We British have been in love with the bold, upfront flavours of the wines of Australia for many years.
The flavours in Australian wines were a revelation to many: buttery, full, new oaked-chardonnay with no hint of austerity; rich, blackcurranty reds, brimming with fruit and with no sign of mouth-puckering tannins.
For many years this was our perception of Australian wine: that it was cheap, reliable and deliciously easy to drink, though hardly the classy stuff of the old world.Of course there was a lot more to it than that. The adventurous spirit of Australian winemakers has led to new winemaking techniques and philosophies which have spread Australian influence across the globe. Though accounting for only around 2% of world wine production, Australia managed the unthinkable in 2001, for the first time toppling France from the top of the tree in terms of UK wine import value. Today, Australian wine has changed in line with popular demand for less oaky, less ripe, less alcoholic wines, but their popularity in the UK remains un-dimmed.
Some of the principle regions and sub-regions:
Geography and climate
Northern Australia is a tropical paradise, much favoured by adventurers, but hardly suitable for growing wine vines. Quality production is restricted to the cooler temperate regions of the southeast, the far southwest and Tasmania (all shaded in the map above). Australia’s rainfall is the lowest of all five continents (excluding Antarctica). This, combined with high evaporation leads to low surface water flows and only seasonal river systems. Very few Australian vineyards are not irrigated. Australia is a land of mostly low plateau with deserts, and fertile plains only in southeast. Australia does have areas designated as “cool-climate”, like the Yarra Valley or Adelaide Hills, but that term is comparative.
Heat and arid conditions have forced the Australian winemakers to be inventive. Dams and irrigation systems are intrinsic to the vast majority of vineyards (some joke that Australian winemakers farm water, not grapes). For the bulk of wines refrigeration and stainless-steel tanks are used to control temperature throughout the fermentation process
The Australian wine industry relies heavily on technology throughout the winemaking process. They experiment with special yeasts for fermentation and they employ reductive techniques that avoid oxidisation of the grapes.
There is something of a backlash in Australia at the moment, with many smaller producers aiming for an element of “dirty” vinification: allowing some oxidisation and less obsessive control of the wine-making process in an effort to capture extra complexity in their wines.
It is hard to think of any grape variety which does not flourish somewhere in Australia. Best known for Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz, other grapes are also widely planted, like Riesling and Semillon, Grenache, Pinot Noir and Merlot. Recently there have been more plantings of Italian varieties like Sangiovese, Nebbiolo and Barbera. Brown Brothers in Victoria for example, has over 45 different vine varieties planted. Compare that with a grower in Burgundy (typically one or two varieties) or Bordeaux (no more than five or six).
The wines of Australia
Australia, despite massive planting programmes, is struggling to keep up with the demand for its wines. Prices in export markets have crept up substantially since the late 1990’s, and Australian wines begin in the lower-middle level of pricing rather than being the cheap and cheerful stuff of a decade ago. Australian producers have tended to pay little attention to the notion of terroir in the past, simply buying the best quality fruit from wherever they could find it. Now, top Australian producers are putting a lot more effort into finding grape varieties particularly suited to specific soils, climates and micro-climates. They are mapping out certain ‘terroirs’ like Coonawarra’s famous Terra Rossa (red earth) as very specific sub-regions.
The following guide looks at the the main wine-making states, and some of the key area within them. Unlike most of France, the picture of who are a regions principal producers is difficult to define: a producer may own vineyards, or buy in fruit from a variety of sources and make wines under several regional names. Penfolds, for example, will feature Adelaide Hills, Barossa, Clare, Coonawarra and other regions on its various bottlings.
Swan Valley is the oldest region, originally famed for fortified wines. It is a hot inland area and to a large extent is being superseded. Houghton Estate is the leading producer, their inexpensive “H.W.B” is widely available in the UK (Oddbins). Standing for “Houghton’s White Burgundy”, the wine is in fact a lightly-oaked blend of grapes which ages very gracefully. Coastal Margaret River is cooler, and was developed in the 1960’s. It produces a wide range of varietal wines with particular successes in Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz, Chardonnay and Zinfandel. Leading exponent of the latter is the area’s best-known estate, Cape Mentelle, who are part of the LVMH group and sister company to Cloudy Bay in New Zealand. Their massive Zinfandel, often broaching 15.5% alcohol, shows remarkable balance. Leeuwin Estate are Margaret River’s super-luxury estate, their superb but expensive “Art Series” Chardonnay being a benchmark for the region – and Australia. Other estates of note include Vasse Felix, Evans & Tate and Cullens. Great Southern is a cool coastal area too, and producers like Plantaganet and Goundrey have impressed me recently.
