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Unravelling Australia's Wine Regions

By DAVID LAWRASON & ANTHONY GISMONDI -- Wine Access Magazine

For years, Aussie winemakers have revelled in the idea that good wine can be made and marketed without being confused and handcuffed by terroir and appellations. Moreover, they have excelled at making well-made, well-priced, ripe, varietal wines that are refreshingly easy to buy and drink. Who really cares whether it came from Coonawarra or Koppamurra? Obviously not many care, for example, that Penfolds Grange, nowadays selling for close to $200, is blended from several regions in South Australia.

But the laws of nature (not to mention marketing) have a way of exerting themselves and taming the rogues. On the brink of its second generation, new-wave Oz wine has begun to link its fame to specific grapes from specific sites. The shift is already reflected in the Wine and Brandy Corporation's new Label Integrity Program (LIP), and some serious mapping that has established boundaries for 44 wine regions.

This month, Wine Access takes a look at the Australian appellations most commonly seen in Canada. They are arranged from east to west and grouped by states. With each featured region we also suggest which grapes are emerging as specialties, and we direct you to wines that we consider classic examples. All were recently tasted in Canada, and are reviewed fully on our database.

Where do Aussie wines get all that fruit? It's as simple as sun, sun, sun! Except for Tasmania, not a single premium growing region of Australia falls below 40 degrees of latitude, the zone normally considered cool climate. By comparison, Bordeaux is at 41 degrees, Niagara at 43 and BC's Okanagan Valley above 49. Australia, as a whole, is the world's warmest premium wine region.

New South Wales (NSW)

Centred by Sydney as its capital, NSW has 10 appellations, with the Lower and Upper Hunter Valley by far the most important. Hot, dry interior regions like Murray/Sunraysia, Griffith/Riverina, Mudgee, and Cowra are largely for high-volume, inexpensive wines, although Cowra's star is rising as a chardonnay region. The Coastal Hastings region is viticulturally challenge due to high humidity and rainfall, though Cassegrain Winery perseveres.

Hunter Valley

Semillon, Shiraz, Chardonnay
At 32 degrees of latitude, one of the world's warmest, most humid, and improbable wine regions is responsible for the legendary ageability of Australian semillon and shiraz. With Sydney less than two hours by car, tourists have played an essential role in the Hunter's economy. So, too, have the clouds that roll off the coast to block the mid-day sun and preserve valuable acidity. The best vineyards are astride the Brokenback Range in soils that restrict vine vigour, thus concentrating flavours. Semillon is the white wine story and it comes in two delicious styles: young, fruity, and vibrant-like or old, powerful, and honeyed. Chardonnay also does well, particularly in the Upper Hunter, and can be among the most complex made in the country. Generous, fruity, yet firm best describes the Hunter reds. Typical wines: Tyrrell's 1996 Brokenback Shiraz (89, $22.95), Lindeman 1995 Semillon (85, $15.00), Rosemount 1996 Semillon Show Reserve (87, $21.60), Tyrrell's 1996 Vat 47 Chardonnay ($27.50, 92)

Victoria & Tasmania

Victoria has 15 wine appellations, most small and seldom seen in Canada. From Melbourne they fan out to dot higher and drier inland areas, except for the cooler Yarra Valley, Mornington Peninsula, and the island of Tasmania. Only in the hotter northeast along the Murray River is there much large-scale viticulture. Nearby Rutherglen is known for its Istickies,O while King Valley and Goulburn (Chateau Tahbilk 1996 Marsanne) are also well developed. Northwest of Melbourne, the hot, dry regions of Geelong, Macedon, Bendigo, and Pyrenees are home to many small wineries.

