Calling Australia a wine country doesn’t do it justice. We’re talking about an entire continent, an area so vast, it was imagined and named before it was even explored: Terra Australis. Over 165,000 hectares under vine distributed across 3,000 square kilometers.
Australia is a rara avis in the geography of wine. Isolated in the far reaches of the South Pacific, the continent is home to pristine nature and a winemaking heritage unburdened by the traditionalism that characterizes Europe’s historical wine-producing countries.
From this vantage point of modernity, the country has embraced science and innovation to pioneer new approaches to matters of great contemporary relevance, such as environmental awareness or consumption convenience.
In terms of internal dynamics, Australia exports nearly half of its domestic production and is the world’s fifth largest exporter in both value and volume. The Australian wine industry has consolidated in recent years, both nationally and internationally, and is currently the fifth largest wine producer in the world, a factor that has a significant influence on the Australian economy.
How it began
So, where does Australia get its carefree confidence? The answer lies in the origin of the country itself, whose coastline wasn’t mapped until 1769 by the famous Captain Cook.
The country was initially a penal colony of the British Empire. Prisoners performed forced labor while they served their sentence. Once free, they were given plots of land so they could start a new life. This is how much of Australia’s modern-day farmland came about.
Between 1809 and 1821, governor Lachlan Macquire established farming and fishing communities in order to reduce the country’s dependence on imported foods. The grapevine played a prominent role. Soon the country saw the emergence of a new professional winemaking class, represented by the likes of Penfold, Hardy, and Lindemann to this day.
Three factors set Australian wine apart
The relationship between quality and quantity, and balancing the two, is the secret behind the country’s wine production model. Three factors have a direct impact on this:
- The productivity of the land. Australia was originally a continent of hunter-gatherers who had no concept of agriculture, making the land’s pristine nature the perfect starting point for large-scale, quality winegrowing.
- The next factor comes down to a topographical symbiosis of sorts: how river valleys and flatland relate to the geometric design of the vineyards. The origins of an ethnological system to arrange vineyards can be found in Celtic tradition, the ancestral heritage of many Australian winegrowers.
- The decisive commitment to science by public administrations and universities ensures that the land is used responsibly and effectively. For example, the Agricultural Department at the University of Adelaide, helmed by Belinda Strummer and Richard Smart, has obtained astonishing results in striking the difficult balance between quality and high yields, which has benefitted winegrowers and winemakers.
A brief look at the identity and characteristics of Australian wines
Given the vast geography of Australia, it is impossible to make any kind of identity-driven connection based on geo-climatic characteristics. Perhaps this is why the classic concept of terroir has been absorbed by its own evolution toward a certain degree of universality.
Except for Hunter Valley, the best-known wine regions lie along the southern coast, where the vineyards reap the benefits of the cold ocean influence and the elevation of mountainous areas.
The success of Australian wine is due to the simplicity of its varietal labeling, its accessible fruit-forward styles and excellent value for money.
Over 173,000 hectares of vineyards are home to approximately 90 grape varieties. However, ten cultivars account for most plantings, and two are the undeniable queens of the Australian vineyard.
Listed in order of descending importance, the varieties are Chardonnay, Shiraz, Semillon, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir, Petit Verdot, Grenache and Riesling.
Exemplary varieties: Shiraz and Semillon
Shiraz and Semillon are the royal couple of the varietal Olympus, with all due respect to the timeless Cabernet and Chardonnay, both very well represented in Australia’s vineyards.
- When it comes to Australian reds, Shiraz is the variety par excellence. Warm-climate regions like Hunter Valley and Barossa Valley are known for their elegant, smooth, earthy and spicy style; warm wines that develop notes of leather and caramel as they mature. The variety is also frequently used in Cabernet blends to add softness and body, much like Merlot in Bordeaux.
- Dry Semillons, which are often unfairly underrated, are a signature style across the country. However, the variety finds its more recognizable expression in the lowlands of Hunter Valley: unoaked dry wines, light bodied and low in alcohol, that are organoleptically somewhat neutral until they open up to a whole host of aging aromas like toasted bread, dried fruit and honey.
- In western Australia, Semillon displays more herbaceous notes, occasionally even resembling a Sauvignon Blanc. In hotter areas like Barossa, the wines tend to be fuller and softer.
A brief guide to varieties and regions
Given the immense size of the continent, it is impossible to provide a reliable overview of the main regions in a single article. This brief introduction provides a tiny taste of the best-known regions, followed by a look at their connection to different varieties.
Southern Australia is home to 40% of the country’s entire wine production. It is a collection of phylloxera-free vineyards that grow in a seemingly infinite array of soils with diverse characteristics. As a result, the regulating council allows wines from different places to be blended in the production of the region’s finest exemplars.
Barossa Valley is synonymous with quality winemaking. Its enological heritage still preserves the German legacy of Silesian settlers, reflected in small towns with a certain Germanic feel. Here the valley floor soils contain ferruginous rock and limestone. In these warm climate conditions, old bush vines produce spectacular Shiraz, Grenache and Cabernet.
The paradigmatic profile of Barossa Shiraz is full bodied, big yet supple, filling the mouth with an exuberant explosion of ripe black fruit. After spending some months in oak, the wine takes on mature notes of leather and spices.
Located in the eastern mountains, Eden Valley enjoys a mild climate that does see some variation depending on altitude.
The vineyards in cooler areas produce Rieslings of exceptional quality—a streak of lime leading to a maturity marked by notes of toast and citrus marmalade.
In the area known as Limestone Coast, not far from the Victoria state line, lies the Coonawarra region, a narrow stretch just 1.5 kilometers wide and 15 kilometers long. The soils are a distinctive red color (terra rossa), planted with Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Chardonnay.
Cabernet is the star here, producing intense wines with firm structure and unmistakable, deep varietal notes of blackcurrant, eucalyptus and mint.
- Warm-climate Shiraz: Barossa Valley, Hunter Valley, McLaren Vale
- Mild-climate Shiraz: grown in almost all regions.
- Chardonnay: Yarra Valley, Adelaide Hills and Margaret River are the leading Chardonnay regions, but, like Shiraz, the grape is widely grown throughout the country.
- Pinot Noir: Yarra Valley, Mornington Peninsula
- Cabernet Sauvignon: Coonawarra, Margaret River
- Sauvignon Blanc: Adelaide Hills
- Semillon: Hunter Valley
- Riesling: Clare Valley, Eden Valley
As a country and wine producer, Australia is modern, confident and committed to making accessible quality wines. During its brief history, Australian wine culture has done away with traditionalism and old attachments to focus on innovation and ensure a balance between quantity and quality. The young revitalizing promise of the wine world has become a definite reality.
- Australian and New Zealand Wine Industry Directory 2016 and the Australian Bureau of Vineyard Statistics.