Educational Australian Wine Guide
When Admiral Arthur Phillip set sail with 1788’s First Fleet to become governor of New South Wales first British penal colony, he probably had no idea that the vine cuttings he was bringing from South Africa’s Cape of Good Hope would be the starting point for an industry that would eventually contribute significantly to the economy of a nation that had yet to be formed. Those first vines represented quite a struggle in the early years, but the industry that grew from them now exports more than 400 million litres of wine a year to all parts of the world, even while saving an equal amount for local consumption.
As free settlers moved to Australia, they, too, brought vines from their homelands, including France, Spain, Prussia, and Italy. By 1873, French judges at the Vienna Exhibition were shocked to learn the fine wines, that they assumed were French, were actually Australian. In Paris in 1878, a Victorian Syrah was deemed similar to a French First Estate wine and gold medals were awarded to Australian wines in 1882 and 1889 in Bordeaux and Paris exhibitions.
Devastation struck Australia’s wine industry in the 1970s when a phylloxera epidemic destroyed vineyards across the country, but recovery was so successful that the government soon paid growers to stop production of wine grapes to eliminate the excess product that was causing the price of wine in Australia to crash. The industry, representing more than 2,000 wine producers today, has stabilized and Australian wines are enjoyed all over the world.
Australia does not produce any grapes native to the area, however, its vast size and diverse climate enable the growth of many different varieties of grapes brought in from around the world. In total, Australia grows at least 130 different varieties of wine grapes. European classics, including Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Sangiovese, thrive in Australia. However, the Shiraz (Syrah) grape is the crowning glory of Australia’s red wine industry. Chardonnay holds that post in the white wine industry, but other white wine grapes, including Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Grigio, Semillon, Riesling, and Viognier, have brought global acclaim to the Australian industry. To their credit, two reds, Cienna and Tarrango, are hybridized grape varietals that are purely Australian.
This grape, so red it’s described as black, can be considered Australia’s wine ambassador to the world. No other wine-growing region enjoys the success of this grape as does Australia. With 43,977 hectares planted in 2008, it’s the largest crop in the nation’s viticulture industry. South Australia’s McLaren Vale Valley, Barossa Valley, and New South Wales' Hunter Valley are particularly noted for their production of this wine, characteristics of which include blackberry and dark chocolate, with hints of black pepper, eucalyptus, liquorice, and cloves that take on an earthy quality with age. Its high tannin and acid content makes it ideal for long-term cellaring.
Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot
These classic big reds represent a large portion of Australia’s red wine production, with a total of 38,317 hectares planted in 2008. Highly tannic, Cabernet Sauvignon is known for its full body that takes on different flavors that run from jammy in hot climates, to more vegetal in milder climes. Merlot, a bit lighter in body that Cabernet, is likened to chocolate or fruitcake when produced in hot climates and berry-flavored where the climate is milder.
This light and fruity wine, native to Germany’s Rhine River region, is rarely oaked, making it quite pleasing and drinkable even for people who don’t drink wine often. Before Chardonnay rose to its current level of popularity, Riesling was the most planted white grape in Australia, although only 4,400 hectares were under cultivation in 2008. Even though grown in Australia’s cooler wine regions, the grape develops a much thicker skin under the Australian sun than in its native Germany. This thicker skin produces a wine more complex and citrus flavored than the typical Rhine from Europe.
Australia’s Chardonnays have done almost as much as its Shiraz to put the country on the oenophile’s map. It is by far the largest white wine grape crop cultivated, with 31,564 hectares counted in 2008. New South Wales, South Australia, and Victoria are especially noted for the Chardonnays they produce. The demand for Australian Chardonnay was so high that a shortage developed around the turn of the 21st century and producers developed blends, often using other white grapes such as Colombard and Semillon, to meet demand. While Chardonnay is a lean, crisp wine with nuances of honey and tropical fruit, it’s highly versatile and can be easily manipulated during the fermentation and aging processes.
Major Wine Regions:
In keeping with labeling standards elsewhere, an Australian wine label must meet strict government regulations that include clearly defined state names, zones, regions, and sub-regions. An understanding of the micro-climates within these designations makes wine selection simple, as each location features a unique set of climatic factors that influence the grapes. Knowing that fuller bodied wines are produced in the sunniest regions and lighter, fruitier wines come from cooler climates takes a good bit of guesswork out of the buying process.
Look for South Australian wines produced in these regions or subregions: Adelaide Hills, Barossa Valley, Clare Valley, Coonawarra, Eden Valley, Langhorne Creek, McLaren Vale, Padthaway, Riverland, Southern Fleurieu, and Wrattonbully.
Victorian wine regions include Apine Valleys, Beechworth, Goulburn Valley, Grampians, Heathcote, Henty, King Valley, Mornington Peninsula, Pyrenees, Rutherglen, and Yarrra Valley.
New South Wales
Hunter Valley, Mudgee, New England, Riverina, and Southern Highlands are the regions to look for when selecting an NSW wine.
Western Australia’s most prominent wine-producing regions include the Great Southern, Margaret River, and Swan Valley zones.
Australia enjoys a lucrative wine export business, estimated to be worth about 2.8 billion Australian dollars (AU$) in 2007. The projected growth rate is about 9% per year since then. Exports to the United States (US) and United Kingdom (UK), alone, accounted for more than AU$2 billion of that 2007 figure. Interestingly, Australia exports its wine workers, as well as its wine. When harvest and bottling are completed in Australia, workers head to the Northern Hemisphere to work during the busy season there.
Of all the wine imported into the North American market, Australian wines represent about 17%, following France with 31% and Italy with 28% of the market. In 2009, 650 wineries shipped to the US and 580 to Canada.
The UK gets more still (non-sparkling) wine from Australia than from any other wine-producing region in the world. Shippers to the UK numbered 643 in 2009.
One hundred twenty-four Australian wine producers shipped their products to France in 2009.