However dry and remote Australia once seemed, it is no longer a forgotten continent. Ever since it stretched its limbs and went into action in the 1960's and 70's, there has been no sign of backtracking or even slowing down. Now that it's moved beyond heavy, oxidized wines once skewered by Monty Python, this emerging powerhouse offers a full variety of fruity, accessible fine wines in all major styles -- from dry table wines to sparkling wines, fortified styles, and even vintage port. Worldwide, winemakers and oenophiles alike are paying serious attention as Australian wines, once appreciated mostly for their low prices, get better and more varied all the time.
Winemaking, like so much else, may well be a combination of 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration. In this case it doesn't hurt that Australia, starting virtually from scratch, has managed to assemble the world's most thoroughly modern arsenal of winemaking technology and equipment in exploitation of its numerous microclimates. Drip irrigation and machine cultivation can make vineyards here viable even in forbidding landscapes. And mechanized pruning, spraying and harvesting equipment developed over the last 30 years, plus massive new refrigeration and fermentation facilities, allow the larger Aussie winemakers to make wine at some of the world's most reasonable prices.
In the matter of style, fruit and freshness are guiding principles in a landscape that respects varietal character above all. The concept of terroir, though now growing and gaining substantial attention, is traditionally undervalued or even dismissed, and the Australian winemaker's ingenuity correspondingly emphasized. Blending varieties, even between regions, has historically been standard practice. This lack of reverence for tradition may offend old school winemakers, but Australians contend that there's no arguing with success, of which they've had plenty. Ironically, while Aussie winemakers demonstrate plenty of chutzpah, it is the adaptability of their material -- the grapes and the vine itself -- that makes such experiments possible and successful.
Now that Australia has flexed its muscle, the task for the future is to go beyond the river of bargain wines that put it on the map and get the word out on its smaller regions. The focus should be on matching the increasingly familiar terroir to varietals and wine styles, so that consumers come to distinguish between, for example, Coonawarra and Margaret River Cabernet blends as they would between Pauillac and Margaux. The more ambitious winemakers project that it may not be long before the whole idea of generic "Australian wine" is a thing of the past.
In Australia's long history of winemaking, fashion and technology have played a great part. Much is made of the legendary first cuttings brought in 1788 by Captain Philip aboard one of the ships of the First Fleet. Whether first planted in the Governor's garden (under the site of the present Sydney Botanical Gardens), under present day Macquarie Street, or in a three acre vineyard at Parramatta, the vines evidently showed promise. Thousands more vitis vinifera vines brought in for commercial ventures throughout the early nineteenth century found their way to most of the same areas where grapevines still flourish, including New South Wales, Tasmania, Western Australia, Victoria and South Australia. Many thrived thanks to European immigrant populations who applied their viticultural experience in the newly adopted country.
In 1822 Gregory Blaxland shipped 136 liters (36 gallons) of his Australian wine to England and won the Silver Medal from the Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce, and Australians shared in his pride. He followed with a second triumph five years later with the Gold Ceres Medal in London, and by 1870 millions of gallons of (mostly dry red) wine were being exported from all over Australia.
Phylloxera infestation was found in Geelong, Victoria in 1877, and consequent vineyard losses in Victoria (the original center of the wine trade) shifted the bulk of the industry to South Australia's warmer climate. There, changing settlement patterns, new regulations and popular taste worked together to change the preferred style from dry table wines to heavy, fortified, and naturally high alcohol sweet wines. These were also exported in great quantities, principally to Great Britain, for the next 50 years.
By the mid-nineteenth century the pendulum had begun to swing back again, and advances in cold fermentation gave winemakers another chance to prove what they could do with Australian table wines. The introduction of low-priced wine-in-a-box (kept on tap in the home refrigerator) in the 1970's spurred further local interest and growth, and was followed by an explosive growth in exports. The world market avidly snapped up rivers of these tasty everyday wines at bargain basement prices.
Australians have accepted wine as an everyday drink for years, and are the top wine consumers in the English-speaking world at 19.6 liters (5.2 gallons) each per year. This is twice the U.S. figure, though still only number eighteen worldwide and far behind number one France, with 60 liters (16 gallons) per capita.
Today the country is the eighth wine producer in the world (the United States is fourth), with over 273,000 acres under vine and over 1300 (some claim as many as 1700) wineries spread across the vast continent. Huge wine firms produce the majority of everyday wines (80 percent in 1998), but share credit for many of today's award winners with a host of small boutique wineries which have sprung up since the 1960's. Many of these are owned by urban professionals who are passionate hobbyists, the owners themselves often acting as winemakers.
The Australian wine industry continues to grow prodigiously: White grape tonnage increased fifty percent between 1995 and 2001, while red grape production increased nearly fourfold. Total wine production more than doubled in the same time, from 458 million liters (121 million gallons) to 977 million liters (258 million gallons), and exports are expected to increase within the foreseeable future.
