Australia, the land of surfing, kangaroos, and Christmas barbie (barbeque) and New Zealand, known for its wool and sailing prowess as two time winners of the America’s Cup, are also home to some of the world’s best vineyards. Despite the friendly rivalry between these two southern hemisphere countries they can both boast of an increasingly more prominent role in producing some of the world’s finest wines.
Australia’s first vineyards were planted in 1788 in a small area near the Sydney Harbour Bridge. During the foundation period, Australia’s isolation from Europe and main sea-lanes fostered an attitude of self sufficiency. As a result, the government actively encouraged brewing and wine-making in order to stimulate agriculture and reduce the consumption of stronger spirits which was impacting the workforce.
For well over 100 years, local preference for sweet fortified wines dictated wine production. However, beginning in the 1950s consumer preference began to shift to dry table wine. This led to the expansion of grape growing into cooler regions of the country. In 1996, not content with just being a major wine producer, the Wine Makers Federation of Australia with government backing, developed Strategy 2025. This plan is designed to make Australia the world’s most influential and profitable supplier of branded wines and more than double its production. However, a strong Australian dollar in the first half of 2008 diminished annual wine export volumes 11% from the prior year. Persistent draught and a slower worldwide economy will continue pressure on exports in 2009. Australia is known for its casual attitude and irreverence so their disdain for Appellation Control Laws is no surprise. However the Australian system of Geographic Indications provides general guidelines for labeling.
A varietal wine must have at least 80% of the designated grape and a regional wine identification must contain at least 80% of the grapes from that region. Vintage wine must contain at least 95% from that vintage.Although Australia has been known for its big, ripe Shiraz (Syrah) representing about 40% of the cultivated grape acreage, the country also produces other fine reds including Cabernet Sauvignon (30%), Merlot (11%) and Pinot Noir (4%). Among the whites, noble Chardonnays are the most widely cultivated (40%) with Rieslings and Sauvignon Blanc representing 7% and 5 % respectively. Today you will find vineyards throughout all 62 designated wine regions totaling 420,000 acres. Recent export figures place Australia as the fourth largest exporter of wine, selling to more than 100 countries around the world. With more than 2,000 wineries spread across a landmass that’s nearly the size of the United States, Australia produces an amazingly diverse range of wines, from mass-market wines to dessert-style nectars that wow you with their richness and refinement. A wide range of climatic conditions, from the cool highlands of Tasmania to the hot and arid Murray Valley provides many opportunities for producing distinctive wines from premium European cultivars. Viticulture is concentrated principally in the southeastern portion of the continent, with some vineyards located in the southwest and the island state of Tasmania. The main growing regions are: South Australia produces about 50 percent of Australia’s wine. The area includes both high-profile appellations and vast interior vineyards that make more anonymous bottlings. The warm region of Barossa Valley typically makes rich, dark, full-bodied Shiraz and is gaining a reputation for Grenache as well. Nearby Eden Valley is a bit cooler and is one of the best spots for Riesling. Clare Valley, a charming string of hills north of Barossa, also makes some of the very best Riesling, along with delicious Shiraz, and McLaren Vale, to the south, produces distinctive Grenache and Shiraz. Coonawarra, where Cabernet does particularly well, is the best known of the cluster of cooler regions near the border with Victoria that includes Padthaway and Wrattonbully. Victoria, with 15 percent of Australia’s vineyards, contains some of the coolest appellations in the country. Located near Melbourne, the regions of Yarra Valley, Macedon and Mornington Peninsula make some high-profile Chardonnays and, increasingly, Pinot Noirs. Central Victoria, closer to the hot interior of Australia, does better with Shiraz. The other prime zone for Australian wine is Western Australia. Although it makes only 4 percent of Australia’s wine, several of the country’s best Chardonnays come from the coastal region of Margaret River. The vineyards of New South Wales, including Hunter Valley, owe much of their popularity to their proximity to Sydney. The wines generally do not compare favorably to those of South Australia, Victoria or Western Australia. The southern island of Tasmania is gaining a reputation for Pinot Noir and sparkling wine.
