These Aussie schoolchildren in the photo above, including the author’s granddaughter balancing on the rail in front, know to protect themselves from the unrelenting Australian sun. The country’s grapevines go out there without the benefit of hats. Australia bears the brunt of the El Nino and La Niña climate systems. Drought is a constant menace, as are state-gutting bushfires, which will incinerate vineyards as they will anything else in their path. The tough Aussies always find ways to cope.
A quick blink at the Australia wine map tells us that most of the continent is too close to the equator for vine growing. Australians claw out good vineyard sites by hugging the south of the continent, taking advantage of the proximity of bodies of water, planting vineyards at elevation—or all three. Actually, a fourth factor is critically important: willingness to experiment with what they call “alternative” grape varieties. Zinfandel, Tempranillo, Sangiovese, Viognier, Pinot Gris, Barbera, Nebbiolo, Dolcetto, Aglianico, Negroamaro, and many others have little trouble qualifying for Australian test runs. Even the Greek Assyrtiko, which maintains acidity nicely in hot climates, had established an Australian bridgehead.
Shiraz (Syrah in Aussie-speak) is still the leader, produced in nearly every appellation and sub-appellation in many different styles, Chardonnay is number two, Cabernet Sauvignon three.
Australia uses a system of Geographical Indications (GIs) that is largely similar to the American appellation system. A GI may appear on a wine label if the wine contains a minimum of 85% of fruit from that region. The largest appellations are states and zones. These divide into regions (the official term) and in some cases sub-regions. For example, in the state of South Australia, Barossa is a zone. Within it are two regions: Barossa Valley and Eden Valley. Eden Valley in turn has a sub-region called High Eden.
For convenience, we are going to call all these appellations “regions.”
More than half of Australia’s wine is produced in bulk for export in the largest zone, South Eastern Australia. Do not confuse this with South Australia, which is one of Australia’s states. The South Eastern Australia appellation legally refers to wine made from grapes grown anywhere in Australia except Western Australia. In reality, most wine with this labeling is produced from grapes grown in three interior regions: Riverina in New South Wales, Murray Darling, which straddles the border between New South Wales and Victoria, and Riverland in South Australia. Extensive river systems in this warm interior climate support irrigation for grapes and many other crops, but water availability and quality is a constant issue. Wines from this region are altogether average, and account for more than half of all Australian wine imported into the United States. Australia is a lot more than Kangaroos hopping out of a wine label, of course.
The state of South Australia produces half of Australia’s wine and has the nation’s premier district for quality wine, the Barossa Valley. German immigrants blazed the wine trail in Barossa in the 19th century. The name is Spanish, a reference to the 1811 battle of Barrosa between the English and French in the Peninsula War (the name is misspelled, but no one suggests changing it now). Barossa’s climate is hot and dry, with cool nights. Its gem is concentrated, fruit-forward, soft tannin, jammy Shiraz with notes of anise, licorice, and leather. Barossa also has old-vine Grenache and Mourvèdre (which they call Mataro). These two grapes partner with Shiraz to produce the GSM wines that are popular in Australia. Of course, the region produces Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay.
Just east of the Barossa Valley is the Eden Valley, higher country. Eden’s primary grape is also Shiraz, but it has made a reputation as a producer of dry Riesling, with notes of rich lime, floral and mineral. Clare Valley to the north of Barossa has an even better reputation for Riesling, also producing concentrated Shiraz and Cabernet.
Just south of the state capital of Adelaide, the growers of McLaren Vale grow everything: Shiraz, of course, but also Grenache, Mataro, Sangiovese, Vermentino, Roussanne, Tempranillo, Nebbiolo, Zinfandel, Sagrantino, the Georgian grape Saperavi, to name just a few. Adelaide Hills just to the east of the capital has made a name for its c
itrusy Sauvignon Blanc, which has less of a grassy character than New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. Langhorne Creek further south and nearby Currency Creek produce Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Shiraz and Chardonnay.
