Australia is the world’s largest exporter of wine, with around 780 million litres traveling around the globe annually! Only around 40% of what is produced is consumed in Australia. With such a large land mass in the discussion here, there is no real surprise the figures are so large.
For example, there are around 135,000 hectares of land devoted to vines – That’s about the same size as the whole of the county of Monmouthshire here in the UK!
30% of these vines are for the king of Australian grapes, Shiraz. That alone is more land than the entire of Rutland county!
Compared to regions such as Burgundy, where growers have been discovering the best sites to plant grapes for many hundreds of years, Australia is just at the start of that journey. Matching the right grapes to the right soils and climates takes time and research. As an example, in 1968, the Hanlin Hill vineyard in Clare Valley was planted with Riesling grapes on red loam over slate soils. At 550 metres altitude, the cool nights help retain the intense lime acidity long into the growing season. A perfect marriage of the right grape in the right place. So let’s take a look into the sub-regions and see if we can provide an insight into what to look out for when you are selecting your next tipple.
Arguably the most recognised region, and a good place to begin our journey. The Barossa Valley, north of Adelaide, was first settled by German-speaking immigrants from Silesia, now part of Poland. The tiny hamlet of Bethany was established in 1842 and other hamlets soon followed and have changed very little. In fact, many of the vineyards are now owned by fifth or sixth generation settlers. The Barossa Valley is famed for Shiraz and other red Rhône varieties as well as Riesling and Cabernet. The region itself has attracted more awards than any other in Australia, of which 56% is Shiraz. Traditionally, Barossa Shiraz has been made in an intense, powerful expression, undoubtedly the mainstay of Australia’s wine reputation. Subdivided into the lower lying ‘valley’ floor and the higher altitude eastern side if the region, known as Eden Valley. Here Riesling is particularly prominent, reaching quality levels that can be compared to any other global region. If you are looking to try a bottle of Barossa fair, our Producer JJ Hahn is a sure fired place to begin.
This cool climate is only two hours away from the south of Perth. Margaret River is still the ‘new kid on the block’ as it was first planted in the 1960s. Despite this underwent a meteoric rise to fame because of its elegant and structured wines which often have more in common with Bordeaux than South Australia Cooler subregions of Margaret River make crisp aromatic whites. Making its name through fantastically refined Cabernet Sauvignon, often blended with Merlot. Herbaceous, aromatic Sauvignon, often blended with Semillon. The region itself owes its ability to produce lively, complex wines to the Maritime influences it enjoys. Situated in a square-faced chunk of land that protrudes out 40 miles into the Indian Ocean, hence leading to comparisons of its coastal location and temperature to that of Bordeaux.
The Adelaide Hills were settled by German-speaking families in the mid-1800s. The cool climate hills to the east of Adelaide are part of the Mt. Lofty Ranges and vineyards are planted at varying altitudes with differing microclimates. ‘The Hills’ are very fashionable and a great source of artisan foods. It is no surprise that many of their wines are so food-friendly. Adelaide Hills specialises in crisp, dry aromatic whites and refined reds. One of the largest wine regions in Australia, it also happens to be one of the oldest, recognised very early on for its high altitude and cool-climate potential. The area itself is scattered with numerous valleys, with differing slopes and exposure to sunlight, this makes for a great range of characteristics for the wines to take on. It is definitely an exciting place to investigate! In particular, Unico Zelo (it needs a mention here).
Unico Zelo is a small winery, run by the youthful Brendan and Laura Carter. Still, only in their twenties, this dynamic couple has been making wine under the Unico Zelo label for the last seven years, taking their inspiration from their intense passion for their native land. The in-depth study of vineyard sites in South Australia has led to a focus on Italian varieties, such as Fiano and Nero d’Avola which are perfectly suited to being dry-farmed in the arid Riverland as well as Dolcetto, Nebbiolo and Barbera which flourish in the inland, continental climate. The wines are crafted from varieties that require minimal intervention, both in the vineyard and the winery. These delicious and unique wines combine sustainability and drinkability to great effect. All of the grapes are dry farmed, meaning that irrigation is not required, and they also have a natural resistance to pests, disease, and viruses, eliminating the need for chemical sprays in the vineyard.
