As Shiraz is to our 1860 vines plantings, so Marsanne is to our 1927 vines; producing distinctive, single vineyard releases from vines that are amongst the oldest of that varietal in the world.
The fruit for the ‘1927 Vines’ releases is harvested early at high natural acid levels, with the resultant wine ‘water white’ and having almost no flavour.
Once bottled the magic then happens over time as it evolves into a wonderful, textural, mineral wine … it’s a classic ugly duckling to beautiful swan story.
The first overland route from Melbourne (Port Phillip) to Sydney (Port Jackson) from 1836 to 1843, passed through the land now known as Tahbilk (Melbourne itself was first settled in 1835).
In 1860 (ironically the same year that Phylloxera was first observed in France) Melbourne businessmen, including John Pinney Bear (whose family later took control of the Estate), formed a company to create a vineyard on the Goulburn River, with the grand aim of planting a million vines (an achievement yet to be realised with some 360,000 vines currently planted!). The site chosen was referred to by Aboriginals as "tabilk-tabilk" meaning "place of many waterholes".
Construction was commenced and completed on the original Winery building and underground Cellar in 1860 by Ludovic Marie, the first of a series of Swiss-French managers and winemakers at Tahbilk (the early European village feel of Tahbilk can be put down to his influence). The Winery & Cellar walls were constructed of mud-stone and hand made bricks - quarried from the riverbank and sun dried on the property, whilst the supporting beams and pillars were cut from red gum and iron-bark - cut and adzed by hand.
Marie planted 25 hectares of vines in the same year, which grew within 12 months to be 80 hectares with the first small vintage occurring in 1861.
The next major development came in 1875 with the construction of The "New Cellar", running at right angles to the 1860 Cellar. Excavated in just 12 weeks by James Purbrick (a third cousin to Reginald who was to purchase Tahbilk some 50 years later), 20,000 cubic yards of soil was removed by horse drawn carts (one of which is on display in the original cart-sheds opposite Cellar Door). The walls and arch of the New Cellar are 3 feet thick with the arch being self-supporting (using no keystone) and then covered with earth. The bricks are interlocked as only sand and lime were used to join them together with the whole cellar completed in time for the 1876 vintage.
The Swiss-French impact then continued with Francois Coueslant, considered in his day to be a most knowledgeable vigneron and progressive farm-manager, taking on the General Managers role from 1877 -1888. He was responsible for, amongst many innovations, the construction of the distinctive Tower (1882) that surmounts the original Winery building and features on current Tahbilk labels.
The Tower's first level played a functional role in winemaking until the 1940's. The second level was used as a storeroom for oats for the horses, with the third level described by Coueslant as "an observation room, from which you will be able to have an eye over all the vineyard, which fact may help the work a little". The upper level was purely aesthetic.
Coueslant is also believed to have added the "h" to Tahbilk in 1878 along with the word "Chateau" - this European moniker being dropped in 2000.
The appearance of Phylloxera in the vineyard in the late 1800's (a vine louse that attacks the roots of grape vines and which decimated the European vineyards & Victoria's burgeoning Wine industry of the day), coupled with the departure of Coueslant (1888) and the death of John Pinney Bear in 1889 (the Bear family having assumed ownership of Tahbilk in 1876), lead to a period of decline in the fortunes of Tahbilk.
In 1925 Reginald Purbrick, entrepreneur and later Member of the British House of Commons, purchased the property from the Bear family with the idea of rooting out all vines and subdividing it into dairy farms. Finally persuaded that the winery was viable he offered it to his son Eric, then a law and history student at Cambridge University, who took over management and winemaking responsibilities in 1931.
Eric was joined by his son John in 1955, and John's son Alister - a graduate of the Winemaking Course at Roseworthy College, took over the role as winemaker and Chief Executive in 1978 and continues to this day. Alister's daughter Hayley commenced at Tahbilk in 2010 taking on management of Cellar Door and Tahbilk's Wine Club to become the 5th generation of the Purbrick family to have a hands-on role in the life of the Winery & Estate.
The influence of the Purbrick family resurrected the fortunes of Tahbilk and its success today is a testament to the family tradition of pride, hard work and a love of good wine.
This ongoing legacy is no better exemplified than with the telling impact made by the first of the Purbrick's to manage the property - Eric Stevens Purbrick.
Eric Stevens Purbrick (MA 1903-1991) - "A formidable gentleman"
Born in Sydney in 1903, Eric Purbrick was educated at Melbourne Grammar. His father had sold his milk company very profitably to Nestle, and decided to retire to England with his family in 1921 with the idea of entering politics. (Reginald became a Member of the House of Commons in 1929 until 1945, possibly the only Australian ever to do so).
Eric studied law and history at Jesus College, Cambridge, played very stylish tennis and enjoyed a full social life, while cross-country skiing and travelling in Europe. He graduated in 1925, just before his father purchased a run down vineyard and pastoral property called Chateau Tahbilk in Australia, on the off chance that one of his sons might be interested in taking it on.
He and his father made a trip back to Australia to take possession on 22 October 1925, finding the vineyards, cellars and house in poor condition, and the manager inefficient. Even with a new farm manager and winemaker Reginald did not see great potential in the vineyard, visualizing the property divided into lucerne blocks.