Australia has the same grand variation in climate as the continental United States, which it resembles in size. Two basic climates support grape growing. The first is found in the south and west: Western Australia, South Australia, Victoria and Tasmania. This group has the winter-spring precipitation and dry, hot summers of Mediterranean climates, but with warmer evenings due to higher ocean temperatures (and hence fewer cool evening breezes), usually resulting in moderate acidity in the wines. To the north and northeast in New South Wales and Queensland, in contrast, tropical influences spread precipitation out over the course of the year. The climate here is nearly opposite of the ideal for grapes, with problematic rain and humidity in late summer and autumn, and a usually overly dry winter and spring.
There is no getting around the fact that most of Australia is a dry, hot country where modern vineyards could hardly exist without irrigation (the kangaroo, a common pest in Australian vineyards, has no such concern). The size of the local river or reservoir is of critical importance in vineyard placement. Water is required not as in Chile to pad out the crop but to make any kind of harvest possible, especially in the dry Riverland, Victoria and New South Wales. Thanks to drip irrigation, water goes further than before, but a map of vineyard areas still looks extremely spotty until one realizes that most areas work within discrete water budgets that are not negotiable.
The most famous Australian red variety, Shiraz, was the country's first modern international success and has remained a distinctive claim to fame. Like Malbec in Argentina, this Old World grape (known as Syrah in France) finds a unique expression here, becoming deeply concentrated, with nuances of mint, black pepper and eucalyptus in some areas. Dense Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Grenache also have a devoted following around the world, and combinations of all of these (labeled Shiraz/Cabernet, for example, or Cabernet/Merlot) are popular.
Australian white wines tend to be full-bodied and ripe in style, with rounded flavors and moderate acidity. Chardonnay is the most important varietal, with the best sporting a "honeyed" finish with aromas of apple, pear and sometimes butterscotch. French oak barrel aging is common but not universal, and when used is not as monolithic as is found among, for example, California Chardonnays. Semillon is another favorite white variety, either standing alone or blended with Chardonnay in a unique Australian combination. In cooler areas, dry, aromatic Riesling is also on the rise both in quantity and reputation. Colombard and Verdelho both have traditional devotees. Among still-popular and delicious dessert wines the classic varietal is Muscat of Alexandria, here called Gordo Blanco. Sultana (Thompson Seedless) grapes are also raised in quantity, though not used for fine wines.
After being up in the air for some time, Australian wine law finally shows signs of growing up. For years practical Aussie winemakers blended in ways that would have been unthinkable in more traditional countries. Regulations were forgiving, and with fanciful brand names unrelated to origin, consumers had no way of determining where a wine came from unless vintners chose to tell them. Nevertheless the wines were enthusiastically accepted at home and abroad, and potential for extended growth in Europe induced Australia to bring wine law into conformity with European Union standards in a process that has been underway since 1993.
The inelegantly named Geographical Indications (GI) system is now virtually complete, and registers (in descending size) wine zones, regions and sub-regions. Wine is considered to come from the area where the grapes are grown, not where the winery is located. In blended wines, GI's and varietals must be described and presented in descending order of their proportions in the blend. Newly developed wine areas may apply for GI status as they become established.
Under the updated Wine and Brandy Corporation Act (originally written in 1981, updated in 1993), wineries approved for the GI nomenclature (zone, region, or sub-region) guarantee 85% of their fruit is from the named region, a step in the right direction for an industry presenting increasingly polished and expensive wines. Wines for local consumption still need carry no claims as to varietal, vintage or GI, but exports to the EU and the USA require geographical information from a standard list, which will ultimately be consistent with the GI register of protected names. (www.awbc.com.au/winelaw/)
In recognition of the historic reality of blending between remote vineyards, Australia created the huge South Eastern GI. This zone effectively serves as an umbrella to bulk wine producers and allows blending as before (as long as they claim no geographical origin more specific than the South Eastern banner). For wine lovers, the smaller Australian GI regions and sub-regions are likely to be more recognizable for style and consistency.
The imposition of regulations has not been pleasant for everyone. The GI statute is intended to prevent use of a geographical indication... for wines not originating in the place... and it now requires companies that have used place names as brands either to justify the use of these names (not an easy chore) or abandon them. Of course in the absence of regulations there was a tendency to inflate the influence of high profile areas with good reputations. The Coonawarra GI, for example, had been under dispute for years when a government ruling in 2001 established its legitimate size at only about one-third of the self-designated area before regulation.
NEW SOUTH WALES
NORTHERN TERRITORY & QUEENSLAND
Wine is a popular industry as well as a hobby in Australia, and vintners and consumers alike pay scrupulous attention to medals awarded in the state-sponsored regional wine shows. While judging standards can be faulted for a strong "New World" emphasis, these shows have resulted in a generation of extremely clean wines with few noticeable faults. Those in the state capitals, particularly, also contribute to world taste by elevating prize-winning winemakers almost to celebrity status. Some of the best known vintners become the celebrated "Flying Winemakers," who moonlight as consultants on the other side of the globe while their own vines are dormant.
As a rapidly developing wine area, Australia has already demonstrated tremendous potential. The promise of even more developed regional variation makes Australia an attractive choice as the rest of world becomes better acquainted with its great quality and diversity.