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NSW’s Hunter Valley region is regarded as the birthplace of Australia’s wine industry, its grapevines dating to cuttings brought to Sydney in the early 19th century.
For five years, award-winning winemaker Andrew Margan has been pursuing state heritage recognition for the agricultural and cultural landscape centred on Pokolbin and Broke to protect it from mining exploration and residential development, only to find himself caught in a heritage catch-22.
Andrew Margan and the Hunter Valley vineyards under threat from mining and residential development.Credit: Nick Moir
“We are stuck. What we have here in the Hunter Valley deserves protection for the future of NSW and Australian wine industries,” Margan says. “It’s a very valuable resource, unique in the world of wine, and the state should be actively trying to help protect it. But under the current act that’s impossible.”
A NSW Audit Office report this month found information gaps and systemic failures had limited the visibility and effectiveness of the departmental body charged with managing and protecting heritage assets.
Cases like Margan’s have since revealed shortcomings in the heritage protection system.
“The Heritage Act of 1977 provides for state listing of individual properties owned by a single entity but never envisaged that a landscape covered by 600 landholders could be significant,” Margan says.
“We did a study that proved Hunter Valley’s heritage value on eight of the nine criteria using a Heritage NSW grant but to progress to the next stage of nomination we need a landscape management plan and community consultation. The department won’t fund those unless it is nominated, and you can’t nominate without them.
“I am working on behalf of the whole vineyard area and that concept isn’t expressly allowed for in the current act. Meanwhile, there are 14 UNESCO-listed vineyard sites around the world and none in Australia despite us having some of the oldest existing rootstocks in the world.”
An Upper House inquiry in 2021 recommended the act be modernised to accommodate a more “varied, inclusive and nuanced concept of what constitutes the state’s heritage” to “reflect intangible cultural heritage and cultural landscapes”.
Heritage Minister Penny Sharpe is promising to incorporate those recommendations into a comprehensive heritage strategy to be announced later this year.
The township of Braidwood, Millers Point/Dawes Point and the Appin Massacre site have been listed, but several other nominations of landscapes and precincts have been put on the backburner including the Federation suburb of Haberfield, which lost houses to a motorway.
Winemaker Andrew Margan is seeking heritage listing of a cultural landscape.Credit: Nick Moir
The committee responsible for assessing state heritage listings says Haberfield’s listing would take many years to bring together. The listing of large cultural landscapes including conservation areas was complex due to the large numbers of landowners that need to be consulted, and the varied land uses and heritage values that have to be considered.
The National Trust’s conservation director, David Burdon, says the cultural landscapes of the Hunter and Mulgoa valleys and the Hawkesbury could be recognised like England’s Lakes District and Yorkshire Dales are, as officially designated Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty.
“These places in the UK are still farmed, lived in and providing employment and yet, they have some measure of protection to conserve what makes them special,” he said.
The state’s heritage register was mainly representative of 18th and 19th-century housing and buildings and needed broadening. “Now people are realising you need to look at landscapes holistically,” Burdon said. “It’s all well and good to list an individual house in the Hunter Valley but if we allow the land around it to be dug out for a coal mine or slated for residential development then the context and reasons for listing become less clear.”
Margan says the pathway to recognition for the Hunter Valley Heritage vineyards was via a signed agreement of all 600 landholders, a unity of purpose impossible to achieve even with the greatest goodwill.
State heritage listing of single vineyard lots would render the region a “Swiss cheese” of protections, still vulnerable to development. The viticultural areas of Pokolbin and Broke Fordwich had been proven to be of heritage value and need to be protected in their entirety.
If approved the Hunter Valley Heritage Vineyards would be the first agricultural landscape to be considered for the State Heritage List, setting a precedent, Margan says.
A report from the Hunter Valley Wine and Tourism Association found the winegrowing region contained an outstanding collection of NSW’s oldest vineyards still growing on their original European rootstocks and containing rare and unique genetic material.
“We’ve got DAs in at council to pull out 100-year-old vines and there is nothing to stop that,” Margan says. “We have had constant land-use conflicts over god knows how many years, and it’s getting worse as land becomes more valuable.
“It is apparent we need the extra layer of protection that the state heritage listing provides through the Biodiversity Conservation Act to ensure these valuable resources and this beautiful countryside are protected for future generations.”
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