Australia is one of the world’s most prolific wine-producing nations, exporting more than 400 million liters per year. Britain and the United States are major importers, but many other countries, including India and countries in South Asia, also import Australian wines. Australians consume more than 600 million bottles of their own wine annually.
There are 62 registered wine regions and 10 sub-regions in Australia. Boundaries generally are determined by soil type and climate. In accordance with the national industry’s Geographic Indications (GI) system, wine carrying a specific regional name must have a minimum 85% of its fruit sourced directly from that region.
Vineyards and wineries are found in every Australian state, but most of the country’s wine is produced along the southeast coast (in New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia) which has a Mediterranean type climate. Western Australia, which is known for the quality of the wines it produces, produces less than 5% of the country’s wine. In most of this vast continent, the climate is not suitable for viticulture due to extreme heat and aridness, and even soil in the major wine producing areas tends to be rather infertile, sandy, and dry, requiring irrigation. Somewhat paradoxically, perhaps, many of the country’s best grapes are produced in unirrigated, low-yield vineyards planted with old, ungrafted vines such as those of the prestigious Penfolds winery. Dry-farming has been utilized at Penfolds since French vines were introduced in 1844.
There are no native grapes in Australia. Viticulture only goes back to the 18th century on this continent. Grapevines from France, Brazil, and South Africa were first planted in the penal colony of New South Wales in 1788. The British, working with unfamiliar climate and difficult soil, quickly lost the original vines, but more were brought in. Today, Australia has some of the oldest vines in the world still producing fruit. Leading red wines from the country include Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon. Best-selling white wines are made from Chardonnay, Riesling, and Sémillon grapes. At least 100 distinct grape varieties are now cultivated in Australia. A few hybrids, most notably Tarrango and Cienna, were created domestically.
For about 150 years, until the late 20th century, Australia was known for its inexpensive sweet and fortified wines. Not much premium wine was made in Australia. In the past 30 years, however, the Australian wine industry has made great strides in terms of both production and international reputation. Techniques that exerted more control over the final product were introduced in the 1980s. Cleanliness measures, strict temperature control, adjustment of pH levels, short-term oak aging, bottling innovations, and the addition of special yeasts produced the bright, high-impact flavors popular in so many modern Australian wines. A smaller percentage of vintners in Australia prefer “restrained winemaking” and adhere to more old-fashioned methods, utilizing the oldest vines and traditional techniques with no irrigation. Both factions have enjoyed great success in the 21st century.
Photo courtesy of the Barossa Grape & Wine Association (www.barossa.com).