Loving Australian Terroir

By: Angela Aiello

Australia is often talked about as a destination for the traveller’s bucket-list. If you haven’t already noticed this trend, you probably will after reading this article. As Canadians, we seem to have a sense of kinship with a continent that is so far away. Maybe it is the ease of language, the shared sense of community, friendly nick-naming, the attraction of warmer climate, or the unique accent that makes Australia an attractive and loved destination for many Canadians.

When it comes to wine appreciation, Australia is no different. It is a big country boasting many established wine regions, with vines first arriving in 1788. Although much of the continent is too warm for grape growing, there are some truly wonderful and unique places that can produce wonderful fruit, and in turn, great wine. When you think of Australia, odds are what comes to mind is the signature Shiraz grape. The emergence and popularity of [yellow tail] Shiraz helped to popularize not only the grape, but also Australia in general. Although Australia does produce truly fantastic Shiraz, it also produces quality Riesling, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, and one of my new favourite white varieties, Semillon (pronounced Sem-ee-on).

A Sense of Place
Here in North America, we often begin our wine journey by learning grape varieties. We sip Pinot Grigio, Chardonnay and Cabernet, and while knowing which country they are produced in, but understanding which region they are from is not always on our top priority list. As you develop your wine knowledge, it is important to understand not only what type of wine you love from a country, but also the specific region it is from. It is a natural step in your wine journey to move from liking Shiraz from Australia to Shiraz from Yarra Valley in Australia.

A region’s sense of place, or shall we say Terroir, is what we wine nerds crave in our wine. In a glass or by the bottle, we love knowing what small piece of land with unique weather gave us this liquid courage – and we like talking about it too. You can start your deeper connection with regional wine to move you along your wine journey. Digging deeper into unique wines from special places, while appreciating and demanding Terroir from your wine, is a great step towards becoming a wine geek. This article is a helpful beginner’s tutorial on the regions of Australia and the grapes within them.
Understanding Australia

Even though Australia has an overall warmer climate in comparison to Canada, it does have pockets of cooler climate regions offering unique meso-climates. Also, because of its ancient soils, this continent has a lot to offer vineyards and winemakers. There are many areas where the soils are of volcanic origin, and there is tremendous variation in every region. This diversity allows for wines that are affordable and approachable, as well as complex and textured.

Australia has a long history of Riesling production, which is good news for all you Riesling lovers out there! The first recorded plantings of Riesling vines were in 1838 near Penrith (New South Wales), and Riesling was the most-planted quality white grape variety until the 1980s. Currently, there are approximately 10,600 acres of Riesling under vine. The most popular regions in Australia for Riesling are South Australia (with Clare Valley and Eden Valley being the most renowned region), Western Australia, and Tasmania. Most are making Riesling in a dry, full-flavoured style, yet some producers are making their Rieslings off-dry with a slightly lower alcohol percentage.

Chardonnay is grown in almost every region in Australia. In the 1970s and 80s, Australian Chardonnay was full of ripe flavours, with lots of use of new oak, and mainly sourced from warmer regions. However, currently, Chardonnay vineyards are developing in cooler climate regions, allowing for a more elegant and balanced style of wine.

Chardonnay is what they call a “Winemaker’s Grape” because it is so versatile – and Aussie Chard is no different. Unoaked Chardonnay has been a popular style in Australia for several years, as people crave fresh and crisp wines. Australian winemakers are also using oak to add complexity and texture to their Chardonnay. Chardonnays from Australia’s warmer regions tend to be full-bodied with ripe tropical flavours, and have higher alcohol percentages. Wines from cooler climate regions in Australia are elegant and restrained, having more lime and mineral flavours, and less winemaker influence. Premium Chardonnay regions include Adelaide Hills (South Australia), where it tends to be complex and elegant, and is the most planted variety in the region. Margaret River (Western Australia) is home to Australia’s finest Chardonnay, producing wines with great structure that are rich and complex. In Yarra Valley (Victoria), there is great diversity in weight, texture, and richness. The Mornington Peninsula’s (Victoria) cooler climate Chardonnays have a good amount of minerality, representing one of the most distinctive styles. The cooler climate of Tasmania produces elegant, complex, and finely structured Chardonnay. So, if you love Chardonnay, Australia offers many great styles and well-balanced wines from various regions for you to sip, savour, and of course, share.

