Once upon a time, Australian wines were simple to understand: there was Shiraz—cheap and in large quantities—and that was that. Although renaming the Syrah grape Shiraz was excellent marketing strategy, the palates of wine enthusiasts have evolved to become more sophisticated beyond loving cute animals on labels. The Australian wine industry has adapted to the times, and the country now produces a wonderful array of fine wines.
Australian Shiraz is known, in general, for its fruitiness, softness, and relatively low tannins, making it very drinkable when young. The exception to this, in my opinion, is the Hunter River Valley north of Sydney which produces Australia’s premium and super premium wines. However, these are rarely exported, thus you must visit in person to enjoy them.
Australia uses a quality system called Geographical Indication, or GI. Labels of Australian wine will indicate where the grapes originated by showing the relevant GI.
Most of the country’s wine production occurs in the south where climatic conditions are ideal for wine grapes. The major regions of quality are discussed below.
New South Wales
The GI of consequence is the Hunter Valley, already mentioned above.
Occupying the southeast portion of the country, the important GIs are Geelong, Mornington Peninsula, and Yara Valley in the Melbourne area. This is where quality Pinot Noir is produced, and some of it is showing up in the U.S.
Further to the west is the large state of South Australia which is a major producer of exported wine. For the better wines, look for smaller GIs such as Barossa Valley, Clare Valley, Coonawarra, Langhorne Creek, Limestone Coast, and Padthaway.
Here you’ll find outstanding Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon, as well as good Pinot Noir, Riesling, Chardonnay, Viognier, and various red blends.
Tasting Tip: The #1 iconic wine of Australia is Grange, produced by Penfolds. A big, bold Shiraz, it’s a blend of grapes from around South Australia. It’s got a cult following reflected by the fact that the 2005 vintage is currently selling for over $400.
The largest state in Australia and occupying the western third of the entire country, Western Australia produces quality wine in the remote southwestern tip of the state. Some of these wines are now being exported for us to enjoy. Quality GIs you may see on labels include Pemberton, Margaret River, Perth Hills, and Swan District.
Tasting Tip: Don’t overlook white wines from Australia. They’re not only quite good, but good values as well.
Who knew that this large island off the southern coast of Australia produced wine? I certainly didn’t until I visited in 2008. To my surprise I found excellent Pinot Noir, Riesling, and Chardonnay in the Coal River Valley, both as still table wines and delightful sparkling wines. A few are now showing up in the U.S.
New Zealand Wines
New Zealand is composed of two large islands: North Island and South Island. Both Islands produce wine, although the South Island is the better known of the two.
Much of the wine from New Zealand that you’ll see in the U.S. comes from the South Island. The district of Marlborough, especially, changed the way the world thinks of Sauvignon Blanc due to the unique style produced there. It’s lemon-lime on the nose and palate, with elements of grassiness, created by uneven ripening techniques developed by the growers. Large quantities are now exported.
Tasting Tip: Some of the best fruit-forward Sauvignon Blanc in the world is produced in the Marlborough district. This wonderful wine is a delight to enjoy and pairs well with seafood dishes, as well as creamy sauces. Beware, however, of cheap competitors. Some New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc is shipped in large quantities to the U.S. and then bottled here for sale. It loses some of its vibrancy in the process. Look for the ‘real thing’ made and bottled in New Zealand.
Another important district on the South Island is Central Otago where quite good Pinot Noir is being made and exported to the U.S. It’s generally a great value.
The North Island has a thriving wine industry with much of the production in the Hawkes Bay district. Quality Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay, as well as Sauvignon Blanc, is produced here, some of which is exported.
There are other areas of wine production on both the North and South Islands. However, the areas mentioned above are the ones you’ll most likely see in the U.S.