Just north of Melbourne, this region is colder than Bordeaux and this is reflected in its beautifully balanced wines that have a natural refreshing acidity. Well known for its gourmet culture as it is for its boutique wines it is at complete odds with the usual, hot and dry Shiraz growing image of Australia, Yarra Valley is best known for its Chardonnay. One of Australia’s oldest and most celebrated regions, vines were planted as far back as 1838. With development continuing over the next 50 years so that wine producing was in full swing here by the 1880s. It was around this time that the dreaded Phylloxera mite arrived in Europe and begun its devastation of the vineyards there. Despite the inevitable influx of European migrants to Australia, Yarra Valley was fortunate enough to escape the mite almost entirely unblemished. Suffering through the years with shifting trends and taste preferences the Yarra has fought for security and a place in the marketplace. Happily modern Yarra wines generally include a premium red and white offering, made from a very well established set of grape varieties perfectly suited to the climate. With the area of land under vines increasing steadily here, the trends look good. For good reason too, the climate here is amongst Australia’s coolest, with altitudes around 1600 ft and hilly typography, shadowed and sheltered areas are created where heat sinks. Rainfall too is ideally distributed for viticulture, with a bias towards an early growing season the region bears more than a passing resemblance to a mini Côte d’Or (limestone escarpment of the French, Burgundy region). The Chapoutier family have long been known as a leading light of the Rhône Valley, but in 1997, Michel Chapoutier expanded their horizons into the New World, specifically the Australian region of Adelaide Hills. Initially making wines in conjunction with renowned local wineries, such as Jasper Hill and Giaconda. In 2009 Chapoutier purchased the Shays Flat and Landsborough Valley estates in the Australian Pyrenees, giving birth to the wholly owned Tournon. Unsurprisingly, the focus is on Shiraz, which under Chapoutier’s skilled hand manages to evoke the minerality and elegance of the Northern Rhône, whilst still expressing the soil and climate of Victoria.
McLaren Vale, south of Adelaide, although first planted over 100 years ago, the region has a ‘new wave’ image. The close-knit community make juicy, turbo-charged reds with no apologies, and will experiment with most varieties and styles; they are not bound by traditions and this is what makes the region so exciting! A wide range of successful varieties reside here, Shiraz unsurprisingly dominates, Cabernet Sauvignon is another prominent variety along with Mourvedre and Grenache. Chardonnay performs well here too, making lively fruit led examples. Chapel Hill was established in 1973, although it was another six years before the estate was named after the 1865 ironstone chapel that now serves as the winery’s tasting room. The name has long stood for elegant expressions of McLaren Vale fruit, but since the arrival of winemaker Michael Fragos, the quality has risen a further notch or two. Fragos has twice been named ‘Winemaker of the Year’ by Winestate in 2003 and by the International Wine & Spirit Competition in 2007. The winery is also a pioneer in sustainability, having sought to establish best practice for the industry for over fifteen years.
A thin strip of land on the Limestone Coast, almost equidistant between Melbourne and Adelaide. It has a maritime climate, not too dissimilar to Bordeaux, and is famed for its Terra Rossa soils that give great complexity to Cabernet Sauvignons. Probably one of the most important regions within the limestone coast of South Australia, credited with producing some of the finest reds of the entire country. Although the vines were first planted here in the last decade of the 19th century by Scottish settler John Riddoch, it was not until the 1950’s that the region received some serious attention when the famous Wynns winery was set up. Many other well-known producers followed suit including Pinfolds and Yalumba. The region received its own geographical identification in 2003, with the delay seeming odd as the region is one of the very few in Australia to be so clearly defined by the earth in which the vines are planted. The Terra Rossa soil is the key factor in Coonawarra terror. Vineyards situated on this prime reddish-brown soil benefit hugely from its nutrient-rich, well-draining credentials. Here it’s the Katnook Estate’s I have chosen to feature. Its winemaking history stretches back to 1896 when Coonawarra’s second vintage was made in the Katnook woolshed by Scottish immigrant John Riddoch. In 1971, the Yunghanns family purchased Katnook and the first vines were planted soon after, with the first vintages of fruit sold to neighboring wineries. In 1980, the first wines were made under the Katnook Estate label. The multi-award-winning Wayne Stehbens made the wines from that first vintage until his unexpected death in 2017. It now falls to the highly talented Tim Heath to continue Wayne’s remarkable legacy.