The first European settlers proved in the late 18th century that Imported wines thrived In Australia, and by the late 19th century it was a substantial producer of strapping wine, routinely treated with disdain in Britain, its only export market.
Most of it was fortified and called port or sherry; a small fraction earned an almost mystical reputation as table wine of original character and legendary lasting power. The 1970s saw a radical change. Fortified wine sales slumped; table wines took off and found an eager export market. Such thrusting salesmen as Wolf Blass formulated sweet, oaky, concentrated wines that collected gold medals and high reputations. More sensitive wine-growers (there were many) made less money and were soon gobbled up by big breweries.
In the 1990s and early 2000s, Australian wine exports soared, but this encouraged a frenzy of planting, some of it misguidedly encouraged by tax breaks. A grape glut, perhaps inevitably, followed, exacerbated by deep discounting on the domestic market and a strengthening of the Australian dollar, thanks lo Asian demand for the country’s rich mineral deposit. By 2012, Australias 6,250 sine-growers (down from 8,570 in 2004) were facing serious challenges in an era of changing dim a l.e and changing tastes.
Australia is strongly affected by the El Nino and La Nino weather systems, leading to testing extremes. Since 2006 they have really hurt. Drought plagued many wine regions between 2007 and 2010, with grapes, picked weeks earlier than usual. The Victorian bush fires of 2009 cost lives as well as destroying about 3% of the Yarra Valley’s vineyards and wineries. Then, from 2011, La Nina inflicted some of the wettest growing seasons ever on South Eastern Australian farmers. Meanwhile, Western Australian vineyards experienced a sublime run of vintages from 2006 which emphasizes just how enormous Australia is: Perth to Brisbane by road is nearly 2,800 miles (4,500km).
The world’s largest island is very far from any but its domestic consumers. They do their best, drinking more than five times as much wine per head as they did in I960. But they only soak up about a third of all the wine their country produces. As the surface temperature map on p.836 shows, most of this vast country is too hot and/or too dry even for the hardy vine, and most wine regions hug the coast, mainly the coolest, most heavily populated southeast coast, plus Tasmania and the far southwest.
There are two paths to cooler conditions: further south or uphill. The Great Dividing Range is flanked by wine regions all the way. At its northern limit is the wine country of Queensland, focused on two relatively high-altitude wine regions known as Geographical Indications (inevitably abbreviated to Gls). Both the Granite Bell and South Burnell depend on altitude to keep cool. Queensland has twice as much vineyard in total as the much cooler state of Tasmania, but low rainfall limits its normal crop to under half of Tasmania’s. The Granite Bell, responsible for Iwo-thirds of all Queensland wines, has one of the country’s most dramatic landscapes, scattered with giant granite boulders. It cleverly differentiated itself as early as 2007 by specializing in grapes other than the usual suspects – known in Australia as “alternative varieties”.
Australian wine: Great grape changes
One of the most obvious changes in the last few years has been the rise of these alternative varieties. The first to achieve commercial success was Pinot Gris/Grigio, pioneered on Victoria’s Mornington Peninsula. It now produces more wine than Riesling, Australia’s classic white grape, and was outlawed from the annual Australian Alternative Variety Show in 2020 on the basis that it made up 2.4 % of Liu’s total national crush. It is surpassed in premium whites only by Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, and Semillon.
Although slowed by Australia’s painstaking plant quarantine, the range of varieties is rapidly growing. By 2010, Viognier had almost overtaken the historic Verdelho, there were more Tempranillo and Sangiovese in the ground than Cabernet Franc, and well over 250 acres (l00ha) of in declining order, Arneis, Dolcetto, Zinfandel, Barbera, Nebbiolo, and Savagnin (Traminer), this last having originally been sold as Albariiio as the result of a mix-up in a Spanish nursery.
As for the major varieties, Shiraz continues to be the signature grape of Australia: almost one vine in every four. Its wines vary enormously but, mirroring a general trend, there has been an awing away from super-concentrated, heavily oaked wines made from often overripe grapes to styles that speak more of the vineyard than wizardry in the cellar. A fashion for co-fomenting Shiraz with Viognier has waned, and some of the fresher style wines are labeled “Syrah” rather than “Shiraz” as a nod to France. In 2011, the famous Jimmy Walson Trophy for the best young red of the Melbourne Show went to Glaetzer-Dixon’s distinctly transparent Shiraz from… Tasmania. Even Australia’s agenda-setting wine shows have been changing.
But if Shiraz, has evolved, Chardonnay (now the country’s second most planted variety, having overtaken Cabernet Sauvignon) has had a complete personality change. (Changes that would take generations in Europe seem to take Australians no more than a couple of years.) It was plump, rich oakiness that first sold Australian Chardonnay in the 1990s. But the minute Australian wine exporters sensed that their major markets, the UK and US, were tired of this style, winemakers throughout Australia put their Chardonnays on the strictest of diets. Today, Australian Chardonnay is lean, occasionally mean, but more often a hugely appetizing, well made, well-priced answer to white burgundy.
For all varieties, and the increasing number of blends, there has been a real shill away from pride in technical prowess towards more artisanal methods. Good producers want to express geography more than technique.
