Regions - Australia


Australia has moved into the top 10 of wine producers in the world, averaging 80 million cases a year (an increase of more than 50 per cent in the last five years). The style vary from aromatic, dry whites to those fashioned in the image of vintage port. Some of its wines, like the Semillons of the Hunter Valley and the fortified Muscats and Tokays of northeast Victoria have no direct equivalent elsewhere, but overall the wines are distinctively Australian yet fit easily into the world scene. Over 1,000 wineries are spread through every state and territory.

Most of the wineries are small; 80 per cent of the annual crush comes from the four largest companies, headed by the vast Southcorp with a market share of 35 per cent. As in California, over 70% of those small wineries have come into existence in the last 20 year.

Australia is about the same size as the US. Because wine is made in every state, it is impossible to bundle up Australia's wine industry into a few tidy sentences. However, we can break it down to two basic weather patterns, one affecting Western Australia, South Australia, Victoria, and Tasmania (the southern states), the other governing Queensland and New South Wales.

The southern states experience a winter-spring rainfall pattern, with a dry summer and early autumn. Ridges of high pressure sweep across the southern half of the continent from Perth to Melbourne during the vines' growing season, uninterrupted by mountain ranges; daytime temperatures typically range between 77°F and 95°F. There is a less profound maritime influence than in California and the sea temperature is generally warmer. As a result, the summation of heat in the premium wine regions is a major factor in promoting wine quality.

The Hunter Valley is tends toward too much rainfall during harvest, and conversely, a winter and spring drought. Its redeeming feature is the humidity and afternoon cloud cover which reduces stress on the vines and subdues the impact of the heat.

International cost comparisons by the Penfold Wine Group showed that Australia is able to grow and harvest grapes more economically than California, France, or South Africa. This populist approach to viticulture has been carried to its logical conclusion with the development high yield vineyard techniques which produced bountiful crops, yet the resultant wines had a mesaure of flavor that made their value a cut above the competition.

French oak is preferred for top-quality white wines, for Pinot Noir, and much of the Cabernet Sauvignon produced. American oak is widely used for Shiraz, Cabernet-Shiraz blends, some Cabernet Sauvignon and unfortunatel, too many low end Chardonnays. For lesser-quality wines, the use of oak chips (in conjunction with older barrels) is becoming increasingly widespread. Chemical additions of all kinds are decreasing. The grape growers are seeking to provide grapes with the correct chemical composition (reducing the need for acidification) while the wine-makers are reducing already low sulphur dioxide additions.

Fewer and fewer wine-makers add any sulphur to red must or wines prior to the completion of the malolactic fermentation. For dry white and red wines the aim is to limit the total sulphur dioxide level to 50 parts per million (ppm) and free sulphur dioxide to 20 ppm, less than half the internationally set legal limits. Sulphur-free red wines are being made, and may become more common, relying on the preservative action of their tannins. Making sulphur-free white wines with an acceptable shelf life is rather more difficult, but research work is continuing.

Australia's premier red wine grape in terms of production and quality is without question, Shiraz. Total plantings increased from 12,000 in 1992 to 33,000 acres in 1997. Shiraz's output was forecast to increase by 30 per cent by 1999. It is grown in virtually every wine region, responding generously to the varying imperatives of terroir and climate. The variety is identical to the Syrah of France and has a long Australian history.

Cabernet is second to Shiraz in terms of plantings but is more ubiquitous. The thick-skinned small berries stand up to rain, and impart distinctive varietal flavour in almost all growing conditions. Partly due to the excess demand of the 1960s and 1970s, the blending of Cabernet and Shiraz-or, more probably, Shiraz with a little Cabernet-became widespread, but with a few notable exceptions the trend for premium wines is towards the traditional Bordeaux blend with Merlot and Cabernet Franc. The rate of increase in the planting of these latter two varieties exceeds all others, and varietal Merlots, uncommon at the start of the 1990s, are proliferating.

Until the mid 1960s, Grenache accounted for 90 per cent of Australia's red wine. Cabernet Sauvignon began to make inroads, followed by Pinot Noir. Shiraz became less fashionable. Just when it seemed these varieties would cease to be at all significant, the world-wide interest in the Rhone wine styles reversed the trend. Century-old, dry-farmed Grenache in McLaren Vale and the Barossa Valley is now in great demand for table wine with production topping 24,200 tons (about 1,300,000 cases).

Total 1992 plantings of 4,683 acres put Pinot Noir in fifth position as an Australian red wine grape, and production was expected to increase by a further 20 per cent by 2001. Plantings of Chardonnay soared from a negligible level in 1970 to 33,871 acres in 1997. It is grown in every wine region, bending as much to the wills of the growers, wine-makers and public as to the influence of climate and terroir. The style varies from simple to complex and quality from mediocre to excellent, parameters increasingly recognized by a widening range of prices. Market demand engendered blends with Semillon, Colombard, and almost any other white grape variety in the 1980s.

Semillon is Australia's white counterpart to Shiraz. The nation's 11,861 acres in 1997 is shared between many regions, however much the variety may be identified with the Hunter Valley in New South Wales. As with Shiraz and Cabernet, Semillon is emerging from the shadow of Chardonnay, and production was expected to increase by 20 per cent by 1999. Classic Hunter Semillon is made without the use of new oak, relying on extended bottle ageing to produce and incredibly complex and flavor layered offering. Latter-day variations incorporate barrel fermentation and barrel maturation, or blending with Sauvignon Blanc. The latter is another recent arrival on the scene, essentially since 1980, and production is rapidly increasing, spurred on by competition from New Zealand.

The Australian wine market is dominated by the world's second largest wine operation (behind the US's Gallo), Southcorp which owns, among others, Penfolds and Lindemans. The majority of the largest wineries in the country are in South Australia. Penfolds, Orlando, Seppelt (also part of Southcorp), Wolf Blass, Yalumba, Rosemount, Saltram, Peter Lehmann, Krondorf and Hardys.

The sale of wine within Australia is relatively simple, and notably free of the restraints which apply in the United States. Movement between the states is unhindered, and wine producers can sell to whomever they wish (distributors, retailers, or the public), wherever they wish. One of the particular freedoms of Australia is the BYO restaurant, `BYO' standing for Bring Your Own. In Victoria, indeed, `Licensed and BYO' restaurants, which are licensed but which generously encourage patrons to bring their own wine, are common. This ethic spreads across all restaurants in Australia. Most will permit patrons to bring their own wine upon payment of a corkage fee, if the request is made in appropriate fashion.