Great Western

Shiraz, Cabernet, Chardonnay
Two and half hours west of Melbourne, the Great Western region is one of Australia's oldest, established, like California's Sierra Foothills, during a gold rush in the mid 19th century. It's a very dry, irrigated region but its position on the fringe of the Great Dividing Range provides a notably cool climate, making it ideal for later-ripening varieties like shiraz. There are only about a dozen wineries, including famous Mount Langi Ghiran and Seppelt, which has stepped up its presence in Canada and brought more attention to the region. Typical wine: Seppelt 1996 Harper's Range Cabernet Shiraz (86, $24.95)

Yarra Valley

Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Sparkling
This verdant, hilly zone at 37 degrees on Melbourne's northern flank is one of Australia's leading regions for cool-climate, higher-acid grapes, especially for chardonnay, pinot noir, and even sparkling wine from Green Point/Domaine Chandon. Although there are many small wineries like legendary Yarra Yerring, only a handful export to Canada, led by avant garde Coldstream Hills, originally founded by famous Australian wine writer James Halliday, and by De Bortoli, the largest and oldest Yarra winery, which makes a wide range including the sensational Noble One dessert wine. Typical wines: Coldstream Hills 1996 Pinot Noir (91, $30.00), Coldstream Hills 1996 Chardonnay Reserve (89, $39.90), De Bortoli 1996 Chardonnay Reserve.

South Australia (SA)

A huge region, SA is home to 12 appellations and the big industry giants: Southcorp (Penfolds, Lindemans, Wynns), BRL Hardy (Hardys, Renmano, Leasingham), Mildara-Blass (Wolf Blass, Mildara, Black Opal), and Orlando-Wyndham, as well as many other important companies. Its huge vineyard tracts range across several climatic zones, resulting in some confusing labels, such as Penfolds Grange and Penfolds Koonunga Hill, that both sport South Australia monikers.

Coonawarra

Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz, Chardonnay
Making wine for over 100 years, one of Australia's most distinctive and well-defined appellations is a plain-looking strip of barely elevated vineyard on unique reddish limestone-based soils. The terra rosa, plus coolish southerly latitude (37 degrees) and maritime influences, combine to produce long-lived reds with amazing acidity, tension, depth, and distinctive flavour. Exploration for other veins of terra rosa on this "limestone coast" has already struck gold at nearby Koppamurra. Wynns, Lindemans and Mildara all have wineries here and make some top Coonawarra wines, but other notable labels seen in Canada include Rymill, Leconfield, Penley, and Hollick. Typical wines: Lindemans 1995 St. George Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon (92, $42), Wynns Coonawarra Estate 1996 Shiraz (89, $16), Rymill 1996 Merlot-Cabernet (91, $18.90)

Padthaway

Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc
Farther north (36 degrees) and warmer than Coonawarra, Padthaway is a newer region (since 1963) largely planted to chardonnay and sauvignon by the big companies. Limestone again is the soil subtext, and likely the reason the wines tend to show real finesse beneath ripe fruit notes. In this largely benign, flat, dry, irrigated region yields must be well controlled to concentrate flavours. Padthaway fruit is often blended into other regions. There are virtually no wineries here, with fruit being trucked off for processing in Coonawarra, McLaren, and beyond. Typical wines: Lindemans 1997 Padthaway Chardonnay (88, $22.50), Hardys 1997 Bankside Semillon-Sauvignon blended from Padthaway-McLaren fruit (88, $10.95)

McLaren Vale - Langhorne Creek

Shiraz, Merlot, Chardonnay
McLaren Vale is only 30 minutes from Adelaide and fighting encroaching suburbia. First planted at Chateau Reynella in 1838, it is one of the most well-established, diverse, and interesting Australian regions. Its warmer latitude (35 degrees) is tempered by a coastal climate and the varying altitude of its vineyards. Soil types vary too, depending on hill or vale location. It seems to grow all grapes well, but McLaren shiraz is among Australia's best, with bright, lush fruit and supple texture. Although headquarters for Hardys at Chateau Reynella, and now the source of grapes for many companies outside the region, McLaren Vale is full of good small, wineries like Seaview, Richard Hamilton, Coriole, Woodstock, Ryecroft, and Maglieri. Typical wines: Chateau Reynella 1996 Basket Pressed Shiraz (90, $24.95), Seaview 1997 Chardonnay (88, $15.95), Richard Hamilton 1996 Gumpers Block Shiraz (91, $18.00)

