Australian Wine: From Down Under to Up on Top

Australian winemakers have a reputation for innovation

Australian wine has come a long way. That may sound obvious given how distant the country is from most of its wine markets, but that’s not what we mean. We’re talking about the quality, reputation and, above all, the impact and influence Australian wine has had on the wine industry globally. Where it was once a bit of a joke, today Australia is the hub of two significant wine exports. The wine itself. And the know-how to make high-quality wines consistently on an industrial scale.

A poor start, recovered by a Scotsman

Winemaking in Australia dates back to the arrival of the first white settlers in 1788. No sooner had the so-called First Fleet arrived at Botany Bay, just south of what is now Sydney, than the first grape vines were in the ground. Initially, the settlers struggled to make wine, yet by 1803, winemaking was well enough established that the Sydney Gazette was able to publish articles with snappy headlines like ‘Method of Preparing a Piece of Land for the Purpose of Forming a Vineyard’.

Yet it wasn’t until Scotsman James Busby landed in the new colony in the early 1820s that Australian winemaking really took off. Experienced in winemaking, he brought with him suitable vines and quickly established a number of vineyards, notably in the Hunter Valley, north of Sydney, an area that subsequently developed into one of Australia’s key wine regions.

Busby wrote extensively about how to make wine in New South Wales, and while on a trip back to Europe, arranged for vines from vineyards in Spain and France to be sent to Australia. In the early 1830s, Busby planted over 350 varieties of vines in his Australian vineyards, from where they were distributed throughout New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia.

Because the French wine industry was practically wiped out in the mid-1800s due to phylloxera, which killed off vines in many French vineyards, some of the vines in Australia, rather than Europe, are said to be among the oldest of their kind in the world still in production. In fact, the world’s oldest Shiraz (Syrah) vines are in Australia.

While Busby wasn’t the first person to grow vines in Australia, it’s not hard to see why he is considered the Father of Australian Winemaking. Ironically, shortly after returning to Australia and planting his new vines, Busby was appointed to the top British diplomatic job in New Zealand, where he – guess what – founded New Zealand’s winemaking industry.

After Busby

Australia’s location means its southern states have a climate not unlike the Mediterranean. Its southern coastline is roughly as close to the equator (or as far away, depending on your preference) as countries like Portugal, Spain and Italy. In other words, winemaking conditions are, generally speaking, quite good.

Good conditions don’t necessarily mean good wine, though. For a long time, with the rare exception, Australian wines were sweet Rieslings and fortified reds, both of so-so quality. So much so that Australian wine was seen as a bit of a joke. Literally. Two of the more repeatable lines from Monty Python’s 1970s ‘Australian Table Wines’ sketch are:

“Of the sparkling wines, the most famous is ‘Perth Pink’. This is a bottle with a message in [it], and the message is BEWARE! This is not a wine for drinking. This is a wine for laying down and avoiding.”

and

“Another good fighting wine is ‘Melbourne Old-and-Yellow’, which is particularly heavy, and should be used only for hand-to-hand combat.”

Not that Australians were bothered too much by the reputation of their wine. At the time, they were predominantly gin and beer drinkers, and the country’s wine was mostly shipped overseas.

Yet, here we are today, marvelling at Australia’s ability to produce large quantities of consistently excellent wine, using revolutionary, industrial-scale techniques coupled with a dose of Aussie bravura. At the same time, the nation has gone from shunning wine to being among the biggest consumers of wine in the world.

What on Earth happened?

Australian wineries have a reputation for innovation and quality

Australian wineries have a reputation for innovation and quality

The Australian revolution

For starters, in the 1960s, wine production in Australia changed dramatically. Modern winemaking methods meant crisper, more refreshing white wines could be made. And Australians embraced this new style enthusiastically. Almost overnight, the nation became wine drinkers.

Australia’s new easy-drinking whites were a hit overseas too. As a result, white wine production overtook red wine, and Riesling dwindled in favour of the world’s new favourite grape: Chardonnay.

Demand soared and Australian winemakers knew how to respond. Go big. Go very, very big.

Australian vineyards are huge. Yes, there are smaller vineyards, producing lovingly crafted artisanal-style wines of global repute, but by and large (especially large), Australian vineyards are massive. That’s why, for the majority of Australian wine, it makes little sense to talk about terroir. Australians deal in grape varieties, which they often source from multiple locations and blend together. Unlike the small vineyard, terroir approach, which can yield unpredictable results from year to year, the big-blend method means Australian winemakers can offer their customers a consistent wine year in, year out.

