The Swan Valley has historically been a source of sustenance. The Swan Valley was a bountiful location for the aboriginal tribes of the coastal plain prior to the British colonisation. The British expedition of 1827 recognised the Swan Valley as having superior soils and a general abundance of freshwater, with the advantage of an open state with less “than 10 trees to an acre” allowing immediate culture, and water carriage to the settler’s door. The expedition’s leader Captain Stirling described the scenery… as beautiful as anything of the kind.
The Swan River Settlement was established in 1829. Before settlement, the Swan Valley was well stocked with wildfowl, kangaroos and other marsupials. There were yams and other native crops. Early settlers grew crops of wheat and corn, oats and barley and potatoes and raised cattle, sheep and pigs. They planted fruit trees and vines and vegetables. They produced their own food and traded their excess. They too hunted and fished to supplement their supplies. However the spread of agriculture and domestic animals scared away much of the wildlife, and the river flats where the aborigines collected traditional foods were changed by cultivation.
The colony quickly outgrew the Swan Valley, and land over the scarp in the Avon Valley was opened up for pasture. Never the less the narrow band of rich alluvial soils along the river flats continued to produce healthy crops. The land grants in the Swan Valley were in the order of several thousand acres and these had been taken up by well to do gentlemen farmers. The difficulties suffered by the colonists over their first thirty years slowly lead to the breaking up of some of the large estates with smaller properties being purchased or leased by working-class men. Many of the wealthier landowners took up larger properties further inland that were better suited to pasture and grazing. The working-class farmers relied on mixed farming and proved to be quite productive. Small vineyards had been planted as early as 1830, and by the 1860s substantial vineyards had been developed and the suitability of the valley for viticulture was well established.
As the opportunities created in the goldfields by the gold rushes in the 1880s and 1890s subsided, the population of Perth grew dramatically prior to the first world war. There was further subdivision of large properties to create many small farms of between 10 and 40 acres right through into the 1920s. After the war, many ex-servicemen settled on the new subdivisions in the Swan Valley. Many southern European immigrants gravitated to regions such as the Swan Valley with its opportunity to develop small family farms with which they were experienced and could escape the life of the casual labourer.
Vineyards were extensively planted – primarily sultanas, muscats, and currents for drying. Fresh table grapes and grapes for wine and distillation were also produced. Large areas of remnant virgin bush were cleared and tracks and roads were formed to provide access to the small farms throughout the twenties and thirties.
Many growers struggled through the depression, relying on sharing equipment with neighbours and helping each other with harvest. Peaches, oranges, mandarins and melons supplanted the income from grapes. Everyone – men, women and children – were required to work on the farm to ensure the countless tasks were achieved and the family got by. Markets for grapes and other fruit, often packed and distributed by co-operatives, fluctuated, but gradually the small farmers flourished. By the fifties grape growing dominated and there were over 6000 acres of vines spread right across the valley. There were several large commercial wineries in the valley, led by Houghton and Valencia. A few small family wineries, generally catering for the local Croatian and Italian communities also flourished.
From the seventies, the grape industries suffered from increasing competition. New technology allowed Asian buyers of fresh grapes to source their fruit from further afield. And cheaper European dried fruits started to infiltrate our markets, whilst the British market dried up. The development of the wine industry in the south west attracted attention away from the wines of the Swan Valley, although a few boutique wineries such as Jane Brook were founded and some older style winemakers such as John Kosovich adapted to meet consumers’ changing tastes.
Oversupply of grapes in the 1980s and again in the 2000s has slugged the wine grape farmers. And the ageing farmers’ children, having enjoyed a full education were seeking more comfortable secure jobs in the region or well-paid careers in the city. Many farmers slowly reduced production to manageable levels, or they retired and sold off their farms to be converted to lifestyle or equestrian properties.
As lifestyles have changed the Swan Valley has become a significant attraction to the people of Perth and their visitors. The Swan Valley is characterised by its small farms and vineyards and offers an attractive rural experience on the edge of the suburbs. It boasts a strong cultural heritage linking Perth to its colonial origins, as well as the natural resources of the Swan River and the forested foothills of the Darling Scarp. Protection from further subdivision has created a small but dynamic wine industry made up of some new and some multigenerational family wineries. These wineries, embracing modern winemaking and styles are now enhancing the valley’s appeal and again demonstrating the valley’s ability to generate outstanding produce.
There is something special about the Swan Valley. It’s not the ravishing beauty of the south west. It’s hotter and drier and windier than the coastal strip. It’s not as bountiful as the equally hot inland irrigated regions of the Murray Darling Basin. The Swan Valley is a pocket handkerchief sized wine region of barely 300 hectares – the smallest in Australia. There isn’t a village let alone a town in the Swan Valley. The Swan River Settlement was the poor colony that almost floundered in its early days and has known struggle ever since.
The Swan Valley isn’t fashionable, it’s an underdog. The soils are mainly tough ironstone gravel or swathes of sand – on each side of the rich river flats. The hot easterlies off the plateau blast it every night in summer and autumn. It’s on the wrong side of town, it’s weather-beaten, the river dries up in summer. The council wants to subdivide all around and it is choked with the trucks of the resource boom funnelling through it to the north.
The grapes of the Swan Valley – for wine or for table – have always been special. The wines are the most readily drinkable in the state – rich and warm and flavoursome and smooth. The Swan is a great community, full of pioneers and ghosts of pioneers. It’s a great home. The river which flows out of the Darling Scarp, created by the waugal as it travelled down from the hills to the ocean, has brought abundance to the valley, with its history of struggle and provision and triumph.