Part 3 – Characteristics and Grapes of Australia’s Larger Wine Regions
In Part 1, we discussed some of the reasons why Australia has become a renown wine producing country, and that all states and territories other than the Northern Territories and Queensland produce high quality wines. In Part 2, we described where Australia’s prominent wine regions were located.
Discussing, even in simplest terms, each region, takes up some space, so I am breaking the wine regions up into the four large wine regions which I describe in Part 3 (this post):
- Hunter Valley – about two hours north of Sydney, New South Wales
- Barossa Valley – just north of Adelaide, South Australia with close-by regions of Clare and Eden Valley, and with McLaren Vale south of Adelaide
- Yarra Valley – about an hour north of Melbourne, with close-by regions including Mornington Peninsula and Geelong, south of Melbourne, and Heathcote, Victoria northwest of Melbourne and on the way to Bendigo, Victoria
- Margaret River – about 4 hours south of Perth, Western Australia
In Part 4 (next post), we will then describe what makes each smaller region so special and what grapes grow best in those regions:
- Rutherglen – about half-way between Sydney and Melbourne, close to the New South Wales and Victorian border and the cities of Albury and Wodonga
- Mudgee, NSW – about 4 hours northwest of Sydney, with some wineries relatively close by around Orange
- Riverina – in southwest New South Wales
The Hunter Valley is divided into the Lower Hunter and the Upper Hunter. However, the Upper Hunter only has four cellar doors remaining, and a number of vineyards that produce and sell grapes. The Lower Hunter is where the action is. There are about 150 wineries in the Lower Hunter. The Hunter Valley is close to the ocean, but not right on top of it, so it gets some good breezes, decent rainfall (some years far too much rain fall!), and has some great soil conditions. The best known grapes in the Hunter Valley are Semillon, Shiraz and Chardonnay.
Hunter Semillons are un-paralled anywhere in the world. A multitude of Hunter wineries make great, great Semillons, in three styles which really relate to their age in the bottle and when they are released. They are:
- Crisp, new Semillons a year or two in the bottle
- Semillons stored for 5 years before being released
- “Museum” Semillons being bottled and stored 10 years before being released
The Shiraz of The Hunter Valley tends to be more spicy than fruity often described with labels as “peppery”, “smokey”, “leathery”. Hunter Shiraz’s also tend to contain slightly less alcohol and is more refined than the Shiraz of Barossa Valley, by comparison. I would consider the Hunter Shiraz’ to compare with “old world” style Hermitage.
I have recently become a real fan of Hunter Valley Chardonnays and believe both the lighter crisper Chardonnays and the aged Chardonnays of the Hunter are as good as any in Australia now.
Hunter Valley Top Wines: Semillon, Shiraz, Chardonnay
The Barossa Valley is often labeled as Australia’s “Best Wine Region”, even though I am sure many wine producers from other regions would deny that claim! However, the Barossa Valley has a lot going for it which justifies that label. They produce great grapes, have a variety of micro-climates and regions, variety of elevations, and some of the best wine labels in Australia, including Penfolds, Henschke, and Grosset among many others.
The Barossa is known for big, robust, fruity, Shiraz, often high in alcohol. It is also know for superb Rieslings, especially in the Clare and Eden Valleys. As testimonial, I have about 6 Australian Rieslings in my cellar and they all come from around the Barossa Valley.
McLaren Vale, south of Adelaide is known for making superb Cabernet Sauvignons. McLaren Vale is close to the sea and gets some nice breezes to help the grapes mature in a consistent manner.
There are a lot of other grapes that do well across the Barossa Valley, given its variety of micro-climates and great overall growing conditions.
Barossa Valley Top Wines: Shiraz, Riesling, Cabernet Sauvignon
The Yarra Valley makes some of Australia’s best sparkling wines. They are also know for great Shiraz, as is the Heathcote region nearby.
But what I love most about the Yarra Valley and the surrounding areas of Geelong and the Mornington Penisula are the great Pinot Noir wines that come from this region. The slightly cooler climate is perfect for growing the Pinot Noir grape. Everyone is talking about New Zealand Pinot Noirs, but my favorites all come from Victoria.
Also, for pure enjoyment and if you only have a day to tour a wine country, the Yarra Valley is quicker to get to than The Hunter Valley or Margaret River from the closest big near-by city, so you can pack in more fun in a twelve hour day than with a number of the other regions, which almost demand two, if not three days.
Yarra Valley Top Wines: Pinot Noir, Shiraz, Sparkling
For pure elegance, I love the wines from the Margaret River. Sea breezes and some of the best soil in Australia for growing wine exists in Margaret River. It is often compared to Napa Valley and some great American wineries have purchased vineyards here. In fact, this is the Australian wine region most noted for Zinfandel, a popular California grape.
Cabernet Sauvignons and Chardonnays are the stand-out wines from Margaret River. A number of premium brands such as Leeuwin Estate, Pierro and Moss Wood come from this region. While one of the smaller regions compared to the three described above, Margaret River still “punches above the line” with so many premium labels. Winery per winery, you will get more quality wineries from this region than from any other region.
Margaret River Top Wines: Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc
Each region will be described in more detail, including recommendations of specific wineries and wines in subsequent posts. But first, onto “Part 4 – Characteristics and Grapes of Australia’s Smaller Wine Regions.”