Australian wine - South Australia

Australian wine - South Australia. Even with about fifty per cent of the country’s total wine production, it’s stretching it to call South Australia (Red Fin, Tiddy Widdy Well ) – or that south-eastern corner of it below about 33ºS where the grapes are grown – Australia’s California. It is the heart of it though, with most vineyards within 70–80 miles of Adelaide, and only the relatively featureless Riverland and Limestone Coast beyond the easy reach of the wine tourist.

In contrast, it’s impossible to avoid calling the Barossa Valley Australia’s Napa – it’s the biggest quality-wine region, the tourist side is admirably well-developed and as a result the big firms all need to be here – they dominate production, albeit often through prestigious subsidiary companies that seem to operate with an enviable degree of autonomy. (Penfolds – their Grange, Australia’s ‘first growth’, an icon for decades and traditionally a blend of wines from all over and is assembled in Barossa. The ultimate South-Eastern Australian? It may have the cult status, and a price to match, but its un-oaked sibling Saint Henri is the insider’s choice and a comparative bargain; Lion Nathan’s St Hallett , Jacob’s Creek , Wolf Blass and Hardy’s all have bases here. It’s the medium-sized firms, many of them independent, including Bethany , Charles Melton , Duval , Elderton , Glaetzer , Grant Burge , Greenock Creek , Kaesler , Langmeil (who have Shiraz vines from 1843), Maverick , Peter Lehmann , Rockford , Spinifex , Teusner , Torbreck , Turkey Flat , Two Hands and Yalumba that make most of the wines that maintain Barossa’s world-class reputation.)

There are also lots of small farmers, some of whom, if they’re lucky enough to have old-vine Syrah and Grenache, are assiduously courted by bigger firms for their crop. Lucky to survive the Cabernet Sauvignon invasion, some of the vines are over 100 years old and only these old-timers have root systems deep enough to be dryfarmed, i.e., without irrigation, which is essential elsewhere due to the hot, dry summers. The old vines make the distinctive, richly concentrated, brooding style – often accented by something chocolatey – that is one of Barossa’s trademarks. That Aussie knack of mixing tradition and innovation is always in evidence, though, and the shiny new things are suave, Côte-Rôtie-style blends (with a little Viognier to soothe the Shiraz’s knitted brow) and, another juicy Rhône-U-like blend – GSM, that’s Grenache, Syrah and Mourv`edre. Good Cabernet Sauvignon (Penfolds) and sophisticated Semillon (Peter Lehmann ) keep the flag flying for Bordeaux varieties.

Barossa is contiguous with the Eden Valley to the east, where cooler temperatures at higher altitude are ideal for Riesling (Grosset, Heggies , Pewsey Vale , Hewitson , Yalumba , Thorn-Clarke , Torzi Matthews). Eden emerged in the 1960s in the Steingarten vineyard (Jacob’s Creek ) and now produces some of the best Riesling in the world. Leading the charge has been Jeffrey Grosset who, in the crucible of contemporary Aussie winemaking, including a joint venture with Yalumba (called Mesh ), has nonetheless gone full circle back to the nineteenth-century roots of it all, admitting it’s taken him thirty years to fully understand his two plots of land. Roistering reds are provided from Shiraz. Eden’s other claim to fame is as the home to one of the few pretenders to Grange’s crown: Henschke’s Hill of Grace and, with a supporting role, the fine and fruit-cakey Irvine’s Grand Merlot.

Pretty, winding Clare Valley, where winemaking also dates from the 1840s, has varied soils, even higher slopes and cooler temperatures to give its elegant Riesling, mostly teased from the limestone terra rossa soil by small independent growers (Tim Adams , Jim Barry , Grosset , Kilikanoon , Leasingham , Mitchell , Mount Horrocks , Neagle’s Rock , O’Leary Walker , Petaluma , Pikes , Skillogalee , Wakefield , Wendouree ) the edge of extra acidity. The slate of Polish Hill – lots of Silesian Lutherans sought sanctuary in South Australia in the nineteenth century – makes it one of the best sites. Reds are never neglected in Australia and Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon, with a notably eucalyptus twang, are particularly good.

