This year we will be embarking on a tour of the worlds wine regions, starting this week in South Australia.
When you think of Australian wine, what comes to mind? Full-bodied fruit bomb Shiraz and Oak-drenched Chardonnay, which conquered the UK in the eighties? Sunshine in a glass compared to the drier reds and slightly more austere styles from Europe, mostly France in the UK market, before this time.
Historically, most Australian production was Fortified wines, variations of Sherry, Port and Madeira, names which are not outlawed. However, terms such as tawny and reserve are used to emphasise the similarity in style to Port.
These full-powered Shiraz's and Chardonnay's are still around. Some of Shiraz's more extreme examples top out at 17% ABV, but the Aussie wine scene is much more nuanced now. Looking at a map of Australia, most of the production hugs the cooler southern coast. Unsurprisingly along with most of the population, the climate is more maritime and some inland areas at higher altitude where the cooler air suits some white varieties.
South Australia is the central area of Australian quality production, producing roughly half of the total output. Followed by Victoria and New South Wales as well as Western Australia and Tasmania. Inland irrigated areas such as Riverina, Murray Darling, and Riverland may produce some of the volume seen at the market's budget end. Still, the clusters around Adelaide and Melbourne are home to names we are more familiar with - Barossa, McLaren Vale, Clare Valley, Yarra Valley, Mornington Peninsula.
North of Adelaide is Clare Valley, actually a series of Valleys 500 metres above sea level, the altitude helps moderate the climate. Clare is roughly divided into two sections, the north is mainly slate based soils, which Riesling loves, and in the south, the soil is more Limestone based. A textbook example of this Northern style from vineyards around Polish Hill River is Grosset's Riesling. With some of the more steely/lime blossom elements reminiscent of some Mosel Rieslings from Germany, the wines from this area can age gracefully for years and, in some instances, decades. Riesling is a grape that expresses Terroir, the vineyard and soil's nature, perhaps more than any other grape. The southern producers around Watervale produce a more floral and fruitier style. The altitude and prevailing winds also contribute to what's referred to as Diurnal variation (where there is a large gap between the daytime and night-time temperatures). This is important as it retains freshness and preserves acidity, even when the grapes are at full ripeness when acidity can fall quite quickly. Clare also produces some excellent Cabernet's and Shiraz's, and while these are typically fruit-forward, they have more structure and ability to age than many other Aussie reds.
The first wine we will be tasting this week is the Courtesan Riesling from Watervale in Clare Valley. Perfumed on the nose, unmistakably Riesling, hints of Grapefruit, greenage and green apple, lovely acidity, this is a perfect match to Aussie fusion food and would pair well with any spicy/aromatic Asian cuisine such as Korean or Japanese food.
Heading Southeast, there are the adjoining Barossa and Eden Valleys. Eden is similar in altitude to Clare Valley and is also naturally home to world-class Riesling. It doesn't have the steely intensity of some Clare Rieslings having more of a tropical note in some instances. The wines also age well, perhaps not as long as those from Clare Valley but their citrus peel notes ago into a toasty and occasionally marmalade-like notes. Excellent Shiraz is also produced here, notably Henschke, whose Hill of Grace being just behind Penfold's Grange in price.
Barossa Valley is probably Australia's best-known region, and is undoubtedly the largest quality region, and is synonymous with Shiraz, and some of the oldest bush vines are found here. Eden is a part of Barossa as a whole, and some fruit from Eden can be labelled merely Barossa. Not as high as Eden Valley, Barossa still has cool nights. Even, very hot daytime temperatures, an average of 19 degrees centigrade, the Northern and Southern Rhone are respectively 18 and 19 degrees by comparing the UK a decidedly cooler 14 degrees on average. The typical Shiraz is full and velvety with a relatively high alcohol level, 14% upwards, and most commonly finished in American oak. Its more overt vanilla character adds to the impression of sweetness on the finish. Some producers pick early to moderate the alcohol and emphasise the acidity and structure, while others pick as late as possible to gain character at the expense of age-ability. There is no right way, but my preference is for a balance of acidity and fruit character.
The second wine we are looking at today is from the Eden Valley, though labelled Barossa, and has all the region's hallmarks. Angaston is right on the border and Barossa and Eden. The blend is Grenache, making up nearly half of the wine, then Shiraz and Mouvedre in that order, this commonly referred to as simply GSM, and is essentially the same blend as most Southern Rhone wines. The Grenache is from 50+-year-old vines, giving the wine its depth and concentration Mourvedre is also often labelled Mataro in Australia, something seen on wine labels over here increasingly.
South of Eden/Barossa is the Adelaide Hills, a distinctly cooler region. It has a particular reputation for excellent Chardonnay, particularly around the Piccadilly Valley and Sauvignon Blanc a distinctly grassy/gooseberry style long before the Sauvignon explosion in Marlborough. Being distinctly cooler, some excellent Pinot Noir is made here and some cool-climate Shiraz, more northern Rhone in style.
At the southern tip we have McLaren Vale and surrounding sub-regions, Cabernet Sauvignon is the dominant red grape. Many of Australia's 'Clarets' were from this area before the name was outlawed. Some Shiraz is also produced and a small amount of White, notably Viognier and Rousanne which suit warmer climates than Riesling.
The Jester is an excellent example of McLaren Vale Cabernet Sauvignon. Some of the grapes are dried before fermentation in an Appasimento style, giving the wine richness and depth. The aromas are blackcurrant and a hint of cedar with lots of dark fruit to the fore, matched in the palate with a pleasing richness, hiding its relatively high alcohol well.
To the South East, we have the Limestone Coast, and its most famous subregion, Coonawarra. The famous Terra Rossa soil of this area suits Cabernet Sauvignon particularly well, not least because underneath is lots of free-draining Limestones. The relatively cool temperatures here (around 16 degrees, fractionally cooler than Bordeaux) produce Bordeaux-like wine not stereotypically Australian but increasingly popular and collectable.
We hope you have enjoyed this whistlestop tour through South Australia, join us again next time for Victoria and beyond in part 2.