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Australian Wines are Raising the Bar

Australian Wines are Raising the Bar

Over the past decade, the British people’s attitude towards Australian wines has been swinging in favour of their premium wines, reflecting the more general trend of drinking less but drinking better.

This is music to the ears of the new generation of winemakers who are passionate about making wines with true regional distinction, using less human intervention than those mass produced by the huge ‘bulk wine’ conglomerates that still make up around 85% of what we consume as a nation, every year.

This week we take a trip ‘Down Under’ to find out more about this unique country and where to find outstanding value from some of the smaller producers.

Australian Wines are Raising the Bar - Harvest time

Early Viticulture in Australia

It seems a little ironic that we refer to countries like Australia, South Africa and Chile as ‘New World’ wine producers when they each have a winemaking heritage that dates back to the 18th, 17th and 16th Centuries respectively. But in the context of European and Middle Eastern wine production that dates back around 8,000 years, one could accept that they are comparative newcomers to the wine scene.

Australia’s first European vines were introduced when the first British colony arrived in 1788 and were established across the area that’s now covered by Sydney. Over the next century, vineyards spread across the Hunter Valley in New South Wales, the Barossa Valley in South Australia and the Yarra Valley in Victoria.

This was further expedited by the influx of German and Italian immigrants, who primarily settled in the Barossa and Riverina regions of South Australia. Names like Wolf Blass, Johann Gramp (founder of Jacob’s Creek), Henschke and De Bortoli are some of the more famous family names/brands that should be familiar.

Moving from Fortified to Table Wines

Australian Wines are Raising the Bar - Jacob's Creek

Up until the 1950s, Australia was producing mainly fortified wines but this slowed significantly in favour of full-bodied reds as the demand for table wines took off. Like Britain, the Aussies also had a penchant for medium-sweet whites made from Riesling and Gewurztraminer as well as sparkling wines during the late 60s and 70s.

In the late 70s, tastes changed again and the demand moved towards dry white wines with Chardonnay, in particular, becoming the focus. Especially when treated like their heavy Cabernet’s and Shiraz’s, either fermented in or aged in oak.

At the same time, we started to see the rise of brands like Jacob’s Creek, Wolf Blass, Penfold’s, Hardy’s, Rosemount etc who were capable of churning out large volumes of consistently gluggable, varietally-labelled wines at a competitive price despite having to travel half-way around the globe. More recently, with Britain’s escalating tax system on duty, the only way these huge brands could remain viable was to ship the liquid in bulk and bottle at huge plants in this country, a practise now widely used by other major New World producers.

 

The ‘Craft’ Wine Movement

Over the past twenty years, a new generation of ‘boutique’ producers has spawned throughout the winegrowing areas of Australia, which has been driven not only by the rapid growth in the casual dining and wine bar scene in Europe and the US, but domestically too. The industry continues to become more polarised through the consolidation of the big brand names and the rise of the artisan, ‘craft’ winemakers.

What are the Key Winegrowing Regions of Australia?

Australian Wines are Raising the Bar - - South Australia

South Australia

The largest and most important winegrowing area is South Australia which includes sub-regional names like Barossa Valley, Eden Valley, McLaren Vale, Langhorne Creek, Adelaide Hills and Coonawarra. It also includes the Riverland region which follows the huge Murray River that also links neighbouring Victoria and New South Wales. There’s a broad diversity of micro-climates, topography and therefore grape varieties that are produced across this region of which Shiraz is the most important, but more about that a bit later. Most of the iconic producers that will be most familiar to you originate from here.

New South Wales

The next largest region is New South Wales which includes sub-regions like the Hunter Valley, Mudgee and Riverina. Again, a lot of commercial Shiraz and Chardonnay was historically grown here, but the recent spate of droughts has caused growers to have a rethink. The trend now is favouring Mediterranean grape varieties that are drought resistant – again we’ll touch on this later when we explore grape varieties in more detail.

Victoria

The third most significant region is Victoria and most of the commercial production centres on the Murray Darling sub-region that sits between Riverland and Riverina. There are plenty of more premium wines being produced across the state in cooler climate areas like Mornington Peninsula, Yarra Valley and Goulburn Valley and special mention should also be made of the famous ‘stickies’, the fortified sweet Muscats from Rutherglen.

