New South Wales saw the first plantings of wine grapes 200 years ago. It is now better known to the world as the site of that opera house. I will never forget a balmy evening in April on my first of (now) ten trips to Australia at one of the outdoor bars that cascade down from the opera house on Sydney Harbor. The music was pumping, as it was at the bar after that, and the one down the way from that. I am writing this as some effort to explain that the Aussies do not like to accept limitations. In Australia, it is perfectly acceptable to vaunt that opera house and yet not be able to pronounce La Boheme, much less attest that you have sat through it. Aussies are a “can do” people. And so, if you tell them you cannot produce good wine in the subtropical reaches a hundred miles north of Sydney, they will open a bottle of Hunter Valley wine and wait for you to be impressed. And you will be.
Hunter has hot summers and wet autumns. Rain tends to fall at harvest time, as it rarely does in the wine paradise of South Australia. You get vintage variation in Hunter, a factor that rarely applies to the country’s wines. What you also get is phalanxes of city people coming northward with money. Hunter is known for its superb restaurants, golf resorts, recreational opportunities, and its organized array of tasting rooms. The ability to sell at full retail at the cellar door is a powerful benefit to keep the wine flowing.
The soils of the Lower Hunter make up for the challenging climate. The grapes in the southern foothills vines grow off eroded volcanic basalt, resulting in low vine vigor and great concentration of mineral aromas and flavors. At higher elevations the soil, still volcanic, turns red, and supports some earthy Shiraz that is as soft as the rolling hills (which to my mind was a second England). Hunter produces Semillon (which they spell without the accent and pronounce as it is spelled) on sandy alluvial creek beds. There is plenty of sprightly Chardonnay available, but the Hunter Semillon has become a specialty. (Single varietal Semillons are rare elsewhere.) The Semillon grapes leave the vine at low sugar levels and ferment to about 11%, alcohol, with no malolactic fermentation (avoiding that buttery quality). The new wine is grassy and citrusy, but it will age in bottle if you are patient to bring out many layers of toast, dried fruit, and spice. The Upper Hunter keeps primarily to the traditional Chardonnay. Lower and Upper Hunter together qualify as a zone.
The Central Ranges Zone includes Mudgee, Orange, and Cowra. Mudgee abuts Upper Hunter directly to the west. Winemaking here dates back to German immigration in 1858. The name is Aboriginal meaning “nest in the hills.” Mudgee is located on the western slopes of the Great Dividing Range (Hunter is on the east). Spring comes cold to Mudgee, often delaying bud break, but summers are long and warm, with harvest occurring a month before Hunter. Soils are sandy loam over clay. Three quarters of production is red here: Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot. Orange is dominated by Mount Canobolas. As a result, Orange is characterized by relatively steep vineyards on volcanic basalt soil. A range of meso-climates apply, the greater in elevation, the cooler. Grapes are the same as Mudgee. Even though Cowra is the southernmost region in the Central Ranges, it is the warmest, being lower in elevation. It is hot and dry here. In descending order of production, Cowra’s grapes are Chardonnay, Shiraz, Semillon, Cabernet Sauvignon, Verdelho, Merlot, and Sauvignon Blanc.
The Southern New South Wales zone includes Hilltops, which has a distinctly continental climate and dry summers that necessitate irrigation. Soils are dark granitic clay. Production, mostly for blending elsewhere, leads with Shiraz, also Cabernet, Chardonnay, Merlot and Semillon. Canberra District around the national capital is a largely irrigated region, soils of brownish clay, producing Shiraz, Cabernet, and Merlot. Gundagai is a land of diverse climates, and red earth soils, producing Chardonnay, Shiraz, and Cabernet. Tumbarumba has a short growing season, granitic basalt soils, specializing in Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Sauvignon Blanc, with some sparkling wine.
In the western part of the state, the Big Rivers zone includes the regions of Murray Darling, Perricoota, Riverina and Swan Hill, all hot climate, highly irrigated producers of largely bulk wine (although these types of regions always have pockets of quality).
The South Coast zone includes two regions. Shoalhaven Coast is a high humidity area that owes much of its retail success to cellar door sales of Chardonnay, Cabernet, Shiraz and the French-American hybrid Chambourcin (which does well in humid climates like the American northeast). The Southern Highlands is a temperate region with basalt and shale soils producing Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Riesling and Merlot.
In the subtropical north of the state, the rolling hills of Hastings River account for Semillon, Chambourcin, Shiraz, and Chardonnay. New England Australia has a remarkably mild climate for its low latitude. Chardonnay, Riesling, and Sauvignon Blanc lead among whites, Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Pinot Noir among the reds.