Australia has made one of the largest impacts on the global wine industry in the shortest space of time compared to any other country in history. Australia has commercially been producing wine since the early 19th century though has made its true debut on the international stage in the mid-20th century. It has made its name in clean, fruity red and white wines – often at very cheap price points – which is something that no other country, before them, was able to do year in year out. Australia has a perfect climate for viticulture as it is hot and dry enough to produce wines without too much hassle or work needing to be done in the vineyards aside from the occasional usage of irrigation.
Australia has been ahead of its time in the cutting-edge of winemaking practises. It was one of the first to adopt stainless steel tanks, do cooler fermentations to concentrate flavour production, introduce bulk wine packaged in casks and helping to introduce the world to screw-caps alongside New Zealand. The Australian Wine Research Institute is one of the leading research centres in wine science of the world.
Wine production is centred in southern Australia with the exception of Margaret River in the west. Most people would think of Shiraz when thinking of Australia, or at least fruity red wines, but whites are planted almost 50/50 to reds. The leading whites are made from Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc/Semillon blends. Shiraz is the king and saviour of Australia’s wine industry though making internationally recognised reds.
Main Grapes or styles
Shiraz – makes up 25% of all of Australia’s total vineyard area. It is the clear choice for many winemakers as it is an easy to grow grape in the heat of most Australian wine regions. Generally speaking it is aged in American oak which gives sweet spice, vanilla and caramel flavours to match with the blackberry, licorice and black plum flavours of ripe Shiraz. In recent years there has been a toning down of the traditional oaking regime with a move towards French oak or no oak at all – these wines are more fruit-forward or ‘pure’ expressions of Shiraz, if you will. Sparkling Shiraz is also a fun wine to enjoy.
Australia is home to some of the oldest Shiraz vines in the world. Above is a 125 year-old vine in the heart of Barossa Valley in Tscharkes' vineyards.
Cabernet Sauvignon – is the third most important grape variety to Australia’s wine industry after Shiraz and Chardonnay. Though it is planted en masse across the south of Australia it is best suited to the cooler regions of Clare Valley with famous examples being found in the region of Coonawarra. The most classic aroma of Australian Cabernet Sauvignon is eucalyptus.
Grenache – though it only makes up 1% of the total vineyard area, Grenache is becoming more important as the years go by. It is largely used in the famous GSM blends where it is blended with Shiraz and Mouvedre – the blend originates in the southern Rhone Valley of France. It is capable of producing highly-alcoholic red wines when produced on its own, too.
Chardonnay – the second most important grape in Australia. It is most famous for its big, brash tropical flavours that almost always accompanied with oaky and buttery flavours. This was the style of Chardonnay that wine-drinkers around the world enjoyed throughout the 1980s and 1990s – many got sick of the big style but it is clearly still very popular in Australia. Chardonnay is increasingly being made in a more Burgundian-style – more restrained and dominated by citrus and biscuity flavours, which makes for a refreshing difference to the oak-bombs of yesteryear.
Riesling – the white grape that is famous in the regions of Clare and Eden Valley. Though it is a Germanic grape varietal that is usually found in the coolest wine regions in the world here it makes crisp refreshing whites that are zesty and known for their lime juice flavours.
Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon – these two white grapes are listed together as they most commonly are blended together in Australia. The best examples of these are produced in Margaret River of western Australia, though many cheaper examples can be found throughout south Australia. This aside, both grapes, especially Semillon, are producing fantastic crisp white wines many of which are extremely long-lived and under-appreciated.
Riverland – this region might not resonate with many Australian wine drinkers at first but that is because it usually just called ‘South Australia’ on wine labels. It is the home to 25% of Australia’s total production. Led by bulk red wine and Chardonnay production.
Barossa Valley – perhaps the most famous wine region in Australia. It is of course most famous for being the home to Shiraz – host to some of the oldest Shiraz vines in the world, 100-150 years old. The wines are full-bodied filled with black fruit, licorice and spicy flavours. Grenache and Cabernet Sauvignon are also important here too.
Eden and Clare Valleys – Eden Valley is in the back of the Barossa region, and Clare is more north closer to Adelaide. Both are reasonably warm and the best vineyards are on hillsides. It is famously known for its zesty Rieslings but Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz are both planted here in much larger numbers.
Adelaide Hills – is a white specialised region which is rare in a red filled country like Australia. Here Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc is king. The Chardonnays are known for being opposite to the tropical fruit and oak-filled wines made in south Australia, here they are more restrained with zesty flavours instead.
Coonawarra – is most famous for its Cabernet Sauvignon and the red ‘terra rossa’ soils on which it is grown on. Riesling, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc are also planted here.
Margaret River – is the most awarded region of Australia with roughly 2/3s of Australia’s gold-medal winning wines but is one of the smallest regions in Australia. It is a region that sets itself apart by being quality-focused not quantity focused like most other regions. Bordeaux blends, Cabernet and Merlot, and Chardonnays are the leading wine styles from here. Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon white wine blends are also famous from this region.
Tasmania – the small island off the southern coast of Australia is the coolest wine region of them all. It is home to Australia’s leading sparkling wines and Pinot Noirs. This cool climate produces whites that are zesty, crisp and refreshing thanks to their acidity retention made possible by the cooling ocean breezes.
Climate and its effect on the wines made here
There is a real variety of climates found across Australia. Overall it is considered to have a Mediterranean climate with long hot summers and short cooler winters – though in reality cool is still hot in Australia. The cooler climates in Australia are those found along the coasts such as Margaret River and Tasmania. The further inland you get the hotter it gets with the hottest regions being Riverina and Riverland. Most of southern Australia gets cooling breezes to some degree which makes viticulture possible, much further than Riverland is just too hot for viticulture.