OI OI OI!
I’ve talked about a few specific Australian wine regions in previous posts in reference to WSET practice questions. Before I leave the continent for a bit, I wanted to make sure I covered the other areas as well. Time to go down under…
[Information based on WSET Level 3 material]
As stated before, Australia is huge—so there is a massive variety of climates and soils found throughout the country. In general, because of Australia’s latitude, most of the winegrape growing regions are considered warm or hot climate regions. However, proximity to the Southern Ocean, the Indian Ocean or the Murray River system can help moderate those conditions, as can planting at altitude. And, as one can imagine, there’s also a vast array of soil types throughout these wine grape regions. So there’s quite a broad range of grapes that can be grown and styles of wines that can be produced throughout the country.
So…please bare with me. This list is rather long.
SOUTHEASTERN AUSTRALIA ZONE
Let’s talk about Australia’s “Southeastern Zone” for a minute because this was truly confusing to me when I was studying for my WSET Level 2. This is a “super zone,” if you will. It encompasses all the geographical indications (GI) within South Australia, Victoria, New South Wales, and Queensland. (ie., all the states that make up the south and east of Australia.)
So, if a wine is produced by blending grapes sourced from across these regions, then it will be labeled “Southeastern.”
Riverland, Murray-Darling, and Riverina are the primary grape growing regions. Their warm climate and fertile soils that are well-irrigated, are able to produce large yields vintage to vintage. Thus, most of the wines with this label are high volume brands. These three regions in particular can produce high yields of quite healthy grapes, but due to those high yields, the grapes themselves lack depth, concentration, and overall flavor. When able, producers include grapes from higher-quality vineyard locations, such as Barossa, Adelaide Hills, and/or McClaren Vale in Victoria (known for their cooler (comparatively) climates, less fertile soils, and more control/restraint in vineyard yields). Of course sourcing and blending will depend on both the style and the volume of wine the producer seeks to create.
FUN FACT: I know what you’re thinking. “Got it. Bulk wine.” Maybe in a majority of cases. But Riverina also specializes in botrytized sweet wines made from Semillon. See the Murray River that runs alongside the region? This produces those perfect autumn conditions of morning mists and fogs that help produce noble rot. Has anybody tried any? Let me know…
FUN FACT: The majority of Australia’s wine is produced in SA. This may not come as a surprise when you see the list of wine regions below—they will undoubtedly be some of the most familiar names. LABELING FACT: Due to the sheer number of premium vineyard locations, many Australian producers—and not just the random guys, I mean like some of the more prestigious names as well—will source grapes from across SA to make their wines and simply use the South Australia GI label on the bottle.
Barossa Valley has a warm, dry climate. While the Valley itself is quite fertile, the best vineyards are planted amongst soils filled with ironstone, quartz, limestone, and red clay. It is here that Cabernet Sauvignon can ripen fully and provide a well-structured red wine. But beyond that, Barossa is home to some of the oldest Grenache and Syrah (Shiraz) vines. To quote the book, “Classic Barossa Valley Shiraz is full-bodied with soft tannins and ripe black fruit complemented by sweet American oak.” (Not going to lie, that last bit took me by surprise. But if there’s a variety that can withstand the intensity of American oak, I’m going to guess that old vine Shiraz is one of them.) Given that description, one can assume that these wines will age gracefully.
When we talk about white wines of Barossa, we have to talk about Semillon. Unlike the Hunter Valley expression, the Semillon from Barossa is made in a fresh, unoaked style, typically intended for early drinking (not aging).
FUN FACT: Wines labelled as “Barossa” can be made from fruit from Barossa Valley and Eden Valley.
Contrary to its name, Eden Valley actually sits on a plateau just above Barossa to the east. It has a cool to moderate climate that varies with that altitude. The coolest vineyards make some of the best Rieslings in AU—the best of which are ageable and develop notes of marmalade and toast with time.
Other wines of note: Chardonnay, Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon.
Let’s stick with a theme, then. Riesling is also the specialty of Clare Valley. Again, I’m going to add my personal anecdote that the name is, once again, deceiving here because Clare Valley is another plateau located just north of Barossa. It’s helpful for me to think of both Clare and Eden as extensions of Barossa, in a way. Where Barossa is a valley in the true sense of the word, is warm, dry, and is best known for it’s rustic reds (Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz, Grenache, coming from old bush vines) and a more warm-region expression of Semillon, it is in these higher locations where we can find the more floral, fragrant, delicate white wines.
Indeed, Clare Valley’s warm temperature is moderated by both altitude and cold nightly winds. The Riesling produced here is dry, with intense citrus and lime aromas and high acidity. (Makes sense given the climate and location, eh?) These wines can age, developing notes of toast and honey.
When it comes to red wines, the Shiraz produced in Clare Valley is also quite structured, but it’s noted that it’s also quite fragrant (I believe it to be the cooling influence here; cooler climates tend to allow red grapes to have a bit of floral femininity instead of 100% rusticity.) Cabernet Sauvignon is also produced, but the style varies depending on vineyard location (ie., altitude).
