About Australia's Wine Regions
Australia typifies what “New World” wines are all about. They are made in a very fruit-forward manner. The wines are fleshy with super ripe fruit and usually with plenty of alcohol. This is not to say there are no well-made wines in the country. In fact, some of our favorite wines are from Australia. Their wines overall are very much like the people there: fun loving, full of life, friendly, very open, and without pretensions.
Most of what the US market is used to seeing from Australia are the big inexpensive brands. Simple, inexpensive wines with gobs of fruit that usually have a fun little furry animal on the label (cough…Yellowtail…cough, cough…). These wines dominate Australia’s exports. They are good quality and highly consistent, but they are very difficult to tell apart from one another stylistically.
In the past decade there has been a move to produce more site-specific wines of distinct origin. That is evidenced by the fact that there are currently over 1,800 wineries in Australia or more than two times the amount there were in 1996. This growth rate amounts to almost 1 new winery every 84 hours!
The Australian Wine Regions
Most of the quality wine production takes place in 4 of Australia’s 6 states: New South Wales (NSW), Victoria (VIC), South Australia (SA) and Western Australia (WA). Tasmania (TAS) is politically included as part of Victoria, but it is typically considered a separate entity as it applies to wine. The Northern Territory (NT), and Queensland (QLD) both make wine, but the quality is nothing worth noting here.
Australian Wine Regulations
The Label Integrity Act of 2001 was a great step forward for Australia’s wine industry. This act defined boundaries for named wine growing regions called Geographic Indications (GI), which are the equivalent of AVA’s in the United States. It also established minimum requirements for stating GI’s, varietals, and vintage on wine labels. 85% is the minimum allowable percentage for all of these categories.
Before this act producers were basically on the honor system for labeling their wines. A producer could legally put Barossa Valley on the label, even if only a small portion of the grapes (if any at all) were grown there.
To accommodate large-scale wine producers that were blending multiple growing sites throughout the country for their brands, Australia also created two Super Zones. These two zones cover many GIs and, in one case, multiple states. Their creation allowed these producers to use a GI on the label other than "Product of Australia". Even though they list a GI on the label, they are anything but site-specific wines.
The Australian Wine Regions
Most of the quality wine production takes place in 4 of Australia’s 6 states:
New South Wales (NSW)
Victoria (VIC) - including the Island of Tasmania
South Australia (SA)
Western Australia (WA)
The Northern Territory (NT), and Queensland (QLD) both make wine, but the quality is nothing worth noting here.
New South Wales
Important regions of NSW:
Hunter: Traditionally separated into two growing areas: Upper Hunter Valley, and Lower Hunter Valley. Most great wine is made in the Lower. Shiraz performs very well here, as does Chardonnay, but what really finds a home here is Semillon. The Semillons here see no oak in there production. In their youth they are lime driven and very zesty (some say battery acid like!), however, as they age they develop nutty tones, with toffee and caramel, but retain their acidity.
Important regions of VIC:
Yarra Valley: Often though to be Australia’s answer to Burgundy. Yarra makes great Pinot Noir, and great Chardonnay. They, unlike burgundy also lay claim to some high quality Cabernet Sauvignons, and some good cool climate Shiraz. The cool climate, and volcanic based brown and red soils are perfect for Pinot. There are some high quality sparkling wines made here too. It is not for no reason that the famous Champagne house Chandon chose Yarra Valley for its Australian location to make bubbles.
Geelong: Across Port Phillip Bay from Melbourne (about 1hr south), Geelong is a premiere site in OZ for Pinot Noir & Chardonnay. The cool climate, exposure to the further cooling affects of Port Phillip Bay, and the poorly drained, volcanic soils set up perfectly for a long growing season that Pinot Noir requires.
Heathcote: A Shiraz dominant region, Heathcote sits north of Melbourne by a few hours. The mineral rich red clay (Cambrian) soils, warm climate and mountain shelter from breezes make this are perfect for elegant Shiraz.
Mornington Peninsula: This region can easily challenge Yarra Valley for the crown of top Pinot Noir region in OZ. It is situated southeast of Melbourne (by about 90 minutes). Its exposure to large bodies of water on all sides keep the climate very cool, but the large hills on either side help protect the vineyards from the strong winds. Amazing Pinot Noir, great Chardonnay, excel here. There are also quality examples of cool-climate Shiraz, and Cabernet Sauvignon made here.
Rutherglen: Sticky central! Australia’s wine industry got its first start with fortified wines. They were the “en vogue” style that England was drinking in the late 1800’s, and they were the wines most capable of surviving the trip all the way around the world. Rutherglen is the defining style that OZ is famous for.
Tasmania: Possibly one of the coldest wine growing regions on the planet, Tasmania sits just off the coast of Victoria. The main production of this region is for Sparkling wine. The region is so cold that the grapes struggle to get ripe every year. This is what helps keep that high level of acidity that is necessary for sparkling wine.
Important regions of SA:
Barossa Valley: Shiraz is king in this region. Barossa Valley lies north east of the city of Adelaide. This is the most famous wine-growing region in Australia. It is a very warm, dry growing region. Growth is kept in check due to the severe restrictions on water sourcing. The reds are BIG and sturdy with loads of black fruits. There are good white wines produced here too. Chardonnay, Semillon, and Riesling are the three most common white grapes planted here.
McLaren Vale: If Barossa is the King then McLaren Vale is surely the Queen. This is not to say the Shiraz grown here is delicate though. They are still very big and ripe, just softer and often a little more restrained than Barossa. It is a bit cooler here, since it is a little closer to the sea and benefits from the ocean breezes a little more. Think of McLaren Vale as the Sonoma to Barossa’s Napa.
Adelaide Hills: This is a very diverse region that is immediately north of Adelaide. It’s rolling hills wind through the region creating a multitude of micro-climates. Its exposure to the Gulf Saint Vincent allows cool breezes to regulate the temperature greatly. As with most of South Australia, Shiraz is widely planted. Again, however, those cool breezes also allow Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and even Sauvignon Blanc to thrive here as well. There are some of the best sparkling wines of South Australia made here too.
Clare Valley: This northerly wine-growing region in SA is most famous for its Rieslings (which I highly recommend getting to know if you aspire to take an of the Court of Master Sommelier exams). This is a very cool and dry region with lots of elevation changes. This is a great reason they manage to pull it off high quality Riesling brilliantly.
Coonawarra: The “Terra Rossa” soil is most prevalent in Coonawarra. It’s iron rich clay soils are perfect for great Cabernet Sauvignon. Some of the best examples in the country are made here.
Important regions of WA:
Margaret River: The warm, almost Mediterranean climate of Margaret River, along with its cool ocean breezes and sandy soils are ideally suited to Cabernet Sauvignon. The wines here have great finesse, and elegance. Some of the best Chardonnay in the country is produced here as well.
Mount Barker: This cooler region in South Western Australia is fast becoming a “hot spot” for Chardonnay production. It’s proximity to the coast and elevation help keep the temperatures down and allow for a long hang-time for this regal white wine grape. Look for Plantagenet’s bottling from here.
Food & Wine Pairings
Shiraz Wine Pairings
- Braised Beef Shortribs
- BBQ Pork Ribs
- Grilled Venison
- Poached Lobster
- Lemon Chicken
- Pan Seared Cod
Hunter Semillon Pairings
- Shrimp Cocktail
- Seared Scallops
- Sushi Rolls
Coonawarra Cabernet Pairings
- Grilled Ribe-Eye Steaks
- Rosemary Crusted Rack of Lamb
- Roasted Game