Monday, November 12, 2018

Welcome to the wine regions of Australia

A few weeks ago, I noted that the wine-making regions of Australia are rather poorly known, except perhaps in Australia (How aware are wine drinkers of wine regions?). This blog post is an attempt to at least partially redress this limitation.

The wine-making regions of Australia

Where they are

Let's start with the geography. I showed a map in an earlier post illustrating that Australia is the same size as the continental USA, and much larger than western Europe (The rise, rise, fall and rise of Australian wine). However, the wine-making regions are restricted to a rather small part of the continent, mainly the south-east but also part of the south-west, as shown in the map above.

The reason for this is explained in another post (Growing degree-days maps of Australia and the western USA). For most of Australia, the heat summation is way too high — this is the sum of the daily temperatures above 10 °C (50 °F) during the grapes' growing season. Only around the southern coast is the summation suitable for grape vines (see the map further down this post), although in the high-altitude south-eastern part the vines are absent because the heat summation is too low.

Most of the suitable vine-land area of Australia already has formally named Geographic Indication (GI) viticultural areas. Most of these are shown in the next map — you will need to click on it to see the details.

The formally recognized wine-making regions of Australia

There is also the largest recognized region of all: South-Eastern Australia, which takes in the whole of New South Wales, Victoria and Tasmania, plus those regions of Queensland and South Australia in which grapes are grown (see the next map) — this includes everything except the vineyards in Western Australia. This is the most likely region to appear on labels for bulk Australian wine, which indicates that the grapes come from several of the large inland-irrigated grape-growing areas. However, it can also mean that the wines are blends from more than one of the smaller named regions.

If you want to peruse more detailed maps of the GI areas, then they are available on the Wine Australia web site (the map links are near the bottom of that page).

What types of regions are they?

Wine Australia produces a glossy booklet describing some of the more prominent regions — Discover Australia Wine: Regions and Varieties. These GIs include (arranged by state):

South Australia:
Adelaide Hills
Barossa Valley
Clare Valley
McLaren Vale
Mornington Peninsula
Yarra Valley
New South Wales:
Canberra District
Hunter Valley
Western Australia:
Margaret River

Note that, at the moment, the state of Tasmania is a single GI zone. This is Australia's coolest region, and the focus of a burgeoning sparkling-wine industry. There are seven quite different grape-growing areas within the state (see Regionality: the future of Australian sparkling), and it is thus quite likely that it will soon be sub-divided.

Australia has areas within all of the Winkler Index zones, based on heat summation, from Cool (I) through to Hot (V). Therefore, all wine types can be produced in at least one of the areas, and usually in several of them. The GI regions are shown in red on the map below, which also color-codes the five Winkler Index zones from blue (coolest) to orange (warmest).

Growing Degree Days map of the wine regions of Australia

The best-known region internationally seems to be the Barossa Valley, which makes warm-climate Shiraz wines that are very unlike the Syrah wines of the rest of the world. However, this fame seems to date mainly from the discovery by Robert Parker, in the 1990s, that these wines suit his palate particularly. While the uniquely Australian Shiraz and Shiraz-Cabernet blends have taken the limelight, many of the wines have Mataro (Mourvèdre, Monastrell) also present, which has been referred to as "the secret ingredient of the Barossa reds", whether it is mentioned on the label or not (see A dark horse with exceptional pedigree).

By way of historical contrast, back in 1974 the wine merchant Dan Murphy published Classification of Australian Wine, in which book he noted: "Although no wine authority has ever written off the Barossa Valley as a top quality area, I cannot remember any one of them giving it a special accolade as a constant producer of world class table wines." Thirty years later, the wine writer James Halliday, in the Wine Press Club of NSW Annual Lecture for 2005, pointed out that the wines of the Barossa Valley usually don't win Australian wine-show trophies, either.

The Barossa is actually part of a larger collection of GIs that follow a range of hills (the Mount Lofty Ranges) that run north-south through the state of South Australia (see the next map). This is sometimes treated as the epicenter of Australia's international wine reputation, at least for those who like Parker-style wines. The various regions included are described in The 13 Wine Regions of the Adelaidean – Mount Lofty Ranges.