As a result, Australians have become very good at producing good-quality wines at scale, developing new production techniques in the process. They have even gone so far as to irrigate their vineyards, unheard of among Old World wineries.

The Australian way of growing grapes means a lot of flavour being captured in the grape. As a result, local wine production is less reliant on extracting flavour from the skins of the grapes. It’s already in the flesh.

Not content with rewriting the winemaking handbook, Australians also developed new wines by creating blends beyond the traditional Old World stalwarts. Shiraz-Cabernet instead of Merlot-Cabernet, for example. Sémillon-Chardonnay instead of Sémillon-Sauvignon. And they’ve managed to turn Sémillon into a standalone wine grape, whereas elsewhere it often only plays a supporting role in a blend with a more established variety.

Small wonder then that Australian winemakers and their skills have been in hot demand around the world.

Australia is home to some of the oldest vines in the world, including the oldest Syrah (Shiraz) vines still in production

Australia is home to some of the oldest vines in the world, including the oldest Syrah (Shiraz) vines still in production

Down south

Australia’s wine industry is concentrated in the southern half of the country. That’s sensible, because the northern half is mostly desert topped off by the tropics, so it would be like growing vines in the Sahara desert, which, as everyone knows, hasn’t produced a decent vintage in forever. That’s why not a drop of commercially available grape-based wine is currently produced in Northern Territory, don’t even bother looking.

The northernmost wine-making areas in Australia are at the bottom of Queensland, in the Granite Belt and South Burnett, neither of which are names that leap to mind when talking about Australian wine. Shiraz and Chardonnay grow here, though.

At the other extreme is Tasmania, where Sauvingnon, Chardonnay and even Pinot Noir enjoy the cooler climate. Despite being one of the earliest wine-producing regions, Tasmania, like Queensland, isn’t a name many outside Australia would associate with wine.

Instead, we tend to think of New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia and the southwestern tip of Western Australia.

New South Wales is dominated by Hunter Valley (warm, a bit damp; Sémillon, Chardonnay and Shiraz like it here), Upper Hunter Valley (a bit further from the coast, so drier; home to predominantly white wines based on Sémillon and Chardonnay) and Mudgee (further inland, hugging mountains; Chardonnay-, Merlot- and Cabernet-based wines).

Victorian wine-making is dotted throughout the state, with each location having its own specialties. For instance Rutherglen, up in the northeast corner, has a warmer climate that suits Australia’s most celebrated fortified wines: Muscats and Tokays. Goulburn Valley is more central and produces Shiraz and Marsanne-based wines. The Port Phillip region covers the wine-making areas around Melbourne, including the Yarra Valley. Grapes: all of them. Wine styles: all of them.

Western Australian wine production is concentrated in two of the most recognisable regions: Swan Valley and Margaret River, both in a coolish climate influenced by the Indian Ocean. Margaret River is home to many boutique winemakers who produce some outstanding wines from Cabernet, Sauvignon, Chardonnay and Sémillon.

Finally, the big Kahuna. South Australia, which is responsible for half of the country’s wine production and is home to some of its most famous wines. We’ll limit ourselves here to mentioning Penfold’s Grange, possibly Australia’s most respected wine, with a global reputation for excellence and prices to match.

South Australia’s wine regions read like a who’s who of Australian wine and include:

Adelaide Hills, so close to Adelaide some vineyards are actually within Adelaide’s city limits. It’s fairly cool there, the kind of place that Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and Riesling grapes like.

Barossa, just north of Adelaide. Home to Barossa Valley, which produces full-bodied (and we mean full-bodied) wines made from Shiraz, Cabernet and Sémillion. Also Eden Valley, which produces whites and stonkingly good Shirazes.

Clare Valley, further north of Adelaide, where Riesling thrives. Also Cabernet and Shiraz.

McLaren Vale, south of Adelaide, known for Shiraz- and Cabernet-based wines.

Padthaway, southeast of McLaren Vale. A cool place noted for its white wines, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc especially.

Coonawarra, further south again, famed for its iron-rich red soils, is a coolish region with a hot name for Cabernet-based wines.

There is much more to say about all of Australia’s wine regions. We’ll get to them in turn in future posts. In the meantime, we can confidently say that the days when Australian wine was “for laying down and avoiding” are far behind us.

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