Indisputably, Australia is one of the most prolific and diverse wine countries, with an extremely wide range of geographic and climatic conditions. Obviously, its size has a lot to do with it. With nearly 420, 000 acres under the vines and an annual output of around 350 million gallons of wine, the country stands as the sixth-top wine-producing nation globally.
Even though Aussie reds win in popularity, the production split is a close one with 52 percent to 48 percent red to white. All six Australian states produce wine in 65 different wine regions. However, the majority of the quality wines are made in cooler, more wine-promoting climates of the southern states: Victoria, New South Wales and South Australia, with the latter accounting for about half of the country’s production.
Even though Western Australia’s output is only at 2 percent, their Bordeaux-style wines have a solid international reputation. As a young country, Australia doesn’t have a long history of winemaking, but it’s an explosive one. In the mid-19th century, the arrival of free settlers from Europe, specifically from winemaking countries, ignited a rapid push in the quantity and quality of Australia’s wine industry.
It’s no secret that Aussies love to have a good time. Back in the mid-2000s, I had a one-year stint in Melbourne working in one of the best wine shops/wine bars in the country, Melbourne City Wine Shop. I had a hard time telling the weekend and the weekdays apart. We wore party hats every day.
Back then, if you planned things right and knew where to go and with whom, you could move from one venue to another and keep the party going till sunrise. But that was in my younger days. Working at the shop was a very educational experience for me. We carried a huge selection of wines from around the world, but the focus was definitely the Australian selection.
Australians are very patriotic about their wines; only about 17 percent of wines consumed there come from import. Before joining the team at the shop, my knowledge of Aussie wines was rather scarce. There, I was introduced to labels I had never heard about and had an opportunity to taste a lot of them. I was impressed with the variety of styles and the overall quality. I managed to visit a few wineries and I met the legendary Bailey Carrodus before his untimely death in 2008. He was the founder of the historic Yarra Yering winery in Yarra Valley, whose red wines based on Bordeaux varieties and Shiraz acquired an international reputation. I spent a weekend on the Mornington peninsula. About an hour’s drive south of Melbourne, this region, with its cool weather conditions and red basalt-based soil, is primed for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay cultivation. Wineries like Ocean Eight, Paradigm Hill, Pt. Leo Estate and Paringa Estate stood out.
Arguably, it is Shiraz, which has given Australian wines the most notoriety. Shiraz is grown in most regions, but it is in Barossa Valley and McLaren Vale in South Australia, where most blockbuster Shirazes are produced. Torbreck, Penfolds, Henschke and Hewitson are just a few labels that come straight to mind. Is there a difference between Syrah and Shiraz vines? No. Genetically it is the same grape, and the two names are used interchangeably. There had been much speculation, many legends and tales relating to the grape’s origins. One postulated that Syrah came from Persia, where the Fars province capital’s name is Shiraz. This theory was disproven by genetic tests, which indisputably pinpoint France as the cradle of the grape. Shiraz is believed to have been brought to Australia in mid-19th century by James Busby, a British merchant and a consular representative in New Zealand. These days, Syrah and Shiraz names are often used to indicate a stylistic difference in wine’s structure. If used outside Australia, Shiraz often signifies a fuller body, rich, fleshy and fruit-forward wine where the term Syrah would refer to an old-world, earth and mineral-driven versions.
It would be impossible to discuss Australian Shiraz without mentioning its legendary expression, Grange by Penfolds. This, one of the most revered and expensive wines in the world, is composed of Shiraz with occasionally a small amount of Cabernet Sauvignon added. One could devote a whole article to the wine. Maybe another time. It was the determination of Max Shubert, Penfold’s first chief winemaker, to make his mark on Australia’s winemaking. After an inspirational and educational wine trip to France’s Bordeaux region in 1950, Shubert decided to put some of his newly acquired knowledge to work. That is how Penfold’s Grange Hermitage was born, and its international reputation has grown ever since. In 2018 at an online auction, a bottle of 1951 Grange, the inaugural vintage, was sold for $80,000 in 2018, setting a record for the most expensive bottle of Australian wine.
Obviously, it is not just to Shiraz that Australia owes its international wine reputation. Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Grenache, Chardonnay, Semillon, Riesling and Sauvignon Blanc are the other grapes of note resulting in wines of all styles. These are just the top dogs. Altogether, Australia uses around 130 different varieties in commercial winemaking.
Great Rieslings come from Eden Valley. GSM (Grenache, Shiraz and Mourvèdre) blends, an homage to the red wines of the Southern Rhone in France, are quite ubiquitous here, and their examples can be quite delicious. Semillon whites are a bit of an unsung hero of Australian wines, typically not made into a single variety wine except for the sweet Botrytis affected wines of Sauternes, where it can produce rich, unctuous, and uniquely flavored dry wines. Hunter Valley is where some the best examples of Semillon are made. Tasmania, with a cooler, more Southern geographic location, makes some compelling Pinot Noirs and sparkling wines. As mentioned earlier, Mornington Peninsula offers great Pinot Noirs and Chardonnay, but other areas in Victoria cannot be ignored in both grapes’ categories. Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot perform well in Western Australia’s Margaret River and most of South Australia.
Australians are known for their daring, outspoken, bravado personalities and approach to life. They work hard and play hard, often challenging and breaking the conventional. That attitude can be seen in some aspects of their wine industry. A stereotypical Aussie wine is a bold, richly aromatic, high in alcohol and a fruity libation, maybe lacking in finesse but delivering a memorable punch. Most international winemakers try to avoid making wines with such stigma. Not the Aussies. They gloat over the controversy. Like most generalizations, this one is not all true. Yes, in the early days of the industry most wines were made in that style and found a lot of enthusiasts abroad deepening the cliché. Nowadays, there are quite a few winemakers whose focus have been restraint and elegance.
I, in particular, like the Aussie’s unpretentious approach to wine expressed in wine labeling, both from the design and the nomenclature standpoint. Humorous, daring labels abound. Their content takes off some of the snobbery and pretense often associated with wine, and recently it also has helped me to lighten up the overall tone of the grim reality.
Here are some of my favorites (parental discretion is advised): Tait Family Winery’s Ball Buster red blend, Some Young Punks (all the labels and names), Kaesler Old Bastard Shiraz belongs to one of the most coveted Barossa Valley reds, Delinquente Wine Co. with their “Weeping Juan,” “Creaming Betty,” and “Roko Il Vagabondo;” First Drop “Mother’s Milk” Shiraz from Barossa Valley, Mollydooker with all the names and label designs, R Winery’s “Cheeky Bitch” and “Strong Arms;” Vinaceous Wines’ “Voodoo Moon;” “Snake Charmer” from Margaret River in Western Australia and Unico Zelo’s “Thirst Aid Kit.”
So, if these days you happen to feel a bit down, open Thirst Aid Kit, squeeze some Mother’s Milk and have some fun with Cheeky Bitch.
By: Cezar Kusik, Wine Contributor.