Australia is a vast continent that extends from the Indian Ocean in the west to the South Pacific in the east, and from the tropics in the north to the cool south of Tasmania. Australia has no indigenous wine grapes. The culture of the vine was introduced in the late 1700s (first vine cuttings were brought by Captain Arthur Phillip in January 1788) and then by immigrants who arrived from different parts of the world, mainly Europe, bringing their own seedlings. Plants came from France, Germany, Spain, Portugal, Italy, South Africa and later, California.
The vines thrived and in a few decades were grown from one end of Australia to the other, mainly in fertile areas closer to the coasts rather than in the arid Outback, which is too dry for any crops. The north is tropical and much better suited to sugar cane and pineapples than grapes. But today, grapes thrive in the hills and valleys that hug Australia’s coastline from just north of Sydney through Victoria and west to Adelaide. Vineyards then skip hundreds of miles and start again along the southwest coast and up to Perth.
Rainfall in the wine-growing areas ranges from a barely sufficient (20 inches in the Barossa Valley of South Australia), to the nearly drenching 45 inches in Margaret River, Western Australia. Luckily for the vines, rain falls primarily during winter and rarely interrupts or postpones the harvest.
Temperatures in the wine growing areas vary greatly, also. Many are much cooler than California’s best known regions. Mid-summer (January) highs are generally between 66 and 75 degrees F in the Yarra Valley, Adelaide Hills and Coonawarra.
Wine is one of Australia’s most important natural products. Nearly 20 million cases are exported all around the world every year.
Families developed the industry in the 19th century under patriarchs like George Brown, Dr. Christopher Rawson Penfold, Dr. Henry John Lindeman, John Reynell, Thomas Hardy and Joseph Seppelt. Today their names live on in the marketplace.
The Australian wine industry grew throughout the first half of the 20th century. Today it is among the world’s leaders both in viticultural and winemaking techniques. Some of Australia’s vines are on original rootstock and can be more than 100 years old as here, the industry was not as crippled by Phylloxera as in other grape growing areas in the world.
Harvest occurs in Australia’s wine belt (32 and 43 degrees south latitude) January through April. The vineyards of Europe are cooler, between 40 and 50 degrees north latitude. Western U.S. vineyards lie between 32 and 46 degrees and are more similar climatically to Australia’s.
Australia is well known for advanced winemaking technology developed to solve problems. Mechanical pruners came into being as there were not enough people to prune and, while Australians didn’t invent mechanical harvesters, they were among the first to accept them. Australian roto-vat fermenters are now popular in other regions of the world.
Australia, said to be the oldest of the seven continents, has extremely diverse soils which include the sandy loam in McClaren Vale, clay and volcanic soil in the Mornington Peninsula and the famed terra rossa of Coonawarra (a deep red loam over a bedrock of limestone).
Historically, grapes were planted near the areas where people lived, often within city limits. When more Europeans settled in Australia at the beginning of the 19th century, they scouted out areas that resembled the rolling hills and gravelly soils of their homelands.
As Australia’s wine culture grew, more scientific methods were used to determine which combinations of soils and climates would be best suited to grapes. Grapes grown in Australia include Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc, Colombard, Crouchen, Gewürztraminer, Muscadelle, Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon and Verdelho in the whites and Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Malbec, Pinot Noir and Shiraz in the reds.
New appellations – or geographic indicators as the Australian’s call them – are still being developed. Pemberton (Western Australia), Limestone Coast (South Australia) and Mudgee (New South Wales) are relatively new regions that are producing good wines. According to James Halliday in Wine Atlas of Australia and New Zealand 1998, “In October 1994, Australia took the last step in completing the same type of legal structure governing the labelling of wine as exists in Europe and, in particular, in France. Moreover, they have been brought into line with European law; the cornerstone is what might be called the 85 percent rule. If a label claims a single vintage, a single region and/or a single variety, 85 percent of the wine must be from that vintage, region and/or variety. If more than one variety or region is specified, they must be listed in descending order of importance, but with some particularly complicated laws concerning varietal blends.