Another region known for its old vine Shiraz and Grenache (although the book only mentions this as a footnote). The climate here is moderated by ocean breezes, due to its proximity to the body of water. McLaren Vale is best known for its red wine production: Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz, Grenache, and Merlot.
For some reason the region I always forget about.
Adelaide Hills has a moderate climate and FUN FACT: All vineyards are planted above 400 meters (1,312 feet).
OH NO! Rainfall is not evenly spread out here; most rain occurs during the winter months. Which would be fine, except the soils here have poor water-holding capacity. Thus, many vineyards in Adelaide hills need to be irrigated. Bummer.
The main wine here is a fresh, citrusy Sauvignon Blanc. Chardonnay here tends to maintain a natural high acidity and the main red wine produced is Pinot Noir and FUN FACT: The Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are often blended to produce sparkling wine. (Thank god for the cooling affects of altitude, eh?)
The region kisses the border of Victoria and is home to a very distinctive terra rossa soil which lays atop a limestone subsoils. Though further inland, the area receives cooling currents from the Antarctic, so the maritime climate is moderate. Cloud coverage helps tame the summer temperatures as well. Coonawara is considered one of the best places in the country for Cabernet Sauvignon and, indeed, it is the most widely planted grape here. The Cabernet Sauvignon coming out of the region is concentrated, structured, with flavors and aromas of cassis and, as Karen MacNeil so eloquently states, “something green—not unripe green bell pepper, but rather a more sophisticated suggestion of chaparral.” These wines are known to age well.
Victoria is home to some of the coolest vineyard locations in Australia. The more coastal locations (within proximity to Melbourne, which if you’ve ever been is quite chilly, indeed) benefit from ocean breezes, perfect for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay—which come together to produce sparkling wine in some vintages. A bit further inland, we find the Great Dividing Range. Here, high altitude sites also provide cool vineyard locations where, again, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay (as well as Riesling and Sauvignon Blanc) can grow successfully. SIDE NOTE: Vineyards located toward the base of those slopes are more ideally suited for the later ripening varieties Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon, but still produce a fresher, leaner style than those same grapes grown in the warmer or hotter regions of the country.
Yarra Valley has a cool to moderate maritime climate. But it’s noted that specific climatic conditions vary due to the wide array of altitudes and aspects at which vineyards can be planted. Given the cooler climate, it comes as no surprise to learn that Pinot Noir is the regions red wine specialty: it is used to produce both still wines and sparkling wines.
Again, due to the geographical diversity, there is a broad range of wine grapes that can be produced, including Chardonnay, Shiraz, and Cabernet Sauvignon. Although it is noted that, especially when it comes to these heartier red wines, the body and weight of the resulting wines are not as full as those found in the warmer regions. (Personal note: I’m ok with that…)
Mornington Peninsula is also located along the coast and maintains a cool to moderate maritime climate. Here, vintage variation is a concern, with some cool, wet, and windy weather during flowering that can affect the resulting harvest. But the best years have an extended growing season. Again, Pinot Noir is the red wine king, with styles ranging from light and delicate to structured and hearty. Chardonnay absolutely reflects the cooler climate, producing wines that maintain a natural high acidity—something winemakers tend to tame with the use of MLF.
Geelong has similar climatic conditions as Mornington Peninsula. But I’m going to take a guess here and say that those cold, wet winds that disturb flowering on the east side of that little bay area, don’t affect Geelong as much. The Chardonnays here are said to be complex, concentrated, and full-bodied; the Pinot Noirs earthy—to me this means these grapes have the opportunity to set and ripen fully before harvest. But, remember the climate is still overall cool and maritime, so the Shiraz produced here is lighter, fresher, with a bit more obvious black pepper notes. (Tasting Note: Black pepper is actually a bit floral, so this definitely keeps with my theory from above.)
SPARKLING NOTE: Like Yarra, Geelong also produces sparkling wine from its Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.
This is one of Victoria’s more inland vineyard locations and, thus, any cooling influence comes from altitude, not from the ocean. As such, the overall climate is moderate and the Shiraz produced here maintains a firmer structure, but is more fresh in its fruit flavors when compared to Shiraz from warmer regions (which I believe refers to Shiraz outside Victoria because, well, I mean, look at the pattern here in Victoria…am I right?)
FUN FACT: Other grapes of note include Mediterranean grapes such as Tempranillo and Sangiovese. (Again…has anyone had these???)
I knew I was going to be excited to learn about Ghoulburn. (I mean, look at the name, how could it not be haunted by something cool.) This is even further inland than Heathcote and the climate is overall warm. Heat is mitigated slightly by lakes and creeks. Shiraz is the most planted grape here, but that is not the cool thing. THE COOL THING: Marsanne! That’s right Marsanne is the specialty of the region—it starts out all lean and citrusy, but develops rounded honey aromas with bottle age. (In case you can’t tell, I love a good [stinky] Marsanne.)
