As the winter chill loses its cling to the spring season, the temps are warming and sun is shining in
the northern hemisphere. It marks the beginning of another start to the long and dramatic growing season culminating in roughly 5-6 months with the grape harvest. However, in the southern hemisphere the growing season is just winding down and grapes are being plucked from the vineyards and transferred to the winery for pressing and fermentation. In large wine-producing countries like Australia, it’s an important time.
Australia has a rich and illustrious history of wine makin’ and sippin’. Captain Arthur Philip imported Australia’s first grapevines from Brazil and South Africa in 1788. Shortly after the first commercial wine was produced just south of Sydney in the early 19th century. Grapes like Pinot Gris, Verdelho, and Sémillon were preferred. The first exported wine to the United Kingdom was recorded in 1822, about 183 bottles worth. Almost 200 years later, the United Kingdom is still buying wines from Australia. Recently, Australia overtook France as the leading supplier of wines to the UK. It is also the second leading exporter of wines to the US, behind Italy.
Although there are more than 3,000 producers in Australia, 80 percent of the wine is produced by five large companies with multiple holdings (Southcorp, BRL Hardy, Orlando Wyndham, Beringer Blass, and McGuigan Simeon).
The ease of navigating Australian wine labels has helped the country become an exporting machine. Contrary to Europe’s archaic labeling system, Australia’s is rather simple. Geographic Indicators (GIs) are geographic boundaries for wine production, but within these zones there is nothing that dictates which grapes can be grown nor are there rigorous restrictions on winemaking techniques. If a wine is labeled with a certain grape variety, the wine must be produced from at least 85 percent of that grape. If it is a blended wine, producers must list the blend in descending order. If a specific GI is listed on the label, at least 85 percent of the grapes much come from that location, and if a vintage is given, then at least 95 percent of the grapes must be of that vintage.
Many of Australia’s wine regions produce both reds and whites, but the best of the whites come from the cooler climate, high-elevation vineyards throughout the coastal regions. The vineyards of western Australia are isolated to the southwestern tip of the continent, nearly 1,000 miles (1,600 km) away from the next closest appellation in South Australia. What the region lacks in volume it makes up for in quality. Many of the producers are smaller estates and focus on Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot. Accounting for less than 5 percent of all the wine produced in Australia, there’s plenty of fun and interesting wines to discover. Margaret River, the most popular winemaking appellation, is known for making wines of elegance and grace, rather than power and depth. Other appellations include Great Southern, Pemberton, Geographe, and Swan Valley.
Sidebar: Try these producers from western Australia.
- Moss Wood Wines
- Robert Oatley
South Australia is home to some of the country’s most important wines. Most of the area is planted to Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon, and the big, brooding reds are Australia’s specialty. Most of these vineyards are at lower elevations where the grapes soak up the hot sun. Other appellations like Adelaide Hills and Kangaroo Island are growing in vineyard acreage as growers look to these cooler climates for growing grapes like Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, Chardonnay, and Sémillon. Sauvignon Blanc from South Australia is generally less aromatic than New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, and show less aromas of kiwi and lanolin. Australian winemaker Michael Hill Smith describes them as “lean without being skinny.”
Tasmania is a small island off the southeastern coast. Many of its vineyards are located on the east side of the island, as the western half is too wet and cool to grow vines. Since this area is at the southern extreme for cultivating vines, frost and hail are problematic, as are harsh sea winds that blow off the coastline. Screens are necessary in some places to protect the grapes from these damaging coastal sea winds. Cool climate grapes like Chardonnay, Riesling, and Pinot Noir are cultivated. Efforts are also underway to produce high-quality and premium sparkling wines. There are more than 100 producers in Tasmania, although the total amount of wine produced on this island is less than that of some single wineries on the mainland. Given that commercial winemaking is relatively new to this area, many of Tasmania’s best vineyards have yet to be planted.
As the weather warms, let’s toast to our brethren in the southern sphere as they get their harvest underway! Cheers Mate!!!