Although Reginald only briefly visited his property twice, Eric lingered on in Melbourne for a few months, spending most of his weekends at Tahbilk. Back in England, he studied accountancy for two years, and despite being called to the Bar of the Inner Temple in London in 1929, he decided against practicing law. He looked about in England for a run-down business to resuscitate, but often found his mind returning to Tahbilk. That year, on a motoring holiday in the German Black Forest with his new wife Marjory he came across a sign hanging outside a 200year old weinhaus. He persuaded the local blacksmith to make him a replica, but with the name Chateau Tahbilk and his initials EP on it, to be a symbol of the fine, light table wine he dreamed of making. Fate had decreed that he was to become a winemaker in Australia.
Despite his excellent education, the 28 year old Eric knew next to nothing about winemaking, or the more profitable pastoral company which was also part of the Estate. However, he did have a fine palate, a love of wine, quick intelligence, great energy, and of course the new sign made in Germany for his cellar. He arrived in the midst of a worldwide depression and low demand to find that the name of "Tahbilk" stank in the nostrils of every reputable wine merchant. Tahbilk's once fine reputation was in tatters.
Rehabilitation of the mouldy cellars began, and phylloxera resistant replanting in the vineyard continued. Eric hawked accumulated wine from the back of his old ute around the district, whilst carefully retaining any vats of quality to mature before selling. Within three years the hard dirty work, research and good advice from others in the trade started to show results with a wine show prize or two.
In November 1934 the Goulburn flooded at 'bud burst', completely covering the vineyard, and almost flooding the cellar. As the vines took several years to recover their capacity, this unexpected event added to the financial burden under which Eric and Tahbilk were already labouring. That same year Reginald made him sole owner, and he immediately started to renovate the cellar and the antiquated winemaking processes.
In 1936 the old original 1856 homestead was pulled down. A new home designed by Roy Grounds was built on the footprint of the old and filled with Eric's collection of antiques and treasures.
Towards the end of the 30's Eric began marketing varietally labelled bottled wine, but this initiative stalled when WW2 broke out in 1939 and he enlisted as a private. Four years based in the Northern Territory with the NAOU (North Australia Observer Unit) on the Roper River in Arnham Land was followed by a year in Greece as Honourable Assistant Commissioner in the Australian Red Cross.
It was not until his permanent return to Tahbilk in 1946 that he began to seriously develop a program for bottled wine sales, with agents in each state, and a philosophy of quality. In 1951, with his new bride Phyllis on a visit to the UK, a felicitous meeting with Sydney FJ Fells, an importer of Australian wines, allowed Tahbilk to 'sidle' into the UK market, with two hogsheads of white wine per year!
In 1947 the historian in Eric was intrigued to locate a cache of wine hidden in the cellars in 1876, containing two bottles and newspapers of the day. The white was badly ullaged and oxidised, but the red though pale in colour, was sound and drinkable after 71 years.
Convinced that table wine should be marketed under a varietal name, rather than Hock or Burgundy (or even Kanga Rouge!), Eric finally commissioned a new label for his vineyard in 1952, incorporating his crest and varietal name, a pioneering concept. Export to New Zealand, Singapore, Hong Kong, Japan, Bahrain and Fiji, then the USA and Canada swiftly followed. Chateau Tahbilk wine was served to the Queen in London on her Coronation and later Australian visit.
Eric became more actively involved in the Australian wine industry as delegate and vice President to the Federal Wine and Brandy Producers Association (1948-1968), Deputy Member of The Australian Wine Board (1950-1964), foundation member and President of the Wine and Brandy Producers Association of Victoria (1955-1968), and President of the Viticultural Society of Victoria (1955-1958). He always said that he was indebted to his friends in the industry for their advice and encouragement when re-establishing Tahbilk's fortunes, and wished to repay them.
Eric's son John returned to Tahbilk to take over the farm management in 1955. George Comi, who had first started work at Tahbilk in 1936 at 14, had become manager of the vineyard and winemaker, and an invaluable companion.
In 1960 Tahbilk celebrated its Centenary with its once fine reputation more than regained. Prime Minister Robert Menzies officiated, and the Menzies and Eric, with his new wife Mary struck up a lifelong friendship. Eric made friends easily and widely. His hospitality was legendary, his sense of humour wicked, his charm undeniable.
In 1979 Eric was thrilled when his eldest grandson Alister decided to return to Tahbilk as its first fully qualified winemaker and manager. Full of new ideas, he recalls trying to convince his grandfather to modernize the red wines. As they shared a glass of his beloved cabernet sauvignon, Alister would be asked his opinion. As the wine was always beautiful, it was finally agreed that Tahbilk reds would continue to be made just as Eric had envisaged them as a young lawyer with wine in his veins- multi layered, fruit driven, well structured and sophisticated.
It seems appropriate that 70 years after Eric first started labelling his own wine a new label has been designed to honour his legacy. (See 'Eric Stevens Purbrick' Cabernet Sauvignon & Shiraz under ABOUT US - Flagship Wines)