Getting to Know Australian Wine
Make no mistake about it: Australia is one of the world powers of wine. It is famous for its fresh, fruity red and white table wines that manage to be extremely consistent in quality. The country has about 2,000 wineries, many of which are small, family-owned companies. However, four mega-companies — Foster's Wine Group, Constellation Wines, Pernod Ricard, and McGuigan Simeon Wines — together with one family-owned winery, Casella Wines, are responsible for about two-thirds of Australia's wine production.
Winemaking Down Under
Australia's number-one grape for fine wine is Syrah, locally called Shiraz, followed by Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Merlot, Semillon (pronounced SEM eh lon in Australia, as opposed to the French sem ee yon elsewhere in the world), Pinot Noir, Riesling, and Sauvignon Blanc. The wines are generally labeled with the name of their grape variety, which must constitute at least 85 percent of the wine.
Shiraz wines are particularly interesting because they come in numerous styles, from inexpensive, juicy wines brimming with ripe plum and blackberry fruit to serious wines that express specific regional characteristics, such as spice and pepper from cool-climate areas (such as Yarra Valley and the Adelaide Hills) or sweet-fruit ripeness from warmer areas (such as McLaren Vale, Barossa, and Clare).
The wines of Australia have two distinct faces:
- Most Australian wines in export markets are inexpensive varietal wines that sell for $10 a bottle or less. These wines are generally labeled simply as coming from South Eastern Australia, meaning that the grapes could have come from any of three states, a huge territory. Often sporting whimsical labels, they are user-friendly wines that preserve the intense flavors of their grapes and are soft and pleasant to drink young.
- Higher-priced wines carry more focused regional designations, such as single states (South Australia, for example) or even tighter region-specific designations (such as Coonawarra). Although these wines are also enjoyable when released, they are more serious wines that can also age. Australia now has 60 wine regions and more than 100 Geographic Indications (GIs).
Main wine-producing regions
Australia's most important state for wine production is South Australia, whose capital is Adelaide. South Australia makes about 50 percent of Australia's wine. While many vineyards in South Australia produce inexpensive wines for the thirsty home market, vineyards closer to Adelaide make wines that are considered among the country's finest. Among these fine wine regions are
- Barossa Valley: North of Adelaide, this is one of Australia's oldest areas for fine wine; it's a relatively warm area famous especially for its robust Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Grenache, as well as rich Semillon and Riesling (grown in the cooler hills). Most of Australia's largest wineries, including Penfolds, are based here.
- Clare Valley: North of the Barossa Valley, this climatically diverse area makes the country's best Rieslings in a dry, weighty yet crisp style, as well as fine Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon.
- McLaren Vale: South of Adelaide, with a mild climate influenced by the sea, this region is particularly admired for its Shiraz, Cabernet, Sauvignon Blanc, and Chardonnay.
- Adelaide Hills: Situated partially within the Adelaide city limits, this fairly cool region sits between the Barossa and McLaren Vale areas and is the home to rather good Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Shiraz.
- Limestone Coast: This unique zone along the southern coast of South Australia is an important area for fine wine, both red and white, thanks to the prevalence of limestone in the soil. Two of the six regions within the Limestone Coast zone are famous in their own right — the cool Coonawarra for some of Australia's best Cabernet Sauvignon wines, and Padthaway for its white wines, particularly Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, and Riesling.
New South Wales, with its capital, Sydney, is Australia's most populous state and the first to grow vines; today it makes 31 percent of Australia's wine. High-volume production of everyday wines comes from an interior area called the Riverina. (Its alternate name is Murrumbidgee.) Fine wine, for now, comes from three other areas:
- Hunter Valley: An historic grape-growing area that begins 80 miles north of Sydney. The Lower Hunter, with a warm, damp climate and heavy soils, produces long-lived Semillon as its best wine. The Upper Hunter is a drier area farther from the coast.
- Mudgee: An interior area near the mountains. Mudgee specializes in reds such as Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon but also makes Chardonnay.
- Orange: A cool, high-altitude area making distinctive white wines and also very good reds.
The other wine regions in Australia include the states of Victoria and Western Australia, and the island of Tasmania.