Australian wines are exceptional values and truly coming into their own. This country has a ton of land mass – but due to it’s latitude, winemaking can take place in very specific regions. That means that pretty much anything in the center and North Western coasts are out for wine growing regions.
Despite that, Australia is at the forefront of new winemaking ideas, along with New Zealand, and constantly pushes boundaries on what’s thought possible.
The list of regions below looks long – so feel free to skim and come back to it as your shopping in the Australia area. I felt that I’d be remiss if I didn’t include all the below regions though.
Australian Wine Regions You Should Know (now or later)
South Eastern Australia – This is the “Super Zone” that isn’t so super. It’s technically everything in that map above except for Western Australia. If you see this on a label, it means that grapes could come from anywhere in that vast area. If you see this on a label it means that it’s a high-volume and low-quality wine. Typically it will come from Riverland or Riverina* or Murray-Darling which are all very fertile soils with high yielding grapes (aka less concentration and less flavor, which means a lot of winemaking “techniques” to make it taste decent). To be frank, on these wines I say: Buyer Beware.
Riverina does make some great sweet wines – so keep an eye out for those! Most other wines, say hello and goodbye to on the shelf.
Western Australia – Margaret River: Margaret River lays on the coast and has a warm maritime climate – meaning rainfall occurs all year round, which is rare for every other area in Australia. This region successfully grows many grape varietals including Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay (typically made in a buttery and oaked style) and Sauvignon Blanc (typically made in more of a Bordeaux style where it is blended with Semillon for a bit more body and finesse). This is definitely an area to look into if you prefer the riper, more fruit-forward style wines.
Barossa Valley – Now we move to South Australia. This is one of the most famous Australian wine regions. Shiraz and Grenache are the key players here, although Cabernet Sauvignon does grow well too. The Shiraz has full-bodied black fruit notes, these wines are deep and powerful, and usually aged in American Oak. Semillon, the main white varietal grown, produces light bodied and unoaked styles of refreshing wines. Wines labeled as “Barossa” can come from the Barossa Valley or Eden Valley, which lies inside of the Barossa Valley but at a higher altitude.
Eden Valley – inside the famous Barossa, but much higher up, the Eden Valley actually overlooks the Barossa. While down below Shiraz and Grenache dominate, up in the higher altitude, the climate is much cooler, yielding incredible Rieslings. These wines have intense lime and citrus notes, usually dry (sweetness) in style and can age for 10 or more years! Crisp Chardonnays also come from Eden Valley. This is my personal favorite Australian wine region.
Clare Valley – to the North West of Barossa and Eden lays the Clare Valley, which also specializes in Riesling. The average vineyard altitude is located between 300-400 meters, but some can be as high as 570m. These wines also have intense citrus and lim notes, and with age will develop honey and toast characteristics. Clare Valley also creates beautiful Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon wines with profound structure and aromatics, the best of which can age for decades! Keep this on your list!
Adelaide Hills – Near the coast, South East of Barossa and Eden Valley lays Adelaide Hills. This area is even higher elevation than Clare Valley though, with all vineyards at a minimum of 400 meters. Sauvignon Blanc is the main varietal here! High acid Chardonnay wines (think Chablis-style) along with cool-climate austere Pinot Noirs are also made.
McLaren Vale – Get your wallets out! Just kidding. Although, it’s a little true. This climate, despite being so close to Adelaide, is more Maritime, and slightly warmer due to the lower elevation. These wines are really incredible. McLaren is just south of Adelaide, still on the coast, so ocean breezes help to cool this hot area. Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz and Grenache reign supreme. These wines have dark, black fruits (except Grenache which will have noticeably red jammy fruits) with soft tannins.
Coonawara – Due to cooling antarctic breezes, this climate is more moderate maritime. Terra Rossa soils spot this land, creating a mosaic of red clay dispersed on top of a bed of limestone. Cabernet Sauvignon, in particular, loves this soil. The Cabernets here will have notes of menthol, eucalyptus and cassis, in their concentrated and powerful wines. While studying for my wine exams, I would remember “Coonawarra is coo-coo for Cabernet!” – it stuck with me, perhaps it will stick with you.
Yarra Valley – In this cool climate, Pinot Noir grows especially well to create wonderfully delicate still wines as well as superb sparklings! The Pinots here are typically red fruit forward, with soft tannin and some minimal oak.
Hunter Valley – Hunter is apart from the rest, near Sydney on the Eastern side. This climate is quite hot, but thanks to a lot of cloud cover and cooling ocean breezes that moderate the climate, Hunter Valley can produce great Semillon wines. Hunter Valley also produces great oaked and unoaked Chardonnay styles, along with Shiraz with deep black fruits and earthy mushroom notes.
Back to Semillon
Sem-ee-on is how you pronounce it. It’s a white grape, purposefully picked when it’s just slightly underripe.
Why? To preserve the acidity in the grape, to keep alochol low, to create a wine that can age in bottle for decades to come.
Those sound like good reasons to me!
What’s the science behind that, you may ask?
Let’s look at the basics. First, underripe grapes means less sugar and more acid in the grape. That’s important because when you go to crush the wines and the grape juice is sitting there with some yeast, the process of making alcohol is that yeast eats sugar and makes CO2 and alcohol. So, if there’s not a lot of sugar, there won’t be a lot of food for the yeast and thereby alcohol produced.
Second, acidity provides structure and ageability to a wine. Why? Structure is key for a wine to age, think of it like a backbone. If we don’t have strong bones when we’re young we won’t be able to stand well when we’re old. Same thing for wines – if a wine doesn’t have a lot of acidity (or tannin in red wines) it won’t have the backbone to age well. Simplistically put, that’s why some wines can age, and other’s can’t.
What’s it taste like?
Semillon is quite simple when it’s young. It’s almost like a Pinot Grigio but with slightly higher acidity and less alcohol. It’s got green apple, pear, and lemon notes. Sometimes producers can let it sit with the lees (dead yeast cells) to impart toast notes, but typically those don’t come onto the scene until 10-20 years down the road.
So when it ages, 10-20 years, the wine will taste complex, honeyed and like a fresh piece of toast with marzipan on it. It’s a magical thing – so if you ever get the opportunity to try it, do it. This is one of the most iconic Australian wine styles.
Australian Wine Review: Tyrell’s Hunter Valley Semillon
Appearance: This wine is pale lemon-green.
Nose: This is medium intensity and youthful, there are notes of lemon, lime, pear, apple, wet stones, and a hint of toast.
Palate: This wine has medium intensity. This wine is dry with high acidity, medium – body, low alcohol, and a medium – finish. There are notes of lemon, apple, pear, melon, wet stones, and a hint of creaminess.
Assessment of Quality: This is a good wine. There are primary notes that are fruits as well as non-fruits, and there is a hint of secondary notes which relate to winemaking.*
Level of Readiness for Drinking: This wine is suitable to drink now and capable of further aging. This wine has the acidity and fresh fruits to age well.
Serving Temperature: This wine should be served chilled, between 45-50ºF.
Food Pairing Ideas: This wine would be excellent with shellfish or seafood pasta and a spicy butter sauce, as the acidity in the wine would nicely contrast the rich and sweet components of the dish.
*In note about the winemaking. I found out after doing some research that this wine was aged for a very short time on the lees (as mentioned above) which is where that hint of toast and creaminess came from.
What do you think? Will you try a Semillon the next time you’re at the store? Have you had one before? Have you had an aged one? I’d love to hear your thoughts! What is your favorite Australian wine?