Local Identities

Jean Marie Adrien Despeissis

Jean Marie Adrien Despeissis, was born in Mauritius in 1860, and spent some years in England and Europe, where he gained qualifications in horticulture and viticulture before migrating to NSW in 1890.[1] He was invited over to Western Australia in 1894, where he toured the various regions, giving invaluable advice on the best forms of agriculture for each sub-division. After visiting the Korijekup Estate on the Harvey River in 1896, he agreed with its promoter Bede Christie that the area was suitable for growing vines and all manner of sub-tropical fruits, due to its temperate climate and good loamy soil.

Despeissis was appointed as chief horticultural and viticultural expert in this State and became Under-Secretary for Agriculture in January, 1907. Subsequently he was appointed Director of Agriculture, but when the Commissioners for the Wheat Belt, South-West, fruit industry and tropical agriculture were appointed, the position of Director was abolished, and Mr. Despeissis was appointed Commissioner for the North-West. In 1912 he was retired from the Agricultural Department, and had just taken up an appointment as advisor on growing cattle fodder at the Wyndham Meat Works, when he passed away suddenly in 1927.[2]   

In the following interview conducted by the Daily News at the end of his initial visit in 1894, Adrien Despeissis forecasts the potential of WA’s fruit and wine export industry:







On Monday afternoon last, Mr. A. Despeissis, Viticultural Expert of New South Wales, concluded a six months’ engagement to the West Australian Bureau of Agriculture, and left for Sydney. His visit to this colony was brought about by a request from the Government of West Australia for the loan of his services for the time mentioned as a vine and fruit expert, the object being to enable him to travel over the agricultural districts of the colony, and ascertain their capacities for vine and fruitgrowing, and report to the Government, at the same time advising and instructing vine and fruit growers. That his visit will be productive of much good is undeniable. From his vast store of knowledge on viticultural subjects, Mr. Despeissis, during his travels, has imparted information of almost priceless worth to all growers with whom he came in contact.

A sketch of his professional career, as showing his competency to advise on and deal with those subjects, will not be out of place. After graduating at the University of London, Mr. Despeissis gave up the idea of studying medicine and joined the the Agricultural College at Cirencester, which is considered to be one of the best institutions of its kind in the world. He took the diploma of membership there, and eventually secured diplomas of the Institute Nationale Agronomique of France. Under the direction of M. Pasteur, he took a course of microscopic researches, especially in relation to the fermentation and the diseases of wine and beer, and the contagious diseases of cattle. With the idea of making viticulture and fruit growing a speciality, he, while in France, went through a practical course as regards the handling of the grapes and the subsequent rearing of the wine, in one of the leading cellars at Bordeaux. He also visited on various occasions the leading crus[3] of the best wine producing districts in France, including Bordeaux, Cognac, Montpellier, Burgundy and Champagne, as well as Tuscany and the Campania in Italy.

On his arrival in Australia four years ago, he was appointed on the staff of the recently created Department of Agriculture in New South Wales and has since had several appointments of visiting in connection with his official duties, the leading vineyards and orchards of Victoria and South Australia, as well as the sugar cane growing district of N.S. Wales and Queensland. The experience gained by him on a sugar plantation in Mauritius, where he was born, gained for him the trust of cane growers, who readily followed out the suggestions he made. Mr. Despeissis, has so far had an highly successful career in Australia as a viticulturist, his opinion being sought after by, as will be seen, the leading wine and fruit growers of the five colonies of this continent. Just before he departed for Albany, on Monday, to join the eastern bound steamer, one of our representatives sought out Mr. Despeissis at his office at the Bureau of Agriculture, and found him busily engaged in the task of drawing up the report of his visit to the colony. It was the renewal of a pleasurable acquaintance formed about two years ago in Adelaide, when it was the writer’s pleasure to interview him with an exactly similar object, that of obtaining his opinion of the viticultural prospects of the colony he was just leaving.

Mr. Despeissis courteously granted half an hour of his valuable time and imparted the important information which follows:—

‘What has been the extent of your travels in this colony?’ was asked.

‘From the Murchison district to Albany, comprising the South- Western portion of the colony’ was the reply. ‘It was of very little use going further inland because the seasons are so very uncertain further east, and consequently the cultivation is limited. I stopped at every place worth looking at.’

‘Your attentions were pretty well divided then?’ 