The wine-growing regions near Adelaide

In spite of the reputation of this region for foreigners, the Australian focus in the past couple of decades has been on the development of cool-climate wine regions, especially for white wines. Most of these regions are in the states of Victoria and New South Wales (see the Winkler map above), and especially the emerging region of Tasmania. These areas produce wines that are rarely to the taste of Robert M. Parker Jr (for example, see the 2005 kerfuffle over the cool-climate Mount Mary Quintets wine — Sharp differences of opinion over Mount Mary; and The differences of opinion continue: Mount Mary Quintets vs. Robert M. Parker Jr. part 2).

Another important point to note is that some of the traditional wine companies produce multi-regional blends made to a particular style, rather than having a terroir-driven set of wines. The classic example is Penfolds, the premier brand of Treasury Wine Estates. Of their top 10 wines, 7 are multi-regional blends (and thus list "South Australia" or "South-Eastern Australia" as their geographical indication). These style-driven wines are not necessarily to everyone's taste, of course; and many people (including myself) suspect that they are aimed at the wine-investment market rather than the wine-drinking market.

For further reading, the only book specifically describing the wine-making regions of Australia is now more than 15 years old, having been first published in 1999 and then updated in 2002. This is John Beeston's The Wine Regions of Australia.

It is also worth noting that, in order to understand the nature of the regions in as much detail as possible, it was recently announced that: "The vineyards in Australia’s 65 wine regions will be accurately mapped for the first time using high-resolution satellite images and advanced machine learning, in a national census of Australia’s wine-grape area" (AI to map Australia’s 65 wine regions row-by-row). This would be a first in the New World, to compete with the detailed maps of the wine-making regions of Europe.

Wine tourism

Tourists in wine regions are a big deal in Australia. Marlene Pratt has an interesting description of the various types of wine tourists in Australia (wine lover 15%, wine interested 55%, wine curious 17%, plus 12% along for the ride). When I was young, you could simply arrive at almost any winery during business hours and someone would look after you. However, these days about one-third of wineries charge a small fee, which will be deducted from any purchase you make.

Earlier this year, Wine Australia conducted a cellar-door and direct-to-consumer survey, which showed that cellar doors are the driving force behind direct-to-consumer sales in Australia, accounting for 44 % of direct-to-consumer revenue, ahead of wine clubs and mail orders (Wine Australia release full survey findings on Cellar Door direct wine sale opportunities).

As for which regions are the most popular to visit, The Wine Front web site conducted an online poll from March 2017 until now, asking: "What’s the best Australian wine region to tour (ie. from a pure wine touring perspective)?" The next graph shows you how the 476 voters responded.

Wine Front poll of best Australian wine regions to tour

This list is not necessarily based on the quality of the wines, since wine tourism and wine quality are not always closely related. To check this, we could compare this list to one for the number of classified wines in Langton's Classification of Australian Wine, which is based on the prices of the wines at auction. This is shown in the next graph.

Langton's Classification of Australian Wine arranged by wine region

Note that the regions do swap about a bit in their rank order between the two graphs, but they also do have a great deal of similarity — good regions to tour do generally produce good wine. The Langton classification is dominated by wines from the two regions immediately north of Adelaide (the Barossa Valley and the Eden Valley), but these do have one major limitation for tourists — they are pretty much closed on Sundays, unlike most of the other regions. Here is David Farmer's comment (Thoughts on Margaret River):
Margaret River for my money is now the most exciting wine region in Australia, both for the wine tourist and the fine wine buyer. The beaches and ocean scenery, the wealth of winery restaurants, cheese and boutique breweries, plus excellent scenery, makes it unbeatable. My home town of Tanunda in the Barossa Valley looks very dreary indeed, as does the Barossa as a tourist destination.
Lonely Planet has very recently released a tourist guide called Wine Trails: Australia & New Zealand, covering 30 of the wine regions (plus 10 from New Zealand).


Dan Murphy, in the book quoted above, also referred to: "the world of Europe and the Americas, the inhabitants of which, oddly as it may appear, seem to think that the vineyards of Australia are far more distant from them than we think the Americans are from us." So, if you ever happen to be in Australia, you should certainly check out some of these regions. In the meantime, you could do a lot worse than try some of their wines, instead.