Selling Australian wine
Australian wine producers listen carefully to their customers abroad because they are so dependent on them. At home, imports, helped by the mighty’ Australian dollar, are still competition. A glut of New Zealand’s most famous wine resulted in such a flood of Marlborough Sauvignon Wane that it was nicknamed a “SavaIanche”. It became a sore point that the single biggest-selling wine brand in Australia was from New Zealand.
At the same time, Australia’s two most important export markets wobbled. In the US, there had been a flurry of interest in turbocharged Shiraz, fuelled by wine guru Robert Parker. Many American wine collectors expected them to age beautifully and were disappointed. At the other end of the market, the Casella family of New South Wales had seen a sales boom for the Yellow Tail brand designed expressly for the US, but it and its imitators did little for the image of Australian wine in general and came to be dismissed, along with its many imitators, as unsophisticated “critter brands”.
At more or less the same time the handful of supermarket retailers that rule the British mass-market decided that Australian brands in bottle.
SOUTHEASTERN AUSTRALIA’S Gls
There is a marked contrast between most of these wire regions (“Gls” in Strine) and the heavily and increasingly expensively irrigated inland regions on the Murray, Darling, Murruiribidqew and Lachlan rivers. The economics of Riverland, Murray Darling, and Riverina are under threat were becoming too expensive and switched to importing in bulk wine bought to a price for their own label brands. For the first time, in 2008, total exports of Australian wine were less than the year before, and by early 2012, Australia was exporting more wine in bulk than in bottle. These wits despite the huge success that Australian exporters haw had in China, now the country’s third most important market and worth almost half as much as the UK.
The Australian wine factories
Much of the wine exported in bulk, indeed 60% of the country’s entire crop, comes from Australia’s vast inland vineyard, in declining order of the amount of wine produced, Riverland in South Australia, Murray Darling straddling the Victoria-New South Wales border, and Riverina in New South Wales. Riverina is not all about bulk; there is some rich botrytized Semillon from Griffith. These are regions that would not exist without irrigation from the Murray, Darling, or Mumunbidgee rivers and are run with staggering efficiency if dangerously depleting reserves of water. Some of the red wines need bolstering with ingredients from cooler regions, and these vast wine factories in the desert will undoubtedly shrink further if there is another run of drought years. (One of the few benefits of the drought years has been to impost: much greater discipline on water use and re-use.) As it is. Australia’s total area under vine had shrunk to barely 370,700 acres (150,000ha) by 2012 and the average value of a tonne of wine grapes in Australia plummeted from A$880 for die 2007 harvest to just A$410 five years later.
Wines from the inland river regions are labeled South Eastern Australia, a GI used liberally for many a wine made from the blended produce оf virtually anywhere other than Western Australia. Australia has a long tradition of blending between different regions. Indeed some of the greatest Australian wines the authors have ever lasted qualify as “inter-regional blends”. They are unlikely to disappear, however unfashionable they may be currently with geographical purists.
Australia was the first major wine country to embrace screw caps, for red wi пек as well as whites, spurred on initially by the much smaller New Zealand wine industry. Exporters may offer the choice of traditional cork or screw cap but the great majority of Australian producers, and the all-important show judges, are completely converted to the virtues of Stelvin, referring to it by the name of the dominant brand.
AVERAGE GROWING SEASON TEMPERATURES 1981-2010
These average temperatures, from 1 October to 30 April, broadly correlate to the maturity potential for wine grape varieties.
The cool limit for viticulture is found in much of Tasmania, in the south of Victoria, and in elevated parts of eastern New South Wales, making them the focus for cool-climate viticulture. The upper limit is roughly 70F (21C), so that much of Australia is unsuited to wine-growing.
One relatively important wine region not mapped in detail on the following pages is South Australia’s Limestone Coast. The most important of the official regions within this geometrically drawn GI are Coonawarra, then Padthaway and Wrattonbully, with Mount Henson. Robe, and Mount Gambler much smaller, and Bordertown yet to seek individual recognition.
Padthaway was the first limestone-rich alternative to Coonawarra to be scouted out in this remote corner of Australia’s wine state. While the soils are not dissimilar to Coonawarra’s, the climate is usefully warmer, although it took the big companies that dominated vineyard ownership here some time to work out that the region is best at Chardonnay and Shiraz. Most of the grapes arc shipped north to be vinified in big company cellars.
Wrattonbully, just north of Coonawarra, is cooler and more homogeneous than Padthaway and, not least thanks to its terra Rossa soils, is likely to prove the most interesting, although it has only about a third the vineyard area of Coonawarra and half that of the more established Padthaway. Several high-profile family companies have invested here. A few plantings around Mount Gambier. The newest CL, suggest that this southern outpost of mixed farming is too cool to ripen Bordeaux grapes but shows potential for Pinot Noir.
Mount Benson has almost a score of individual growers, while Robe, die remarkably similar region to the south, has been virtually colonized by Treasury Wine Estates. Wine made from fruit grown right on the coast here is juicier, less concentrated, than the sinewy ferments of Coonawarra. Sea breezes cool the vineyards almost constantly, although they can be dangerously salty this close to the sea. At least the underground water table is free of salinity (a common problem in parts of Australia), and the prospects, give or lake a frost or two, look good.
There are several extensive vineyards, the warmest at Limestone Coast, just west of Bordertown, to the northeast of Padthaway, and at Elgin near the coast, due west of Coonawarra. as well as scattered plantings at Mundulla and Lindale.