Two hundred miles to the south of Adelaide, the Limestone Coast zone enjoys wine-friendly limestone soils and warm, dry Mediterranean climate. The most prominent region here is Coonawarra, which had become the epicenter for Australian Cabernet Sauvignon. Coonawarra has a distinctive soil called “terra rossa,” or red earth. Padthaway and Wrattonbully have similar soils to Coonawarra and are known for Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Shiraz and Chardonnay. Cooler Mount Gambier shows potential for Pinot Noir. Right on the coast, Mount Benson and Robe produce a number of varieties with Cabernet Sauvignon holding number one in each.
The state of Victoria is mainland Australia’s smallest state, and also the coolest. Victoria boasts over 600 wineries, most of them small family operations. As a cursory look at the wine map shows, the state seems a veritable patchwork of regions. The state has six zones.
The Northwest Victoria zone includes the irrigated regions of Murray Darling and Swan Hill, both of which Victoria shares with New South Wales. This is Victoria’s hottest wine region. Murray Darling is known for bulk wines, Swan Hill for fruit-driven Chardonnay, Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon.
The Gippsland zone is also a region. This large area is the scene of much new development, but it is initially carving out a reputation for Pinot Noir.
In the Central Victoria zone, Bendigo is large region with a variety of land formations: volcanic plains, alluvial flood plains, rolling granite hills and sedimentary rises. Soils are sandy gravel, volcanic basalt or clay loams. Bendigo has a Mediterranean climate with warm, dry summers and mild, wet winters. Shiraz leads the reds that dominate, with Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, Mataro, Sangiovese and the Portuguese grape Touriga Nacional. The red Cambrian soils of Heathcote produce Shiraz above all, with outstanding examples of Sangiovese, Tempranillo, Petit Verdot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and excellent Rieslings and Viognier. The Goulburn Valley has a typical inland valley floor warm climate and substantial diurnal temperature ranges. The meandering Goulburn River has a cooling effect, however. Loose textured sandy, gravelly soils translate into Riesling, Cabernet Sauvignon, Marsanne, and Shiraz. The Strathbogie Ranges have vineyards at up to 2000 feet. Domaine Chandon uses the high acid Pinot Noir and Chardonnay produced here for sparkling wine. Upper Goulburn sits between the Great Dividing Range and Strathbogie Ranges at a high altitude that favors crisp aromatic white wines, fine sparkling wines and elegant, textural red wines.
The Northeast Victoria zone is inland and quite hot. The region specializes in fortified dessert wines that are uniquely Australian in style. Rutherglen’s “stickies” are made from late harvest Muscat and a grape called Topaque. These wines age years in cask. Rutherglen also makes still red wine from the Durif grape, an obscure variety that just might be related to California Petite Sirah. Glenrowan is renowned for its full-bodied red wines from Shiraz, Durif and Merlot, fortified Muscat wines and crisp whites from Chardonnay, Trebbiano, Sauvignon Blanc and Fiano. Alpine Valleys is cooler because of its elevation. Growing season is quite long for wines characterized by forward fruit and bracing acidity. Chardonnay, Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon lead the pack, but a range of varieties, some “alternate,” are finding adherents in the region: Sangiovese, Barbera, Nebbiolo, Vermentino, Savagnin, Teroldego and Marzemino. Beechworth is an old gold mining town producing fruit-forward Chardonnay, as well as Pinot Gris, Shiraz, Tempranillo, and a number of Italian reds.
The Port Philip zone centers on the great city of Melbourne. South of the city, Geelong has a maritime climate that proves ideal for Pinot Noir. Ditto for the Mornington Peninsula across Port Phillip Bay. To the northwest, inland Sunbury has Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Chardonnay, and some Riesling. To the northeast, the Yarra Valley has a great deal of topographical variety, warm in the valleys and much cooler up in the hills. Soils are sandy loam in some regions, red volcanic earth in others. Pinot Noir and Chardonnay are the stars in both still and sparkling wine. The elevation of the high Macedon Ranges keeps the region cool for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.
The Western Victoria zone adds a final level of complexity to the Victorian labyrinth. Grampians is a craggy area in the western extreme of the Great Dividing Range, known for Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon, despite its moderately cool climate. The rolling hills of the Pyrenees have soil that can range from grey-brown and brown loam to red sandstone and red clay quartz. Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon are the leaders, with Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Viognier, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Grenache, Sangiovese, Nebbiolo and Tempranillo. Cool climate Henty by the Southern Ocean makes Riesling and good cool-climate Shiraz.