Until October 1994, there was an additional problem: there was no mechanism for determining, nor any regulation of, regional boundaries. There is now a hierarchy of regional descriptions. The broadest is South Eastern Australia, which takes in the whole of New South Wales, Victoria and Tasmania, and those sectors of Queensland and South Australia in which grapes are (or may conceivably in the future) be grown.
Next come each individual State descriptions (Australia is divided into seven states: New South Wales, South Australia, Victoria, Western Australia, Queensland, Tasmania and the Northern Territory), which need no explanation. Each state is then divided into Zones; securing agreement on the names and boundaries of the Zones (through the State Viticulture Associations) proved to be far more difficult than anyone had imagined, but was completed in 1996.
Each zone can then be subdivided into Regions and, each region, into Sub-regions. All of these are called geographic indications. Not all zones will be divided into Regions and, by no means, all Regions into Sub-regions. Thus, the wineries of the Adelaide Plains were content with the Adelaide Super Zone as their sole geographic indication. On a different tack, it is clear that the Hunter Valley is not going to be divided into two regions (Upper and Lower Hunter Valley) but only one (Hunter) with various Subregions (Broke-Fordwich, Pokolbin and Rothbury in the Lower.)
Australia’s seven States and their various Zones and Regions include:
I. NEW SOUTH WALES (NSW) encompasses the Australian capital territory of Canberra and Cowra, Hunter, Mudgee, Murray Darling, Orange and Riverina whose New South Wales capital is Sydney. Australia’s first vines were planted in New South Wales, the first commercial wine was made there, and the first wine exported to England came from here. It is now “zoned” as follows:
1. Hunter Valley Zone (NSW)
Hunter Valley, 100 miles north of Sydney and the State’s best-known wine district, first planted vines in 1825. Notable wines found in this warm region, stretching 60 miles northwest near the river of the same name, include Semillon and Chardonnay. Some powerful reds such as Shiraz or Syrah, along with Cabernet and Pinot Noir are gaining in popularity.
The Hunter Valley Zone is divided into two sections, lower and upper. The lower Hunter Valley is said to be better for grazing than winegrowing, but comparatively low rainfall, sea breezes that bring in afternoon cloud cover, combined with high humidity keep evaporation rates low, mitigating the vines’ need for irrigation. However, the soil is poor and yields are low. Ageworthy Semillon, meaty Shiraz and tautly structured Cabernet and Shiraz find a home here. Sub-regions found here are Broke/Fordwich, Pokolbin and Rothbury.
The upper Hunter Valley’s success is due to slightly less humidity and rainfall than the lower and darker, well-drained loamy soil. Here, drip irrigation is a must and it produces wines such as Chardonnay with ripe honey and buttery flavors. Chardonnay and Semillon dominate plantings in the Upper Hunter Valley. Sub-regions here are Denman, Jerrys Plains, Merriwa, Muswellbrook and Scone.
2. Central Ranges Zone (NSW) includes:
Mudgee is an aboriginal name meaning “nest in the hills.” This area lies on the slopes of the Great Dividing Range which give the zone a cool spring and low humidity. Mudgee stands out for its darkly colored, rich and berry-mint scented reds, especially Cabernet and Shiraz. Chardonnay is also quite intense, less honeyed and more citrusy than that of the Hunter Valleys. Sub-regions are Eurundee, Gulgong and Ilford.
Cowra is a warm area with low humidity known for white wines. It has sandy loam and red clay soils. Whites (Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Verhelho, Riesling and Gewürztraminer) predominate, but reds such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz, Pinot Noir, Merlot and Cabernet Franc can be pleasantly soft and easily accessible. There are no subregions.
Orange is an attractive hill area with widely varying soils and microclimates. It was formerly known as the Central Highlands. Chardonnay is the most important wine but Cabernet, Merlot, Shiraz, Malbec, Zinfandel, as well as Sauvignon Blanc and Riesling, do well. There are no subregions.
