Absolutely Everything You Need to Know About Australian Wine

Posted August 25, 2015

Stacy Brody


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Would you ask for a United States Cabernet? Would you say a wine from the Finger Lakes is the same as one from California?

I didn’t think so.

Australia is the 6th largest country on the planet (U.S. comes in 4th) and three-quarters the size of Europe. Across Australia, climate and soil type vary, such that an Australian wine can not be just an Australian wine.

And, no matter how firmly you believe that Australia only produces Shiraz, it’s just not true - and you are missing out. Even though California is so well-known for Cabernet, we know they produce so much more! Same with Australia.

There is more to Australia than Shiraz and kangaroos.

Australian History

Australia is a relative latecomer to the wine world. The country’s first grapevines were planted in the late 1700, and commercial viticulture was established in the early half of the 1800s. Clearly, Europe had a bit of a jump-start on the world...though Europe faced a severe setback in the latter half of the 1800s, an epidemic that was just a scrape on Australia’s knee.  

Just a Scrape with Phylloxera

Phylloxera is an aphid (if you garden, you may be familiar with these tiny pests) that lives in teh soil and feeds on the roots of grapevines. Native to North America, phylloxera was accidentally brought over to Europe in the 1860s, devastating the continent’s vineyards. From there, the epidemic spread worldwide. This is a good example of why we now have USDA stations at airports and why you shouldn’t bring produce, plants, or animals back from vacation, lest you wipe out an agricultural industry. What guilt I would feel!

Now, many vineyards around the world are planted with grafted vines. The world’s favorite wine grape varieties are grafted onto the roots of native American grapes, which are able to withstand the pest.

Lucky Australia escaped the epidemic with just a scrape. In the 1870s, phylloxera devastated vineyards in the southeastern state of Victoria. Vineyards there were replanted with grafted vines, and the pest was effectively quarantined. In other parts of Australia, however, it is not uncommon to find ungrafted (aka “self-rooted”) vines.  

A Narrow Escape

Located in Goulburn Valley, a small region in Victoria, Tahbilk Winery was established in 1860, not long before phylloxera hit. Fortunately for Tahbilk, the vineyards were planted on sandy soils. Unfortunately for the aphid, it cannot reproduce on sandy soils. Tahbilk still produces wine from 200 acres of 155-year-old Shiraz vines, in addition to its estate-grown Cabernet Sauvignon.

Kangaroos Aren’t Happy Everywhere

And neither, for that matter, is the Shiraz. Climatic and topographic variation across the country means that Cabernet does well in some parts while other areas are more well-known for Shiraz. It means that wines from different parts of the country are going to taste different, just like a Cabernet from California and one from Washington are going to taste different.

1. New South Wales

New South Wales is the area surrounding a city you may have heard of, Sydney. It has a long history of grapegrowing - long, at least, in the context of Australian wine. Looking at temperatures alone, you’d assume this region is too hot to grow winegrapes. But temperature doesn’t tell the whole story - something those of us familiar with New Jersey summer know all too well. In the case of New South Wales, humidity is not such a bad thing. High humidity and afternoon cloud cover protect winegrapes from the heat, mitigating its potentially detrimental effects.

2. Victoria

Located in the far southeast corner of Australia, Victoria is the only state that has been affected by phylloxera. Victoria’s major winegrowing regions include Yarra Valley and the Pyrenees. Not far from the city of Melbourne and the southern coast, Yarra Valley is well-known for producing elegant expressions of the Burgundian varietals. The climate here is cool, cooler than Bordeaux, ideal for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. The Pyrenees, named after hills which reminded explorers of the European mountain range, is north of Yarra and more inland. With a warmer, more temperate climate, the Pyrenees produces full-bodied, dry red wines.  

3. South Australia

The name gives you a good indication as to where this region is located. South Australia is home to the port city of Adelaide and some well-known wine regions: Barossa Valley, Eden Valley, McLaren Vale, Coonawarra and Clare Valley. Let’s take a little tour.

Start out in Adelaide and travel northeast to Barossa Valley.

In Barossa Valley, significant acreage is planted in Shiraz, with many vines dating back to the mid 1800s. With a continental climate and warm summer days, Barossa is known for robust reds as well as fortified dessert wines. Many traditional Rhone varieties, in addition to Shiraz, thrive here.

