THE Hunter Valley has lost 35 per cent of its wine grape plantings between 2008 and 2012 - the third biggest decline among 26 Australian winegrowing areas that account for 95 per cent of the national vineyard.
The figures come from research by Laurie Stanford, the executive director of Wine Growers Australia (WGGA), who found that only 3 per cent of the lost Hunter plantings were replaced - the worst performance in Australia.
The loss has occurred almost exclusively in the Upper Hunter Valley and industry leaders attribute it to the advance of coal mining, the disappearance of heavyweight producers like Rosemount and Arrowfield and uneconomic grape prices flowing from the global grape glut.
Mr Stanford said the Hunter Valley had 4093 hectares of vines in 2008 and this had fallen by 1451 hectares to 2642 hectares in 2012.
The Hunter suffered the sixth biggest percentage loss of vines, after Currency Creek, with more than 50 per cent, and the Swan district, Murray Darling-Swan Hill, Cowra and Mudgee.
By contrast, plantings increased in South Australia's Eden Valley, Wrattonbully, and McLaren Vale areas, NSW's Orange and Riverina regions, and in Victoria's Heathcote and Western Australia's Geographe districts. Eden Valley plantings increased by almost 30 per cent.
Brett Keeping, the general manager of the Two Rivers-Inglewood wine operation at Denman, said most of the loss of vineyards documented by WGGA could be attributed to the Upper Hunter.
It's a not-unfamiliar scenario in the Upper Hunter.
An earlier Rosemount wine venture operated between 1860 and 1920 under the ownership of German migrant Carl Brecht and his family.
Brecht was brought to Australia from his native Germany in 1855 to work for leading Hunter pastoralist William Dangar. Some accounts say he was employed as a shepherd, others that he was recruited by Dangar to work as a grape vine-dresser. Whatever the truth, having repaid his employer his 15 pounds migration passage money, Carl Brecht began buying land in the Denman area and farming on his own account.
He called the property Rosemount and began growing grapes and making wine, which won medals in international competitions.
Carl died in 1888 and his wife, Charlotte, in 1897, but the family winemaking activities were continued on by their children, among them a son who became mayor of Muswellbrook.
By the 1920s, however, the demand for table wines had all but disappeared and the Rosemount vines were uprooted.
The land was taken over for dairy farming and it continued thus until Bob Oatley, who had made a fortune in coffee and cocoa growing in New Guinea and sold the business to the PNG government in 1975, bought the property 1969 and established a new Rosemount.
Rosemount grew into a powerful enterprise boasting booming export sales, its own fleet of corporate aircraft and winegrowing interests far beyond the Upper Hunter at Coonawarra, McLaren Vale, Langhorne Creek, the Adelaide Hills, Mudgee, Orange and Yarra Valley.
Things soured, however, in 2001 after the Oatley family took Rosemount into a $1.49 billion merger with Southcorp Wines, which subsequently was acquired by beer giant Foster's Group for $3.2 billion in 2005.
In 2009 Foster's put the Rosemount Denman winery and the Rosemount Yawarra, Giant's Creek, White's Creek, Edinglasse and Roxburgh vineyards up for sale and shifted the main focus of the Rosemount brand to South Australia. It shut the winery and sold off its equipment in 2010 and sold the empty shell and 260 hectares of surrounding land.
Brett Keeping says the Foster's shutdown of Rosemount was a major contributor to the dramatic decline in Upper Hunter vineyard area. Vines had gone from Yawarra, Edinglasse, White's Creek and Giant's Creek was still up for sale, he said.
The 369-hectare Roxburgh property and its acclaimed 173-hectare vineyard, but not the Roxburgh brand name, were sold by Foster's to BHP Billiton in October 2009. The big miner bought the land to serve as part of a buffer zone between the existing Mount Arthur North coal mine and Denman Road.
Under BHP ownership, some poorer vineyard blocks were pulled out, but there have been new plantings of vermentino and the best of the old chardonnay plantings that produced the famed Roxburgh Hunter chardonnays have been retrellised and upgraded.
The surviving 36 hectares of vines on Roxburgh, now renamed Ogilvie's View, have now been contracted out by BHP to the Pokolbin-based Scarborough family wine company.
Ian Scarborough said he had been buying the grapes from BHP for several vintages. Although there was no shortage of quality grapes available for purchase, he had made the deal with BHP because he believed the Hunter could not afford to lose such a prestige vineyard.
Although savage Australia-wide rationalisation by Foster's triggered the loss of the once-dominant Rosemount operation to the Upper Hunter, mining was solely to blame for the disappearance of the Cruikshank Callatoota vineyard and winery at Wybong.
The Cruikshank property and its 28-year-old vines were compulsorily acquired by the Xstrata Mangoola mine and plans to re-establish Callatoota Estate on a new site at Denman were foiled by another mining project.
The decline of Arrowfield, which boasted a Jerrys Plains vineyard that was the largest in production in Australia in 1977, can be sheeted home to wine industry economics.
The venture began in 1969 when Sydney-based Pacific Islands trader W R Carpenter and Co Ltd bought a large tract of Hunter River frontage land and used 650 hectares for a charolais cattle stud and established a massive vineyard and winery covering another 480 hectares.
By 1983 Carpenter was in deep trouble and it was taken over by Ric Stowe's Western Australian Griffin Holdings Ltd group, which in 1986 sold Arrowfield to John Messara's Australian Racing and Breeding Stable Ltd.
The Messara group set up what is now the Coolmoore thoroughbred stud on part of the property and opted out of the wine side of the property in 1989 by selling to a group headed by Nick Whitlam and wine merchant Andrew Simon.
In 1990 the Whitlam-Simon group sold the Arrowfield wine business for $7.4 million to the Inagaki family of Toyama, which runs one of Japan's foremost Coca-Cola bottling and 127-year-old sake brewing groups.
The removal of Arrowfield vines continued under the Inagaki ownership and when Inagaki appointed the Inwine Australia Group to manage the operation.
At the end of 2010, Inwine shut down Arrowfield and put the property up for sale.
In late 2011 Karen and Gary Williams, who had previously purchased the Wybong Estate vineyard, in Yarraman Rd, Wybong, and the Hollydene vineyard, on the Golden Highway at Hollydeen village, 10 kilometres west of Denman, bought the Arrowfield property and decommissioned winery, but not the Arrowfield brand, from Inagaki.
Hollydene's vineyard once covered 48 hectares and is now a mere four hectares. Wybong Estate, which once produced Jon and Jane Reynolds's prestigious Yarraman Estate wines, has 16 hectares of vines and Arrowfield's 480 hectares of vines have shrunk to 16 hectares.
The pain of last year's loss of 97 hectares of vines on Tyrrell's Upper Hunter Glenbawn Estate was assuaged by the 218-hectare property's purchase by the neighbouring Segenhoe thoroughbred stud.
The 2012 vintage marked the final wine grape harvest from the site, which began life in 1970 as Chateau Douglas.
There's further anxiety in the Upper Hunter about the future of the 86-hectare James Estate vineyard in Bylong Valley Way, Baerami. Last August receivers were appointed to examine the financial health of the printing and wine operations of the business empire of James Estate owner David James.