NEW SOUTH WALES
FUN FACT: Apparently, NSW has the longest history of wine production in Australia.
When we talk about New South Wales (if we’re not talking about Sydney and how awesome it is to hang out there…) we’re talking about the hot Hunter Valley. Although, it’s noted that the regions of Mudgee, Orange, and Cowra offer wine producers slightly cooler-condition options, as these vineyards are all planted at altitude, producing concentrated Chardonnays and structured Cabernet Sauvignon. But, again, it’s kind of all about…
Hunter Valley, in New South Wales, has a hot, humid climate. This is moderated, somewhat, by high cloud coverage and marine breezes, due to its proximity to the ocean. But, with maritime climate comes regular rainfall and, unfortunately for Hunter Valley, the rain comes predominantly during harvest. Rain means rot and fungal diseases. Also, although that cloud coverage means that the vines stay cool, it also means a reduction in light needed for photosynthesis. So, it is very important grape growers in the valley keep a keen eye on their canopy management. As stated in a previous post, one of the most beneficial canopy management strategies for the regions is the vertical shoot position (VSP): this will keep the canopy open, maximizing the amount of light that can enter the canopy as well as help aerate the shoots, leaves, and grape bunches and prevent, or at least restrict, the amount and spread of fungal diseases.
We can’t talk about Hunter Valley without talking about Semillon, as it is one of the most important grapes grown in the region and the wines produced from it are quite unique indeed. Because of the warm climate, Semillon is often picked early to ensure an adequate amount of acidity remains in the grape. This means, however, that the sugar content will be on the lower side. Thus, the resulting Semillon wines produced in Hunter Valley tend to be low in alcohol, high in acidity, with flavors that are relatively neutral. But the thing about this variety is that it ages beautifully, developing flavors of toast, nut, and honey. These are flavors that come naturally with age. They are not influenced by oak, nor are they forced through MLF or even lees contact. So, to achieve this style of wine, the winemaker needs to be more “hands off.” The wine will ferment and age in a neutral vessel (stainless steel; concrete) and will most likely be bottled within a year of harvest, “ready” to drink upon release. (Again, you can read more about this in a WSET practice question post all about Hunter Valley’s Semillon: Australian Wine Pop Quiz.)
And, surprise, surprise, the leading black grape here is…Shiraz!
Although there are other up-and-coming wine producing regions (The Great Southern region: which includes the subregions of Mount Barker and Frankland), when we talk about WA what we’re really talking about is Margaret River. Margaret River is a coastal region with a warm maritime climate. Again, I’m going to quote the lovely MacNeil here because this quote actually helped me remember what the climate was like during my WSET Level 2: “Margaret River wine region, where the great, warm Indian Ocean and the cold Southern Ocean splash together.”
Rainfall is high (compared to other AU wine regions), but luckily, unlike Hunter Valley where the rain falls during harvest months, the majority of that rain tends to fall during the winter months when the grapes are dormant. And unlike Adelaide Hills that also receives its rain during the winter months, the soils in Margaret River are gravelly, well-draining, with good water holding capacity. It is because of this warm maritime climate, combined with the region’s gravelly soils that the first wine-pioneers who came to Margaret River focused on planting Bordeaux varieties, and why, today, the region is considered to be a “little-Bordeaux.” So it is that Cabernet Sauvignon is widely planted, producing structured, elegant varietal wine as well as blended with Merlot, producing Bordeaux-inspired red blends.
In keeping with the Bordeaux theme, white wine blends of Sauvignon blanc and Semillon are quite common.
But if we want to talk about white wines of the region, then we must also mention the Chardonnay, which is concentrated with stone fruits, yet maintains a natural high level of acidity—often calmed with MLF. Styles vary, but the higher end wines will certainly use barrel aging.
Whoa, did you forget about the island hanging off the continent? Actually, I think that many mainland AU wine producers did as well to a certain extent. For many years the region was mostly utilized for producing the base wines for sparkling wine production—from those producers on the mainland. But we have to give props to the winemakers of today who are producing Pinot Noir and Chardonnay for their own still wine programs, as well as Sauvignon Blanc and even Pinot Gris—both which maintain bright, fresh varietal character due to the cool maritime climate that is kept cool by the westerly winds off the Southern Ocean. There’s a note in the book that Cabernet Sauvignon is also produced, but this must be in the warmest regions where that heat-loving grape can actually ripen.
Oh my goodness that was a mouthful. You still with me? How’d I do? Is there anything about Aussie wine you’d like to add? Is there an AU wine you’d like to recommend? Alas, my apologies, I don’t have any wines to review—but I will say that during my time in Australia, I fell in love with Semillon. At a recent event tasting featuring Wines Australia, I fell in love with old vine Grenache. So cheers to that and once again I shout:
AUSSIE AUSSIE AUSSIE…
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