Pinot Noir
Pinot Noir is a relatively new grape in Australia, and the state of Victoria is the best place to grow it, given the unique soil compounds and cooler climate. Pinot Noir, as you may already know, is a picky grape, so it needs certain standards to be able to grow well, including a cooler climate and dry autumns. The Yarra Valley has achieved more with Pinot Noir than any other region. The Mornington Peninsula has a strong maritime climate with no vineyard sites more than about 4.3 miles from the ocean. Geelong has a strong maritime climate and typical long, cool dry autumns. The Macedon Ranges is the coolest wine-producing region on the mainland (and is also a great sparkling region). Gippsland has volcanic soils, and is home to the majority of wineries in the south of the region – and to Australia’s top Pinot Noir producers. Tasmania’s climate is also suited for great Pinot Noir. Here you’ll find the Tamar Valley and Pipers River, which have been proven to be high quality Pinot Noir-producing areas, and have a climate similar to Champagne in France.

Cabernet Sauvignon
Cabernet Sauvignon is grown in many parts of Australia. The two regions that should come to mind, or that you should look out for when picking up a bottle, are Coonawarra (South Australia) and Margaret River (Western Australia). Coonawarra is considered Australia’s greatest Cabernet Sauvignon region since it has the coolest areas for viticulture, offering the wines great flavours of mint, plum and blackcurrent, with tremendous age worthiness. Margaret River has a maritime influence, which allows for Cabernets from this region to be rich and intense, yet elegant and aromatic with velvety tannins.

Yes, Shiraz is grown all over Australia – and if there is something that brings you to Australia, it can definitely be their signature Shiraz. Shiraz from Australia can be one of three styles: 1) Approachable and affordable 2) Classically from a cooler climate 3) Classically from a warmer climate. The approachable and affordable Shiraz is medium-bodied with soft tannins, and is the style that put Australian Shiraz on the map since it was very popular in export markets. Even though the continent has a generally warm climate, there are pockets of cooler climate regions producing Shiraz that is medium-to-full in body, structured with fine acidity and tannin, and has slightly lower alcohol, as well as a more savoury taste profile. Shiraz from cooler climate regions also has flavours of raspberry, mint, and pepper. This style can be found in the regions of Central Victoria, Yarra Valley, Grampians, and Pyrenees (Victoria); in Eden Valley, Adelaide Hills, Connawarra, and parts of the Clare Valley (South Australia); and in parts of the Margaret River, and the great Southern and Pemberton Regions (Western Australia). Shiraz from the warmer regions in Australia typically has firmer tannin structure, flavours of plum, blackberry, chocolate and spice, higher alcohol, and uses American oak. This style of Shiraz is really only produced in South Australia in the regions of McLaren Vale, Barossa Valley, Langhorne Creek, and parts of the Clare Valley.

Semillon from Hunter Valley (New South Wales) is also making a name for itself. The grapes are picked with low sugar content and high natural acidity; there is no oak treatment, and the wine is cold fermented and bottled immediately. It is then aged for six years before it is released. Once aged and ready to serve, the wine exhibits complexity like an aged Chardonnay, with flavours of honey and fig. It is unique and delicious! Any wine lover would appreciate the flavours that time offers to this wine.

Many more!
Australia also produces other grape varieties including Rose, Sauvignon Blanc, and sparkling wines as well as fortified and sweet wines. So no matter what type of wine you like, odds are Australia has options for you.

Your Wine Journey
The wines explained above are meant to reward you with a sense of deeper understanding around regional differences,and empower you with the understanding to look for regions the next time you’re shopping for and sharing a bottle of Aussie wine. Transitioning from loving Australian Shiraz to loving the elegance of Coonawara Shiraz is the next step in your wine journey. So the next time someone says they have a bottle of Australian Chardonnay in their fridge, step up and ask what region it’s from. You’ll surprise yourself with your confidence and people will truly regard your wine intelligence. Now that’s what I call progression!

When it comes to wine, it always has (and will always be) about Terroir, a vine/vineyard’s sense of place in this world. Personally, I find understanding Terroir takes a trip to the vineyard – a trip to that special place where the vines grow, and a personal meeting with the winemaker talking about the climate and soil. I like to touch, feel, and visualize the environment, and more often than not, the places are unforgettable and picturesque, and leave a burning memory of what Terroir really is. Maybe your wine journey is calling you on a trip to our kinship continent – the warm, diverse, and beautiful place that is Australia.

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