‘Yes, and in order to facilitate my observations and to classify my report, I have split up the portion of the colony I visited into sub-divisions and have named them respectively, the North Coast, Central Coast, Eastern and Blackwood and adjoining districts, each of which should be regarded as a separate district in which distinct varieties of fruit should be grown.’

‘And what is the result of your observations?’ 

‘For the purposes of vine and fruit growing I have found that in the districts named the settlers grow fruit trees and vines very little adapted to the climatic conditions of the localities, and that fact has induced me to suggest the sub-division of the colony into districts, in which only certain kinds of fruit should be grown. In the North coastal district, oranges and all sorts of semi-tropical fruits could be produced more successfully than the fruits of more temperate countries, such as apples and pears. In the South-Western portion, on the other hand, fruit, such as plums, prunes, berries, and apples, indigenous to a cool climate could be grown to a great state of perfection. In the Central coastal division extending from Gingin to the Harvey and the Murray Rivers there are some very fertile spots where numerous springs occur and a greater variety of fruit could be grown there. Growers should select proper varieties of fruit according to the distance they are from their markets. There are some kinds of fruits which being more luscious and delicate than others, can be very profitably grown alongside the railway station, and the risk of carting would thus be avoided. Where carrying for a distance of 20 or 30 miles is to be considered, a better class of fruit should be grown so as to minimise the loss caused by carting.

As regards vine growing, growers should select varieties of the grapes they intend to cultivate according to the class of wine they wish to produce. In the Eastern division, for instance, embracing the country extending from the Victoria Plains to Broome Hill, and including Newcastle, Northam and York, a very fine tonic of a Burgundy type is the wine that should grow well; and again in the Blackwood and adjoining districts a lighter wine, more of the claret sort, would be the best adapted for the local conditions.’

‘And your opinion of the climate?’

‘For fruit growing it seems to be admirably adapted, as no artificial drying is necessary as is the case in many countries. The consequence is that the cost of production can be kept down. Besides you can never dry fruit to the same perfection by artificial as by natural means. The soil speaking generally, is patchy here, and is better adapted for vine and fruit growing than for farms. I have gone very extensively into this question in my report.’ 

‘What is your opinion of West Australia’s prospects as a wine and fruit growing colony?’ 

‘They cannot be better. The people have the greater advantage of starting late and will profit by the experience of growers in other parts of Australia, and should be better able to avoid some fatal mistakes which have crippled wine and fruit growing, to a great extent, in the other colonies.’

‘Have you any further suggestions to make?’

‘Yes, I might say that the future of the wine industry here rests entirely in the hands of the growers. If they make up their minds to establish central wineries, a great impetus will be given to vine growing and the colony in 10 years’ time will be in a position to begin exporting. If on the other hand, each individual grower attempts to make his own wine and retail it to the public, the prospects of the wine industry will diminish and will be put back for many years. That is to say if growers make their own wine they will simply prevent the expansion of the industry because they will not be able to supply the class of wine that is in demand. I think the agricultural arena which I have suggested will be productive of a great deal of good to the colony, because they will classify the varieties of fruit that should be grown in the respective divisions, and in connection with these areas central factories should be established.’

‘What did you think of the wine exhibited at the show?’ 

‘There will be very great improvement, I am told, in the number of the wines shown this year. My opinion is that the young wines, although they were not yet fit for consumption, showed better quality than the older wines. The reason for that is that they have not received such rough treatment in the cellar as some of the older wines, and have not been tainted by foul casks and deficient racking. I saw sufficient to convince me that first-class wine can be made here if it is properly handled and reared in the cellar.’

‘And as to the market for our fruit and wine?’ 

‘Oh you will get that all right, if you go the right way about it. Of course, hitherto, all agriculture has been followed up to supply local requirements, but I see nothing to prevent this colony from establishing an export trade in time.’

‘Yes I have enjoyed my stay immensely,’ added Mr. Despeissis, ‘it has been both a business and a pleasure trip. People have overwhelmed me with kindness and attention and I look forward to re-visiting this colony some time.’

The interview ended, and Mr. Despeissis resumed the completion of his report. It will contain five parts, two of which have been finished. The remaining three will be written and sent from the other side shortly.[4]

[1] Adrien, often in print as Adrian.

[2] West Australian, 7 May 1927.

[3] Cru is a French wine term, meaning ‘a vineyard or group of vineyards, especially one of recognized quality.’ (Wikipedia)

[4] Daily News, 17 November 1894.