Brian Freedman’s column “Wines of the Week” for forbes.com is read by thousands of readers each week. He also contributes wine- and spirits-focused articles and commentaries on FoodandWine.com, among other outlets. For those of you considering the WSET Diploma program, this deep dive into alternative wines from Australia will help you up your study game.
The days of Australian wine being synonymous with over-extracted, unbalanced fruit juice are mercifully past us. Yet to a certain extent, and among a certain generation of consumers, the stigma has proven to be frustratingly persistent.
Sure, there are plenty of massively styled reds being produced Down Under, but that’s the case around the world, and to discuss them as if they’re in any way emblematic of an entire country’s—and in this, an entire continent’s!—wine culture is grossly inaccurate.
Just like Napa is home to more than big, fruit-driven Cabs, Australia does infinitely more than simply dark-purple and vaguely boozy Shiraz. The style in which the variety is crafted has evolved, as have wines from the Yarra Valley all the out west to Perth. Here, then, we take a look at some of the standouts in the Aussie wine industry of 2019, from Riesling to Grenache to Cab and beyond.
South Australia: Barossa, Clare Valley, Eden Valley, McLaren Vale
Many of the most notable wines from Australia come from South Australia, in the areas more or less with Adelaide as a center point. Clare Valley and Eden Valley are home to a stunning range of Riesling in particular—they seem to be cropping up on American wine lists with increasing frequency, and bottles are often priced well less than $100—though other varieties thrive, as well. In Eden Valley, according to the Barossa Grape & Wine Association, “altitude is all-important in determining the meso climate (or local climate), although aspect and slope are also important in the varied, hilly terrain.” As is the case everywhere in the world, land planted above the fog line benefits from a greater accumulation of sunshine hours throughout the growing season. Couple that with an often more pronounced diurnal swing, and you have a recipe for wines of serious tension and energy.
The Barossa Valley itself, though known for big, bruising bottles of Shiraz, also has the potential to produce more detailed ones, too, in addition to stellar Cabernet Sauvignons and some great white wines, including plantings of Semillon that stretch back more than a century. It’s a more nuanced region that it often gets credit for: Again according to the Barossa Grape & Wine Association, “The Barossa Valley is typified by gentle rolling hills and valleys. Plenty of sunshine on the deeper valley soils promote healthy vine growth, but excess vigour is often restricted by shallow soil and a lack of water holding capacity.” Which all adds up the region’s unique ability to produce wines of ripeness on the one hand (all of that sunshine often lends the wines an inimitable sense of ripe richness) and serious concentration (the restriction of excess vigor means that more of the vine’s energy is put into fewer berries, essentially amping up each one) on the other. So while there are still plenty of big-shouldered Shiraz wines being produced, the best of them also possess the structure and potential longevity of wines that would usually be expected to come off as a bit more lean.
McLaren Vale, less than an hour’s drive south of Adelaide and with a significant influence from the nearby sea, is about as exciting and diverse as it gets: The wines here tend to be finely detailed, and with layers of fruit and more savory notes that make them particularly versatile at the table. And because the region itself is composed of soils that range from loam to sandy to clay-rich, vineyards, as is to be expected, are planted to a serious array of varieties. Producers like d’Arenberg, for example, embody the possibilities there: They work with 30 grape varieties and produce more than 70 different wines, including bottlings crafted from expected ones like Grenache, Syrah, and Mourvèdre to surprises like Sangiovese, Graciano, and Chambourcin, among many others. In a place like McLaren Vale, the natural variability of the land means that the best producers can grow wines with imagination and a sense of bravery that might be more difficult in some other places around the world. In addition to d’Arenberg, other producers to look for include Chalk Hill, Angove, Wirra Wirra, and Mollydooker, among others.
Victoria: Yarra Valley and Mornington Peninsula
In Victoria, the Yarra Valley and Mornington Peninsula, both not too far from Melbourne, are deeply exciting regions with a stunning array of wines being produced throughout. The Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from Mornington Peninsula are poised for greatness on the world’s stage, with producers like Paringa Estate, Stonier Wines, and the magnificently named Ten Minutes by Tractor topping the list of many visitors. And in the Yarra Valley—which the regional wine board, Wine Yarra Valley, describes as “so diverse, it is hard to make any conclusive observations when you consider the range of influences which include both Mediterranean and continental climates, elevation from 50m [~160 feet] – 1250m [~4,100 feet] including the influence of the Great Dividing Range, and a number of soil types”—producers like Giant Steps, Yarra Yering, and Mac Forbes have earned cult-like reputations around the world.
Ray Isle and Carson Demmond said as much in Food & Wine digital: “Forget super-ripe Shiraz—Yarra Valley star Forbes’s elegant, restrained Pinot Noirs and delicate Chardonnays can rival some of Burgundy’s finest.” And Jancis Robinson has observed that, “The cloudy Yarra Valley just north east of Melbourne has been making top-quality wine for a century and has earned itself a reputation for delicate Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays.” She also pointed out that, unlike popular (false) wisdom has it regarding Shiraz throughout the continent, “Yarra Shiraz is distinctively cool-climate style.”
Western Australia: Margaret River
Out west and a seeming world away is Margaret River. It’s a five-plus-hour flight from Sydney, and then a three-hour drive south from there. From the East Coast of the United States, it’s literally as close as you can get to the exact other side of the planet and not be in the Indian Ocean.
Yet it’s more than worth the journey. Among Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay devotees, it’s a quasi-mythical land. With ancient forests and generous Indian Ocean and Southern Ocean coastlines, Margaret River is home to Cabs and Chards of stunning expressiveness and longevity. Two years ago, a 50th anniversary retrospective tasting was held there, and it was one of the most profound wine experiences I’ve ever had: These were bottles with a fascinating story to tell, and often the ability to attain layers of complexity that their Cab counterparts in Bordeaux and Chard equivalents in Burgundy would envy. Cabernet going back to 1982 and Chardonnay to 2005 showed the stratospheric heights that this isolated region is capable of.
According to Margaret River Wine, “Its geography, soils and Mediterranean climate combine to create ideal grape-growing conditions–heavy winter rainfalls, cool sea breezes that give vibrancy to the fruit and a long, dry ripening season capable of ripening Cabernet Sauvignon right to the end of the season.” In the glass, the Cabs tend to exhibit a profound balance between expressive fruit, savory mineral, spice, and occasionally floral notes, and the kind of length on the palate that promises—and that the retrospective tasting proved—decades of evolution among the best of them. The Chardonnays I found to be generous yet beautifully delineated, uniquely textural, and often capable of aging for years.
Australia, then, is one of the most diverse, forward-thinking countries in the world for wine production. And it’s just waiting to be discovered. Too many consumers still don’t know the full story of all that’s happening Down Under right now. It’s time they found out.