3. The Big Rivers Zone encompasses:
Riverina offers a warm climate that specializes in botrytis Semillon and late harvest varietals, consistent quality and large production. Subregions include Griffith and Leeton with others to come.
Perricoota – the name comes from Perricoota Station which was established in the 1850s. Climate is dry, making irrigation necessary. The principal grapes are Chardonnay, Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Semillon
4. Northern Rivers Zone (NSW) includes the Hastings River.
Hastings River is an area where viticulture and winemaking date back to 1837. Gently hilly terrain and wide variation in soils can produce some interesting wines. Chardonnay and Semillon dominate in the whites, while reds include the French hybrid Chambourcin. There are no subregions.
5. The Southern New South Wales Zone (NSW) includes:
Canberra District vineyards which lie in the cool climate hills just outside the capital city of the same name. The first vines were planted here in 1971. Riesling vies with Chardonnay as the most important white. Attractive Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz and Pinot Noir are also produced here. Subregions are Canberra, Lake George, Murrumbateman, Queanbeyan and Yass.
Gundagai – the northeast section of the region is warm to hot (low elevation of the west of the Great Dividing range while the southeastern corner is cool to cold next to the Snowy Mountains). Chardonnay, Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon find a great home here.
Hilltops’ climate is continental. The soils are deep and rich and typically dark red granitic clays impregnated with basalt. Shiraz seems to be the best-suited grape in this region. Chardonnay, Semillon and Cabernet Sauvignon are also popular. Subregions are Boorowa, Harden and Young.
Tumbarumba is one of the most remote wine regions in Australia. The region can produce excellent table wine including sparklers, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. There are no subregions.
6. South Coast Zone includes:
Shoalhaven River region is dotted with wineries. The principal threat to viticulture here lies with unpredictable, but sometimes substantial summer rainfall. Chardonnay is the most important grape. Cabernet Sauvignon is often paired here with Shiraz. The French hybrid Chambourcin is also planted here.
Southern Highlands – the general climate here is cool with mild summers and foggy winters. Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir and Shiraz are among the favorites here.
7. Northern Slopes Zone – produced wine grapes from 1830. Grapes include Chardonnay, Semillon, Sauvignon Blanc as well as Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.
8. Western Plains – in the 1870s there was a significant wine industry. Most wineries are found in the southeastern corner. Grapes include Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon and even Barbera, Muscat and Riesling.
II. SOUTH AUSTRALIA, whose capital is Adelaide, is responsible for two-thirds of the continent’s production. Zones here include the Barossa, Mount Lofty Ranges, Adelaide, Limestone Coast, Fleurieu and Lower Murray. South Australia has long been a center of wine production as its climate and soils are ideally suited to the production of full-bodied wines.
1. The Barossa Zone includes:
Barossa Valley is possibly Australia’s best known region. Old vines, historic wineries and lots of sunshine on rolling hills and in vales produce some of the country’s finest wines. The climate here has often been characterized as very warm when, in reality, its ripening mean temperatures are almost identical with Bordeaux and the Margaret River. Shiraz is the pride of the Barossa but Cabernet Sauvignon, Grenache and Mourvedre are also in demand. Riesling, Semillon and Chardonnay dominate in the whites. Subregions include Angaston, Dorrien Gomersal, Greenoch, Light Pass, Lyndoch, Maranaga, Nuriootpa, Rowland Flat, Seppeltsfield, Tanunda and Williamstown.
Eden Valley is located just south of Barossa though at a much higher altitude (up to 1500 feet) and, therefore, has a cooler climate and more rainfall. Altitude here plays an important role. Overall, growing season temperatures are significantly lower than those of the Barossa Valley. Wind is a major factor too, as is water availability which limits the spread of vineyards. Traditionally, Riesling has been the most important white grape with Chardonnay. Shiraz is the most highly regarded red, though Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot are important, too. Subregions include Flaxmans Valley, High Eden, Keyneton and Springton.