South of Adelaide, McLaren Vale is another big name in Australian wine and the wide variation of soils in its rolling countryside account for an equally wide variety of grapes and styles of wine. Full-throttle Grenache and Shiraz shine – some are from 100-plus-year-old, drygrown vines – and Cabernet Sauvignon from here makes big chocolate, mocha-toned wines. Warm summers cooled by sea breezes – always a good combination – complete the recipe for success. John Reynell spotted the potential in 1838 and his Chateau Reynella is now HQ for Hardy’s. (Battle of Bosworth , Chapel Hill , Clarendon Hills , Geoff Merrill , Kangarilla Road , Kay Brothers , Leconfield , Lloyd , Mitolo , Noon Winery , SC Pannell , Paxton , Rockbare , Simon Hackett , Willunga , Wirra Wirra , Woodstock and D’Arenberg – labels on their McLaren Vale wines have the red sash.) The region runs into the Southern Fleurieu peninsula where the cool maritime climate has attracted major investment in making sumptuous Pinot Noir (Tappanappa ) and great things are already happening.

The long-established Langhorne Creek area made wines for blending into the likes of Jacob’s Creek until recently, but that’s changing fast for the best producers and Jacob’s loss is our gain (Bleasdale , Bremerton , Brothers in Arms , Glaetzer , Matilda Plains ).

Out of Adelaide’s back door and up the Mount Lofty Ranges, the Adelaide Hills have all the variety to be expected from a region that spans fifty miles but a common thread is the coolness to be expected on sites mostly above 400m. Australia’s best Sauvignon Blanc is grown here, but half is red, mainly Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir and Merlot (Ashton Hills , Bird in Hand , Geoff Weaver , Henschke , Leabrook , Nepenthe , Setanta , Shaw and Smith , Petaluma-owned Tim Knappstein ).

Winemakers all over Australia have been running their slide-rules (‘Dad? What’s a slide-rule?’) over the terra rossa soil of the vast Limestone Coast area (and its twenty-four sub-regions, most of which nobody outside of them has ever heard of). Of the ones some people have heard of, most of Padthaway’s (Henry’s Drive , Two Hands ) wines were trucked out for blending until Hardy’s slideruler in chief worked out it was cheaper to build the Stonehaven winery which put the place on the map; Mount Benson (Norfolk Rise ) must have promise if France’s Michel Chapoutier and the Hunter Valley’s Ralph Fowler want to make wine there and ditto Wrattonbully (Hollick , Tappanappa , Yalumba ).

The one that everybody has heard of – Coonawarra – is a featureless, flat strip of terra rossa ten miles long by one mile wide. This is where all sorts of silly fruits were originally grown before the wine thing started in the 1960s. The best Cabernet Sauvignon (it accounts for sixty per cent of the vines) in Australia comes from this cool, southernmost sector where frost and rain are a problem – it’s all rather French, in fact. It’s a traditional place and being so narrowly confined, there’s not much space for the tyros (who wouldn’t like it much anyway – not many people do – it’s too isolated and too quiet, there’s no ‘scene’ here, just a couple of dozen wineries, including Fosters brands, which predominate with Wynns – much the biggest – Penfolds , Lindemans and Jamieson’s Run ; otherwise, there are Balnaves , Hollick Majella , Bowen , Mildara , Parker Estate , Katnook , Penley , Leconfield , Petaluma , and Rymill ) with not enough labour so they carefully use machines.

Up north, Riverland is the South Australian contribution to the great irrigated winescape that stretches away along the Murray River into Victoria and New South Wales and is the ‘real’ South-Eastern Australia. As in California’s Central Valley this is desert – as opposed to dessert – wine, although amazingly some of the latter is made too, and has been described by Australia’s leading wine writer, James Halliday, as ‘hydroponically grown’. It accounts for over half of SA’s output (and nearly a third of the whole of Australia’s) and relies completely on being able to turn on the tap to good effect – doesn’t mean there aren’t some good-value wines though. Victoria The biggest producing state until phylloxera struck, now the most varied with 600 producers spanning from the desert to the coolest, southernmost spots on the entire mainland, and heading up in to the hills. A whistle-stop tour is in order.

