a commercial vineyard.

Unfortunately I am not a qualified historian and can only rely on what I can find from online records and some commonsense in understanding grapevines.

My understanding form online records is John Reynell first planted vines in 1839, then his first vintage was produced in 1842 and he built the Old Cave cellar in 1845. From a viticultural point of view this seems a logical progression. Planting in Spring 1839 - a small harvest in March/April 1842 - larger yields as the vines get older in the next two year - where do you put the wine? Answer is build a cellar.

Some stray cats must have got started pretty early on to have started before John R in South Australia. Considering it takes 3 years to get a crop from grapevines to have started before John Reynell you would have to have planted extremely early in the history of the colony.

Settlers arrive in December 1836 - in my viticultural experience this would have been unsuitable to plant a vineyard (too dry and late in summer). The next spring (1837) it could have been possible to plant a vineyard - assuming someone did this by March 1840 they could have produced their first vintage.

I would love to know who planted in 1837 or 1838. Prehaps they are lost to history...
James Hook said…
have just read the Reynell report by Dr Bell. Great to be cited as part of an 'emotive campaign.' I will add that to my CV.

Yes, I agree with the Devine report that there has been a lot of mistaken reporting on this. They are not old vines, the current vines are not the source of Reynell clone and no one is sure if that was the land first planted to vines. No one knows if the Stony Hill site was the first vineyard site for Reynell, however it has been the 'modern' wine industries understanding is that is was. A culture has built up believing that.

People like myself have been brought up to believe in John Reynell, with Thomas Hardy and George 'Pitchers' Manning and many others. All of these men (and their families) achieved a type of fame that has lasted to this day. They left businesses behind and generations to venerate them.

As I said above I am not a historian, just read sources which I could get online. Some of these sources are from his family and of course could be biased.

I don't claim he was the first person to plant vines, just that he was a pioneer and should be remembered as one. I will review my own writing on this and edit including Dr Bell's information into to make it more rigorous.

The good news is the names of the first grapegrowers are recorded possibly John Barton Hack, or George Stevenson in North Adelaide. However the key difference between Reynell being these gentlemen did not spawn winery businesses that lasted generations and were not involved with other pioneers like Thomas Hardy who is hopefully still considered a significant part of the history of South Australia.
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Natalie said…
Abraham Hopkins Davis planted vines at Moore Farm in the Reedbeds (Lockleys) in 1839 and 1840. Read all about it in Reckon he was the first one to plant vines in SA but little is known about him - he collected vine cuttings from the Busby Collection in Sydney and planted them in the Adelaide Botanic Gardens.
Grant said…
Thought you might be interested to hear that Cabernet Sauvignon has returned to Stony Hill vineyard in the form of two roads, Cabernet Way and Sauvignon Close, the new names of the internal roads in Devine's latest offering to intensive urban infill.

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