Regional Diversity in Australian Wine

Every wine producer I met on my recent trip to Australia wanted to discuss regional diversity of Australian wines.  They know that in order to grow, they need to expand beyond what they have already mastered: delivering wines that are simple, fruity, inexpensive, and easy-to-drink, with a cute critter on the label.  The current image, common among US consumers, is that the bulk of Australian wine (think Yellowtail or Little Penguin) is a branded blend made from grapes grown throughout Southeastern Australia, an area about the size of the Western United States.  The image is supported by the numbers: 2/3rds of the Australian wine sold in the US in 2005-2006 carried the Southeastern Australia geographic indicator, according to data supplied by the Australian Wine Bureau.

The Other Third

The other third of Australian wines coming to the US is what will ultimately propel that country’s image as a fine wine-producing nation.  This top third comes from smaller, well-defined, distinctive wine growing areas.  There’s no doubt that there are dramatic differences between the wines coming from one region in Australia and another.  For an impressive case in point, have a look at the marvelous portfolio of distinctive wines John Larchet has put together under his label, The Australian Premium Wine Collection (  The collection is drawn from small producers in different regions whose wines reflect the area where the grapes grew.  Or look at the group of wineries owned by Foster’s Wine Estates, the second largest wine company in the world (after Constellation).  There’s an enormous difference between the racy, elegant 2005 Reserve Chardonnay from Coldstream Hills in the Yarra Valley of Victoria and the more full-bodied 2005 Rosemount ‘Show Reserve’ from the Hunter Valley in New South Wales.  These are hardly cookie-cutter wines showing some sort of generic ‘Aussie’ profile.  Quite the contrary: they are highly distinctive wines that reflect the particularities of the soils and climates of their places of origin.

A Little Background on Geography and Regulation

Australia, a country the size of the United States, is a federation of six states, New South Wales (NSW), Victoria, South Australia (SA), Western Australia (WA), Tasmania and Queensland, all of which produce wine, as well as two territories, one of which, the Australian Capital Territory including the capital city, Canberra, produces wines.  (The Northern Territory makes no wine.)  Australia’s winegrowing area is divided into Geographic Indications set up by Australian Wine and Brandy Corporation, the official governmental organization that regulates the industry.  Australian Geographic Indications range in size from the enormous Southeastern Australia, which comprises everything except WA, to small ones such as Coonawarra, a closely delimited region within SA.

Australian wine regulations conform to the ‘85%’ rule common in the rest of the world: 85% of what’s in the bottle must come from the year, geographic area and grape specified on the label.

An Overview

What follows is an overview of selected areas that are either relatively new, such as the Mornington Peninsula in Victoria and the Adelaide Hills in South Australia, or established and home to some of the country’s most acclaimed wines, such as Victoria’s Yarra Valley.  I’ll cover Barossa, McLaren Vale, Eden and Clare Valleys in South Australia in the future.  This overview is not meant to be comprehensive (for that, refer to James Halliday’s Wine Atlas of Australia, published by the University of California Press), but rather an introduction to the importance of regionality in Australia.  Even though some of the producers do not export their wines to the US, I mention them because they are good examples of what is possible in the particular region.

Mornington Peninsula

If you want to dispel the notion that all of Australia is hot, go to the Mornington Peninsula without a jacket.  Surrounded by water, with Port Phillip Bay on one side and the Bass Strait (separating the mainland from Tasmania–and Antarctica) on the other, a cool wind is always blowing.  Winemakers are fond of crediting a cooling maritime influence with enhancing the quality of their grapes by slowing ripening and allowing other flavors and tannins to mature.  Well, Mornington sure as hell has a maritime climate.

Its proximity to Melbourne–about 2 hours by car–has influenced the wine industry almost as much as the climate.  Wine tourism has been an important engine of progress, and will continue to bring increased money for investment and demand for finished products.  Wealthy doctors, lawyers and accountants from ‘the city’ who want to live the ‘wine life-style’ will provide investment capital for future development of Mornington’s nascent industry.

It’s too cold to ripen Cabernet Sauvignon and almost too cold for Shiraz, so most producers here focus on Pinot Noir, which represents more than 75% of the red grapes planted, along with Chardonnay.  One producer, T’Gallant, makes two outstanding wines from Pinot Gris, one labeled Pinot Gris and one labeled Pinot Grigio (neither imported).  Both reflect the styles those names aim to convey, rich and serious or bright and zesty, respectively.  Although some producers, such as Paringa Estate, still manage to produce intensely ripe, 15% alcohol Pinot Noir, many others, such as Port Phillip Estate, produce wines with the alluring combination of earthiness and fruitiness that is the hallmark of great Pinot Noir.  Stonier’s 2005 Chardonnay ($17), classy and rich, yet not overdone, does not fit the mold of your typical Australian Chardonnay.  As the vines mature and producers learn more about where exactly to plant what, look for this region to send us exciting Pinot Noirs, balanced Chardonnays and stylish wines from Pinot Gris.

The Yarra Valley

Farmers planted vines in the Yarra Valley, an hour and half northeast of Melbourne, in the 1800s, but the modern wine industry is only about 30 years old.  Not quite as cool a region as the Mornington Peninsula, the Yarra Valley makes terrific red Bordeaux blends–Yerringberg and Yarra Yering are two outstanding producers–but is still better known for its elegant Pinot Noir and classy Chardonnay.  Coldstream Hills, founded by noted Australian wine writer, James Halliday and now owned by Foster’s Wine Estates, makes shinning examples of both.  Their 2005 Reserve Chardonnay ($20) has finesse, but no lack of power, and wonderful length.  Their 2005 Reserve Pinot Noir (not yet released) has great length and the quintessential combination of delicacy and power.

Adelaide Hills

The Adelaide Hills are a string of hills that run roughly north to south just to the east of Adelaide in South Australia.  The temperature gradient is wide according to Simon Blacket, a spokesperson for Wolf Blass winery, which obtains a lot of fruit from the area.  It’s coolest in the center–too cool for Shiraz, but ideal for Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay–with warmer portions suitable for Shiraz both to the north and the south, according to Blacket.  Although there are not a lot of wineries in the area (fewer than 10 permits have been issued in the last 30 years), many producers, such as Wolf Blass and Penfolds, obtain grapes from the region.

For Sauvignon Blanc, search out wines from two established producers there: Pike & Joyce (their 2006 Lenswood, $20, is floral and limey, but not aggressive or grassy) and from Shaw & Smith, whose 2005 ($21) has a wonderful balance of pungency and minerality.

Wolf Blass’ 2005 Gold Label Chardonnay ($20) combines the elegance of fruit from Adelaide Hills with barrel fermentation to produce a creamy, full-bodied, but not overdone, expression of Chardonnay.

Notwithstanding my optimism for Pinot Noir from Mornington, my favorite Australian Pinot Noir comes from Adelaide Hills, Penfolds’ Cellar Reserve.  The 2005 (sold only in restaurants in the US) combines fresh berry flavors and a hint of earthiness.  The 1997 has evolved beautifully, still retaining fruit qualities, but showing that lovely ‘leafy’ character of mature Pinot Noir.

Click Here to Read Part II

May 8, 2007