Adelaide Hills - Eden Valley

Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Sparkling, Riesling
Like the Hollywood Hills above L.A., the scenic, steep Adelaide Hills (35 degrees) overlook the South Australia capital of one million that has evolved into Australia's culinary centre. Whether itIs the cool climate or the region's sublime beauty, it has a way of attracting avant-garde wineries with big reputations and prices, like Petaluma and Lenswood. Vineyards above 400 metres fall within the appellation. The northern edge melds with the high country of the warmer Eden Valley (34 degrees) east of Barossa, where small wineries like Mountadam, Pewsey Vale, and Henschke make great wines. Typical wines: Lenswood 1997 Sauvignon Blanc (88, $21.95), Shaw & Smith 1997 Unoaked Chardonnay (88, $19.95), Tollana 1996 Chardonnay Eden Valley (89, $18.95)




Australia's Label Integrity Program

95% made from vintage stated

85% made from single variety stated

85% made from single region stated

If multiple grapes and/or regions stated,
they must be listed in descending order based on percentage in the blend


Barossa Valley

Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon, Semillon
One hour's drive northeast of Adelaide, Barossa is home to Australia's largest concentration of wineries, including Penfolds, Wolf Blass, Orlando, Seppelt, and Yalumba. First planted by German settlers in the mid-19th century, it is a hot (34 degrees) and arid, irregularly contoured valley peppered with many old shiraz vineyards. Soils are mixed loam, clay, and sand, but overall rather infertile, which helps the head-pruned, non-irrigated vines produce big, deeply coloured, full-bodied, buxom, and peppery reds U Aussie classics! Typcial wines: E & E 1995 Black Pepper Shiraz (93, $39.95), Tollana 1995 Shiraz Bin TR16 (90, $24), Yalumba 1997 Growers Semillon (87, $19.95)

Clare Valley

Riesling, Semillon, Shiraz
Clare is one of Australia's emerging appellations, despite its northern location (33 degrees.) In fact, itIs as far away from the ocean as grapes are likely to grow before succumbing to outback-like desert conditions. The secret is high altitude (400 to 500 metres) with cool afternoon breezes and cold desert nights, both of which preserve grape acidity. A fair bit of limestone in the soil also contributes to a style of ripe, generous fruit built over firm acidity U a kind of riper Coonawarra. BRL Hardy's Leasingham, Jim Barry, Tim Knappstein, Pikes, Jeanneret, and Mitchell are good producers shipped to Canada. Typical wines: Leasingham Classic Clare 1995 Shiraz (90, $35.55), Tim Knappstein 1996 Cabernet Merlot (88, $19.95), Jim Barry 1997 Watervale Riesling (84, $13.75)

West Australia (WA)

Although producing less than five per cent of Australia's wine, WA is one of the world's most exciting new wine regions, exploding with labels. Six appellations range over several hundred kilometres from Swan Valley (31 degrees) north of Perth down to Mt. Barker (35 degrees) in the Great Southern Region. Although latitudes vary, the appellations are clustered near the sea. Goundry of Mt. Barker is the only larger non-Margaret River winery making Canadian inroads. Typical wine: Goundrey 1997 Chardonnay Reserve (89, $38.95)

Margaret River

Cabernet Sauvignon, Semillon-Sauvignon Blanc
Action central in West Australia is a coastal cape jutting into the sea at the happy confluence of the Indian and Southern Oceans at 33 degrees. No other Australian region is so maritime, yet the temperature range is amazingly even and the rainfall sparse during the growing season. The irrigated vineyards are planted for the most part on well-drained, gravelly soils. Bordeaux similarities have prompted great excitement over taut, fragrant, and ageworthy cabernet/merlot reds and sauvignon/semillon whites. Planting was spearheaded by Leeuwin and Cape Mentelle in the mid-70s, but many stars are now emerging, like Devil's Lair, Fermoy Estate, Abbey Vale and Evans & Tate. Typical wines: Cape Mentelle 1997 Semillon/Sauvignon (89, $17.60), Devil's Lair 1995 Cabernet Sauvignon (93, $38.90), Evans & Tate 1996 Gnangara Shiraz (87, $14.30).


This article first appeared in the April/May 1999 issue of Wine Access Magazine

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