Australia’s wine industry has been phenomenally successful in the last 30 years and today is the world’s fourth largest wine exporter, with wines sold in over 100 countries. Australia was the first of the ‘new world’ wine producing countries to understand how to appeal to modern wine drinkers, with its inexpensive, easy-drinking, wine styles. Its innovative strategy of producing and labelling wines according to grape variety proved highly popular and saw Australia steal valuable market share from traditional producing countries France, Italy and Spain.read more
However there is more to Aussie wine than fruit bombs (however appealing!) The astonishing array of high quality, characterful wines now emerging from Australia’s diverse wine regions is testament to the efforts of its talented viticulturalists and winemakers and their pursuit of quality and finesse.
Australia and its wines – history and culture
Australia may be a young wine country but its pioneering achievements go back more than two centuries. Australia’s first vines came on the First Fleet in 1788, but today’s wine industry was essentially founded by Englishman James Busby, a viticulturalist who created nurseries in the 1830s from French and Spanish vine cuttings. Virtually all grapes planted in Australia originated here. After the phylloxera louse devastated European vineyards in the 1870s, Australia found a ready export market in the UK, bereft of its customary French clarets. At this time, most Australian wine was sweet and fortified, however the post-war influx of European immigrants instigated a table wine culture. Australia’s innovative strategy of producing uncomplicated, fruity wines labelled by grape variety, launched in export markets in the 1980s, was and still is a huge success with consumers worldwide. Recent grape gluts, climatic extremes and economic issues have challenged the Australian wine industry, forcing it to consolidate to maintain sales in increasingly price-competitive wine export markets. Australia’s challenge is to raise its reputation for premium wine and thereby command prices that enable reinvestment in its wine industry long-term. The good news is that many independent wineries in Australia are doing just that.
Australia’s geography and wine regions
Australia’s vast range of climates, topographies and soils offer many possibilities for the production of high quality wine grapes.
New South Wales accounts for a quarter of Australia’s wine production, and is divided into sub-regions with varying microclimates. The hot Riverina wine area is home to much of Australia's large scale wine production, featuring irrigated vineyards on flat plains. The warm, humid Hunter Valley north of Sydney has developed a reputation for iconic premium wines from small wineries.
South Australia produces almost half of Australia’s wine. Its varied geography gives a diverse range of microclimates yielding many different grapes and wine styles. The hot, irrigated Riverland region produces bulk wines, while premium wines are produced in areas nearer the Indian Ocean, such as the Adelaide Hills, Barossa Valley and Coonawarra. Victoria is one of Australia’s oldest wine regions and enjoys renown for premium wine regions such as Heathcote, Rutherglen and the Yarra Valley.
Western Australia. Close to the city of Perth and 30km from the ocean, Margaret River is Western Australia’s key wine sub-region. Focused on quality, Margaret River produces just 3% of Australia’s wine, but 20% of its premium wine.
Australia’s wines – key styles and grape varieties
Australia offers a plethora of wine styles at all prices, from many different grape varieties and regions. While Australian wine’s original strap-line ‘sunshine in a glass’ is more likely to conjure up images of inexpensive branded Chardonnays and fruity Shiraz-Cabernet blends, there is much to discover from Australia’s tantalizing array of higher quality wines, too, some of which have become benchmark ‘classic’ styles such as Barossa Shiraz, Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon and Clare Valley Riesling. Australia also makes sparkling wines, the best using the traditional Champagne method, while sparkling red Shiraz is an Aussie icon and party classic. There are Aussie sweet wines too, such as soft-textured late-harvest Rieslings, fortified tawnies and Rutherglen Muscat, Australia’s unctuous, toffee-flavoured classic. Botrytis-style wines, made from Semillon and Riesling, are not unlike France’s famed Sauternes or German Trockenbeerenauslese wines.Australia’s red wines
Australia has made its name with ripe, fruity red wines for easy-drinking at everyday prices. These wines, are typically made from Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon, or blends, from irrigated vineyard wine regions like the Riverina. Australia boasts a huge array of premium red wines too. By rule of thumb, the warmer the region, the richer and more full-bodied the wine, and while this style is readily associated with Australian wine, there are also many elegant, refined styles from cooler wine regions. Key grapes for premium wines are Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz, though Pinot Noir, Grenache and many other varieties produce notable wines too.
Cabernet Sauvignon works well in cooler areas like the Coonawarra, with its powerful cassis fruit, spearmint and classic Bordeaux-like structure. Margaret River’s Cabernet-Merlot blends are stylish and herbaceous, while McLaren Vale ‘Cab’ offers blackcurrant flavours and chocolatey textures.
Shiraz vines were the first to arrive in Australia in 1832, so Aussie winemakers have had time to get to know it! Shiraz responds well to Australia’s different regional conditions. In Margaret River, it is intensely fruity with fresh mint notes, while Barossa Shiraz is ripe, lavish and muscular. Shiraz is often blended with Cabernet Sauvignon, Grenache, and Viognier.
Pinot Noir, French Burgundy’s moody grape, is being tamed by patient Australian winemakers. Adelaide Hills, Tasmania and Yarra Pinot Noirs offer bright raspberry fruit, developing complexity with age.Australia’s white wines
Australia’s easy-drinking, inexpensive white wines have lost none of their appeal since the successful international launch of brands like Lindeman’s Bin 65 in the 1980s. Often based on Chardonnay, Semillon and Riesling, these refreshing wines offer tropical fruit and vanilla flavours. Blended to a consistent recipe from Australia’s vast irrigated vineyard regions like the Riverina, they offer exceptional value for money.
Australia’s premium white wines are made from various grape varieties, but Chardonnay is a favourite. In coastal or higher altitude sites and in the hands of clever winemakers, Aussie’s top Chardonnays can rival France’s fine Burgundies. Look out for wines from the Adelaide Hills, a benchmark style for Australian cool-climate Chardonnay.
Australia’s top Semillon styles are unique. Barossa Valley Semillon tastes of ripe peaches, mango and vanilla overtones from oak ageing. Hunter Valley Semillon, picked early to maintain acidity, requires bottle age to develop its classic honey/nut flavours and lime-cream texture.
Dry Rieslings from the Clare and Eden Valleys are highly acclaimed, while perfumed, limpid Rieslings are making a name for Tasmania’s Tamar Valley.
Sauvignon Blanc is beautifully expressive in the Adelaide Hills, offering flavours of cut grass, ripe gooseberries and passion fruit. Margaret River pairs Sauvignon Blanc with Semillon in its classic, grassy, citrus-spiked ‘Sauv-Sem’ blends.
Australia and its wines – in a nutshell
Australia has over 2,000 wineries. Australia’s oldest Shiraz and Grenache vines are almost 150 years old.
Australia is the world’s fourth most important wine exporting country.
Wine is Australia’s most important agricultural export after meat and wheat.
Australia’s Shiraz grape is the same grape as Syrah in France’s Rhône valley.
Australia’s wine industry was dedicated primarily to fortified wine production until the 1950s.
Little known fact … Australians drink over 500 million bottles of wine per year!
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