Western Australia

Next in size comes Western Australia, one of the most isolated regions in the world. Sub-regions like Margaret River, Great Southern and Geographe are the most significant and you’ll find the wines are more European in style due to the cooling influences from the Pacific Ocean.

Tasmania

The final region worthy of mention is Tasmania. This large island off the south coast of Victoria makes some of the best traditional method fizz and cool-climate wines coming out of Australia although comparatively little of it is actually exported.

Australia’s Main Grape Varieties

Shiraz is by far the most important grape variety grown in Australia and accounts for around a quarter of the total crush. Most of this is destined for the everyday-drinking wines, however there’s plenty of quality ‘Old Vine’ Shiraz worth seeking out if you want to experience the best this varietal has to offer. Most of the oldest vines are to be found in the Barossa and McLaren Vale sub-regions but the Hunter Valley, Yarra Valley and Margaret River sub-regions also make outstanding examples that are generally more elegant.

Chardonnay is the second largest variety by quantity produced and accounts for around 20% of the total. Apart from the bulk-produced labels, there’s a growing trend towards cool-climate Chardonnay and there are some outstanding examples coming from Victoria, Western Australia and Tasmania as well as areas within the Adelaide Hills and High Eden too.

Cabernet Sauvignon is the third largest variety, just behind Chardonnay, and is largely blended with Shiraz although it also makes some beautiful, single-varietal wines on the Limestone Coast of South Australia (which includes Coonawarra) and in Western Australia. If you’re looking for more opulent and masculine styles of Cabernet, try the Barossa Valley and McLaren Vale.

The next half a dozen or so grape varieties are still important but are produced in much smaller quantities. Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir, Semillon, Pinot Gris and Riesling in that order make up the next tier.

Believe it or not, there are a further 150+ grape varieties planted commercially, including many from the Mediterranean like Nero d’Avola, Aglianico and Fiano, which are becoming more important as the climate becomes more extreme.

 

Outstanding Value Wines Not to be Missed

The Courtesan, Riesling

If you’re a fan of refreshingly dry yet fruity whites, you’ll love the Wild & Wilder ‘The Courtesan’ Riesling. This is a low-yielding, single-vineyard wine from the cooler Clare Valley to the north of Adelaide. Elevated between 400 and 500 metres above sea level, the combination of hot summer days and cool nights creates the ideal conditions for Riesling to ripen slowly. This wine has distinctive floral, lime and exotic fruit flavours balanced by juicy acidity. Enjoy well chilled with salads and Asian dishes, even those with a little heat.

Berton Vineyard, Reserve, Chardonnay

Australian Chardonnay has changed dramatically from the buttery, over-oaked monsters of the 80s to the far more refined and balanced examples that we find today. The Berton Vineyard Reserve Eden Valley Chardonnay is a great example of cooler climate Chardonnay from this family estate that’s now celebrating its 25th anniversary. Fruit comes from several vineyards across the Eden Valley with a large proportion coming from their home plot in High Eden which sits around 500 metres above sea level. The aromas are varied and complex with some lifted floral notes along with nectarine, melon and hints of almonds. The wine has a creaminess and generosity in the mouth held together by fine acidity that makes it delicious with white meats and sea fish. Serve between fridge and room temperature.

Larry Cherubino ‘AdHoc Middle of Everywhere’, Shiraz

One of our favourite reds at the moment is Larry Cherubino’s Ad Hoc ‘Middle of Everywhere’ Shiraz. Sourced from various sites in the Frankland River sub-region of Margaret River in Western Australia, the wine is fermented in small batches before being aged for 6-8 months in new and second-use oak barrels. The wine is brimming with juicy blueberry and black cherry flavours coupled with a gentle peppery spice that makes it very moreish. The tannins are fine-grained and silky and make this wine an absolute winner with slow-cooked beef or lamb. Best served between 10-12°C.

If you love Australian wines and want to experience more of what they have to offer, outside of the ubiquitous labels, please click here to see our full extensive range.

Australian Wines are Raising the Bar - Cheers!
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