Australia is a fun place to play if you’re into wine — and we’re very into the wines of Australia. The best wines of Australia represent a remarkably wide range of styles and approaches.
Famous for its big bold Shirazes or Cabernet Sauvignons from such famed regions as the Barossa and Hunter Valleys, today’s Australia is a hotbed of exciting styles ranging from exotic Chenin Blanc and Rousanne to steely Riesling and Semillon and fruity Pinot Noir and Sangiovese. Yes, it seems that Australia can grow just about anything. Well, it is a massive country after all, and wine is made in so many regions that there really is a something for everybody.
A Brief History of Australian Wine
No surprises here: In its early days as a British penal colony, the wine apparently wasn’t very good. But in the 1850s, when free settlers from Europe began to arrive, the demand for palatable wine increased, and wineries began to sprout up in New South Wales, Victoria, Tasmania and South Australia.
Since then, Australia’s modern winemaking story has had many twists and turns. Legendary labels like Penfolds and Lindemans sprouted during these early days and have stood the test of time. And the appetite for Australia’s famous “stickies”—sweet, fortified wines made in the style of Port—has diminished greatly since the 1960s. Up until that point, stickies represented about 80 percent of wine production. Not any more.
The stickie craze gave way to the “critter” craze: wines with all manner of indigenous animal on the label. It used to be that a kangaroo, dingo, lizard, colourful bird, or what have you would indicate a commercially safe, fruit-forward, easy drinking wine that anybody could love. (Until people stopped loving them and yearned for more refined, lighter, food-friendly, interesting and authentic styles of wine, that is).
The Evolution of Australian Wine
As the critter labels began to fade over the past decade or so—and it became decidedly unhip to show up at a house party with a bottle of Yellow Tail—a new band of merry winemakers cropped up. And this is where things get interesting for wine lovers today.
On the one hand, we can enjoy those legendary wines, like the Penfolds Grange — a Rhone-style Syrah (ok, Shiraaaaaaaz!) that propelled quality winemaking in Australia in the 1950s and is still outstanding today. On the other hand, boutique wineries helmed by well-travelled young winemakers are taking chances on decidedly un-usual styles of Australian wines. These wines are esoteric and lighter, less the powerhouse approach and more non-interventionist (a.k.a., “natural”). They’re a bit harder to find, but they represent what’s interesting in Australian wine these days. And they certainly represent what we will think of as the best wines of Australia in the coming years and decades.
The country’s big challenges remain the climate. Global warming is making a warm and dry country even warmer and drier—and this has implications on which grapes can grow and how they will behave. Australia’s winemaking industry is not shy on technology and innovation, however, and a little ingenuity can go a long way. By all indications, there are good times ahead for lovers of Australian wine.
Below, a list of wines representing some of the best bottles to be had from Australia’s new and old guard wineries. (No, none of these are critter wines.)
The Old Guard
This wine is listed as a “Heritage Icon” of South Australia and rarely scores much lower than the high nineties by the world’s major wine critics. A more intense and authentic expression of classic fruity-spicy Shiraz would be tough to find.
From the Margaret River, Leeuwin’s “Art Series” is made from their best wines in each vintage. The labels feature contemporary Australian artists. This wine is sweetly spiced, full-bodied, and designed to age 10 years or more.
Owner Jeffrey Grosset is known as the King of Riesling in Australia. The Polish Hill vineyard is a certified organic eight-hectare plot in the Clare Valley in South Australia. An intense, mineral-driven wine, with intense citrus and balanced acidity. Can be aged for 6 to 20 years.
A classic wine from a pioneering winery dating back to the 1890s. A truly iconic Aussie Shiraz from the McLaren Vale. Power and elegance, and layers of blueberry, pomegranate and plum.
An icon of Australian winemaking, reaching back to 1868. The Hill of Grace vineyard is located in the Eden Valley in South Australia. This wine was first made in 1958, and the fame of the Hill of Grace Shiraz has only increased since then. Wine writer James Halliday calls it “one of the greatest Australian Shirazes.”