Winemakers in New Zealand continue to find their sea legs. Faced with the fickle maritime climate of this island nation, vintners have had to negotiate a steep learning curve. New Zealand was the last region in the Southern Hemisphere to see a major expansion in its wine industry. Although wine has been produced for more than 160 years, the industry underwent most of its development and expansion since the 1970s. Vineyard acreage has doubled more than double since 2001. Expansion has also resulted in impressive quality in recent years. A host of current releases-mostly Sauvignon Blancs and Pinot Noirs-offer generally high quality and outstanding value.
The origins and early history of the wine industry in New Zealand are obscure. The earliest wine was produced at the North Island in 1833 and soon after the oldest winery in New Zealand was established in 1865 at Hawke’s Bay. By the close of the century small commercial vineyards were established in other parts of Hawke’s Bay and in the Auckland-Northland region. Although the North Island initially possessed more vineyard area, plantings in the South Island are now more extensive.
Located 1250 miles southeast of Australia across the Tasman Sea, New Zealand is comprised of two main landmasses (North Island and South Island) and numerous small islands. The latitude and position of the islands and their distance from any land mass provide moderate to cool but variable maritime climate. The central ranges of mountains that run through the length of both main islands generate marked contrasts between higher rainfall, cloudy, windward west and the milder, sunnier, leeward side.
Most of the vineyards in the North Island are located on the eastern side of the mountains where there’s a drier, sunnier climate. The South Island possesses about two thirds of the vineyard area, with the Marlborough area alone growing 52% of the country’s vines.
Sauvignon Blanc, the country’s best-known variety, makes up nearly 40 percent of New Zealand’s 60,000 acres of producing vineyards, as well as 78 percent of its exports to the United States. Practically all of the best Sauvignons come from Marlborough, a region on the northeastern tip of the South Island. The vast majority of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc is fermented in stainless steel tanks at very cool temperatures, which preserves maximum vibrancy and highlights freshness. However, a growing number of estates are making small lots of Sauvignon fermented at least partially in oak barrels, some of which are new. Although styles vary according to vintner preferences and vineyard location, Marlborough Sauvignons tend to be especially crisp, aromatic and food-friendly, with baseline flavors of tart lime and grapefruit, along with grass, fresh herbs and crushed stone. Some wines have tropical guava and passion fruit character, and riper versions can feature peach and apricot.
Recently New Zealand Pinot Noir is grabbing a lot of attention. It’s the second most widely planted variety in New Zealand, with 11,000 acres currently in production. In general, New Zealand Pinot Noirs have more affinity with the wines of Burgundy than those of California. Cooler growing conditions impart bright acidity and taut tannins, and the wines show a wide range of lively fruit flavors, including berries, plum and cherry, with the better versions often featuring intense spiciness as well as crushed stone and mineral accents. Nearly all of the top bottlings come from three regions: Central Otago, in the southern third of the South Island; Marlborough; and Martinborough, near the southern tip of the North Island. Red wines other than Pinot Noir deliver mixed results. The most promising variety is Syrah, which, along with Cabernet and Merlot, does best in Hawkes Bay.
As good as the two major varietals are there are other excellent wines as well. Chardonnay is the country’s third most planted variety, with 9,300 acres under vine and styles that vary depending on region and producer. Most Marlborough estates supply brighter, citrus-tinged fruit, with modest oak character, while wineries from Hawkes Bay, a warmer region on the North Island, usually feature richer flavors and more new oak. Other white varieties include good quality Pinot Gris, Riesling and Gewrztraminer, with styles ranging from bone dry to quite sweet.
New Zealand now gives wine lovers ample reason for optimism. As vintners learn more, quality will continue to improve across the board. Pinot Noir in particular justifies excitement.