Now travel just a tad bit east.

Eden Valley was settled by the Germans, and guess what they brought with them. Maybe they brought schnitzel, but they definitely brought Riesling. There are some breathtaking Eden Valley Rieslings which showcase the variety’s characteristic acidity.  With cooler growing season conditions than neighboring Barossa, Eden Valley is well-suited for Riesling. If you visit, do let me know how the schnitzel situation is down under.

Move south now, south of where you stated in Adelaide, and towards the gulf coast.

With a location so close to the water, McLaren Vale has a maritime climate. Blessed with a diversity of soil types, wineries produce everything from refreshing Sauvignon Blanc to full-bodied Cabernet Sauvignon and even traditional Spanish varieties.

Travel inland and south from McLaren Vale. Time to put your sweaters on.

Eventually, near the border with Victoria, you come upon Coonawarra, home to crisp white wines as well as phenomenal Cabernet Sauvignon. In this cool-climate region, white wines maintain an innate, refreshing acidity. In that same vein, Coonawarra Cabs are more akin to their Bordeaux counterparts than to Cabs from the warmer regions of California. These are not powerhouse Cabernets, but classic wines to enjoy now or to cellar for a beautiful evolution in the bottle. Ain’t that poetic?

Head back up, north of Adelaide and north of Barossa. Take those sweaters off now.

You find the moderately warm Clare Valley. Due to the warmth, you may not suspect Clare Valley of turning out some killer Rieslings. Unexpected but true. Clare Valley Rieslings are produced in a variety of styles, all with ample acidity and good cellar-ability.

4. Western Australia

Again not a very creative name for a state, but one that is quite informative, as this state encompasses the entire western part of the island. I’m sure you could ace an Australian geography exam.

Margaret River is found near the southwest tip of Western Australia. With a cooling influence from the Indian Ocean, Margaret River is a great place for Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay. In Margaret River Cabernet Sauvignons, you may notice hints of gravel, like those from Left Bank Bordeaux.

Near Western Australia’s southern shoreline, The Great Southern is cooler, perfectly suited for cellar-worthy Rieslings. Within the Great Southern, the area of Mount Barker has a climate similar to that of Bordeaux and is known for lively, mineraly Cabernet Sauvignon. Plus, when was the last time you heard about a wine with “chutzpah and swagger”?  

...Don’t forget Tasmania! This small island off the southern coast of Australia has a range of climate and soil types. Overall, it is well known for producing cool-climate varietals like Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, as well as sparkling wines.

Something Old, Something New, Something Borrowed...but Nothing Blue

In Bordeaux, Cabernet Sauvignon is blended with Merlot and Cabernet Franc.

Australians also produce old-school Bordeaux-style blends.

In the Rhone Valley of France, Syrah is often blended with Grenache and Mourvedre.

Australians produce their own “GSM” blends.

In the Rhone, winemakers sometimes blend small amounts of Viognier in with Syrah, to add floral notes and soften the wine.

Australians borrowed that technique, too.

Lest you think Australian winemakers are merely copycats, let me reassure you they came up with something new, too. Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz blends. Cabernet gives the wine structure and tannins. Shiraz complements Cabernet’s masculine strength with supple fruit. Sometimes, winemakers even add Arneis!

I haven’t come across a blue wine from Australia yet, though I have seen one from Pennsylvania and there are reports of one from Spain.

Time to Get Specific

Next time you’re looking for wine, be a little more specific than Australian Shiraz. Branch out. Ask for a Coonawarra Cab or a Barossa Shiraz or a Clare Valley Riesling...even a Tasmanian Pinot Noir (yes, we have one of those). Shiraz may be the most widely grown variety in Australia, but it is by no means the only one.

P.S.: There are 4 different species of kangaroo. So specification is a big deal.

Stacy comes to Wine Library from the production side of the industry. After studying agriculture in college, she found herself working at a local winery and, at harvest season, snacking on as many Pinot Noir grapes as she could take before the winemaker noticed. She enjoys reading, hiking, and scoping out what's in season at the local farmers' markets.

References for this article include Karen Macneil’s The Wine Bible and Jancis Robinson’s Oxford Companion to Wine, as well as Vine Street Imports, Wine Australia, Australia Tourism, and the Australian government website.

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