Those billion exported bottles? The own labels, pop-up brands, private brands, the bag-in-box wine, the tanker wine? The MurrayDarling is where it comes from (and it accounts for eighty per cent of Victoria’s production). So does the bulk of the fruit for the big brands – the more quality-aware of them supplement it with some fresher cooler-climate stuff. The French have been doing it for centuries – they call it élevage. There is good stuff as well from some of the small(er) producers (Andrew Peace , Angove’s , Broken Shackle , Deakin , Marktree , Sunnycliff , Trentham Estate , Willandra , Wombat Hill ).

The north-east Victoria Zone includes sweltering Rutherglen, (Buller , Campbells , Chambers , Morris , Stanton and Killeen ) and Glenrowan (Bailey’s ) where unique, fortified Liqueur Muscat and Tokay (the Muscadelle of Sauternes), toffee-and-coffee-rich stickies are aged forever in small barrels. There are big reds as well – Durif is a speciality in Rutherglen. The King Valley is dominated by family-owned Brown Brothers in Milawa, where they have done more to advance the proliferation of varieties through research in their Kindergarten winery than anyone. At around 300m in the Alpine Valleys, the wines have the freshness of cool nights about them (Castagna, Gapsted and Giaconda – one of the best Australian Chardonnays).

To the south-east the vast Gippsland area is, with a few exceptions (William Downie , Bass Philip ), the untapped future, while heading west through the Strathbogie Ranges, a glass of the fizz sourced here (Green Point , owned by Moët et Chandon, and perhaps the best Australian sparkling wine) is a good idea on the way to Nagambie Lakes, a sub-region of Goulburn Valley, with Shiraz vines from 1860 plus extraordinary wines from the oldest Marsanne vines in the world (Tahbilk , Mitchelton ).

Next door, Heathcote is, to mix a metaphor, the crucible of cool where some of Australia’s brightest new winemaking stars (and a few oldies – Brown Brothers , Chapoutier and Laughton , Greenstone , Heathcote Winery , Jackson , Jasper Hill , Redbank , Shelmerdine , Two Hands , Tyrrell’s , Wild Duck Creek ) coax rich, dry-grown Shiraz out of the 500-million-year-old Cambrian soils. Southwards, Macedon Ranges is one of the coolest climates in Australia but Chardonnay and Pinot Noir can hack it (Bindi , Curly Flat , Virgin Hills Bendigo (Balgownie ). Those Cambrian soils continue west into , Fairbank ) and Pyrenees (Dalwhinnie , Redbank , Taltarni ) before we get to the limestone Grampians where sparkling wine stars alongside spectacular Shiraz – and sometimes both in the same wine (Best’s Great Western , Mount Langi Ghiran and Seppelt ).

On the coast, Henty (Crawford River , Tarrington ) heads us back towards the ring of wine areas around the thirsty, discriminating city of Melbourne. The first is empty, windswept, maritime Geelong (Scotchmans Hill , Gary Farr , Shadowfax ), followed by Sunbury (Craiglee ) before we get to Victoria’s indisputably world-class wine region, the Yarra Valley, which has complex topography, a cool climate, and dauntingly high standards shared by some of Australia’s best winemakers (Coldstream Hills , De Bortoli , Diamond Valley , Giant Steps , Mount Mary , Phi , Mac Forbes , Seville Estate , Yarra Yering , Yeringberg , Yering Station ) making Australia’s best Pinot Noir, some classy Chardonnay (especially made without malolactic fermentation) and all-the-rage Shiraz-Viognier blends.

To the south of the city, the Mornington Peninsula has some topclass winemakers, including some amateurs who’ve been making such good, acidity-charged wine from Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris and Chardonnay in the cool, maritime conditions that they’ve turned pro (Main Ridge , Ten Minutes by Tractor , Stonier , Kooyong , Yabby Lake , Paringa ).


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