Producing around half of the total Australian output, most of South Australia is hot and arid, but cooler areas with some altitude also produce the delicate rieslings and other aromatic whites. The Clare and Eden Valleys north of Adelaide are centres of excellence for Shiraz and, especially, Riesling. Top producers include Grosset, Petaluma, Jim Barry, Mount Horrocks and Pewsey Vale. Barossa is the commercial centre of Australian wine production, with companies like Penfolds, Orlando and Yalumba headquartered here. Though companies like Penfolds make most of their wine here, the fruit comes from all over South Australia. Barossa fruit is of high quality, particularly Shiraz. Noteable producers of Barossa Shiraz are St Hallett, Grant Burge, Charles Melton, Henschke and Peter Lehemann. The Adelaide Hills area is a relatively new, cool-climate zone that is attracting a lot of attention, particularly for Chardonnay. Penfolds produce their “white Grange” contender, the Yattarna, and other notable Chardonnay producers include Petaluma, Stafford Ridge and Hillstowe. Predominantly a white wine area, Padthaway is also relatively young in winemaking terms. Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc from big names like Hardys and Lindemans will be familiar to many. Coonawarra is possibly South Australia’s best-known wine area, and showcase for Cabernet Sauvignon. A famous strip of land called the Terra Rossa (red earth) is perhaps Australia’s most famous and argued-over terroir. A massive furore was caused by attempts to define its boundaries, with parties on the margins – those who would be just in or, more crucially, just out – taking the matter to tribunal. A ruling in October 2001 has settled the matter, though appeals are likely. Hollick, Penley, Katnook, Leconfield, Mildara, Rymill and Wynns are some of the best estates.
Victoria’s importance in wine producing terms was once signalled by the fortified wine industry: the production of Australian ‘Ports’, ‘Sherries’ and ‘Madeiras’ was its mainstay. Today, the Liquor Muscats from Rutherglen and Milawa are still amongst Australia’s most exceptional wines. Look out for Chambers, Mick Morris and Campbells amongst top producers. There has been a massive upsurge in small, quality estates in the past few decades, producing all sorts of high quality wine. Reds tend to be vivid and fruit-driven, especially Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon, though Pinot Noir is increasingly successful, particularly in cooler regions such as the Yarra Valley, Geelong and the Mornington Peninsula. Mount Mary makes remarkable Bordeaux-style wines and Pinot Noir, and other top producers include Scotchman’s Hill, Giaconda, Yarra Ridge and Stoniers. Victoria is home to a lot of sparkling wine from the giant Seppelt, Yellowglen, Domaine Chandon and others. Aromatic whites like Riesling, Pinot Blanc, GewÃ¼rtztraminer and Muscat are produced by Brown Brothers, Mitchelton and Mount Langi Ghiran.
New South Wales (NSW)
The Hunter Valley is the great, historical driving force of the wine industry in this region. Long famed for its superlative and long-lived Semillon wines, Hunter Valley is a hot and humid area, just an easy day trip from Sydney. Top names of the Hunter include Tyrell’s, Brokenwood, Evans Family, Rothbury and Lindemans. The region also produces fine Shiraz and Chardonnay. Riverina is an irrigated, bulk production engine-room for Australia’s big brands and supermarket plonk, growing a bewildering range of grapes. Some estates are beginning to produce altogether more serious Riverina wines, taking a lead from de Bortoli, whose famous “Noble One” sweet wine comes from here. Miranda and McWilliams both produce very good botrytis wines from Riverina. Mudgee and newer areas nearby like Cowra and Orange are producing some terrific stuff. Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz dominate again in Mudgee, from producers like Huntington and Wyndham. Cowra Chardonnays are exciting, from Brokenwood, Rothbury and Cowra Estate.
A joker in the pack? Well, if you haven’t yet tried a Tasmanian wine, look out for some serious Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Riesling and other cooler-climate varietals from this long-established region, most of whose production once disappeared anonymously into mainland wines. Sparkling wines are also of very high quality. Pipers Brook and its second label Ninth Island are widely available.
A global influence
Australia’s other great gift to modern wine-making are the “flying winemakers” who have brought their new ideas, technology and enthusiasm to bear all over the world, in both emerging wine nations and traditional but under-achieving areas of France, Italy, Portugal and Spain. Some would argue this leads to homogenisation and uniformity in wine, and is therefore more of a curse than a blessing. But the truth is, that Australian wine is all about the past 25 years or so in the eyes of most consumers. Without a doubt, the general standard of wine has improved in that time, with fewer truly “bad” wines on our shelves. For this, Australia and its innovative and free-spirited wine industry must take a major share of the credit.