Homegrown Wines: A history of Australian wines

Written by
Vintage Cellars
January 8, 2019
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Whether you are an avid enthusiast for chardonnay, riesling, shiraz, pinot noir, or semillon, this Australia Day, be sure to celebrate our homegrown heroes in wine.

Australia's wine industry has evolved to become one of the main drivers of our dynamic economy, as well as a fine international example of progressive viticultural development and innovative winemaking practices. So which varieties have put our country on the world wine map? And what is it about these top varieties that make them so primed for growth in our wide brown land? Let's delve into our homegrown wine heroes and give them the love and praise they so richly deserve at this patriotic time of year.

 

Australia leads the world when it comes to shiraz and chardonnay. A bold statement, indeed, but one well proven by the incredible breadth, depth and stylistic diversity of the wines our winemakers craft across this vast continent. On top of this, Australian riesling and semillon rank among the world’s best, with a distinctive terroir exhibited by rieslings from the Eden and Clare Valleys and Hunter Valley semillons. Australian producers and consumers have embraced sauvignon blanc and pinot noir more recently, again taking a stylistic path different from our trans-Tasman rivals.

 

The immense pride Australian producers take in their wines is proven in international tastings, wine shows and competitions. Benchmark wines like Penfolds Grange, Henschke Hill of Grace, Leeuwin Estate Art Series Chardonnay and Tyrrell’s Vat 1 Semillon are regularly showered with medals and trophies, while cult producers such as Bass Phillip, By Farr and Giaconda quietly yet confidently make their presence felt.

  

The birth of Australia's wine industry only dates back 200 years, a fraction of wine’s 8,000-year history, but the high regard in which our industry is held by the world’s top palates speaks volumes. Proudly serve Australian wine as you celebrate our national day.

 

Chardonnay

Chardonnay vines came to Australia in 1832, as part of the Busby collection. However, the heavy focus on chardonnay did not begin until the 20th century. It wasn’t until the 1950s, when a French ampelographer (ampelography – in botany; the identification and classification of grapevines) found high-quality chardonnay vines in Mudgee, that it was identified as a single varietal wine. Murray Tyrrell’s pioneering 1971 Vat 47 Hunter Valley Chardonnay came from cuttings taken from chardonnay vines planted in the 1920s on the HVD vineyard. Tyrrell introduced oak to his Vat 47 in 1973, and Australian consumers fell head first for the rich, buttery chardonnays that emerged over the ensuing decade. Yet, by the early 1990s, Australian palates were tiring of these overt, over-the-top styles.

 

However, the British were cooing over them, prompted by the idea that "Australian chardonnay is like drinking sunshine in a glass".

 

The chardonnay fame in Australia

Perhaps chardonnay’s more important move has been to cooler sites such as the Adelaide Hills, Orange, Tasmania and the "dress circle" of Melbourne – Gippsland, the Yarra Valley, Mornington Peninsula, Geelong and the Macedon Ranges. Chardonnays from these regions tend to be more grapefruit, white nectarine and honeydew melon-led than the more overt warm area styles.

 

That said, Australian chardonnay wouldn’t have gained worldwide attention without Margaret River's special terroir, which produces a richer style chardonnay. As for awards for chardonnay, there have been too numerous to count but only one wine, Hardys’ Eileen Hardy Chardonnay, has accumulated an astonishing 41 trophies and 99 gold medals, between 1986 and 2014, at capital city wine shows.

  

Food friends

Celebrate Australia Day with a good chardonnay and a roast chicken with crispy roast potatoes – it’s a great homegrown combo.

 

Did you know?

James Busby (1802-1871) was the founder or "father" (as he is known in wine circles) of the Australian wine industry. On his journey to Australia, Busby brought with him a vine collection from France and Spain, which became the foundation for Australia's humble beginnings in the wine industry, now a mere 200 years old in wine's 8,000-year history!

 

Semillion/Sauvignon

The original home of semillon is in the Bordeaux region of France where it rarely flies solo but shares the limelight with sauvignon blanc. The Bordeaux styles range from dry to lush and sweet at the pinnacle, such as Sauternes.

 

Australian winemakers have taken a different tack, largely ignoring sauvignon blanc (until 30 years ago) to focus on semillon. The history books tell us the first semillon vines were planted in the 1830s with the style defined and refined over 150 years. Hunter Valley semillon is tight, austere and (it must be said) fresh as a young wine, which makes it perfect with the local Port Stephens oysters, a well-spiced curry or when you simply want a lazy glass of wine (it helps that Australian semillon boasts a low 11 or 12% alcohol). Hunter semillon comes into its own after five years and powers on for another 10, 20 years or more. Tyrrell's Vat 1 leads the show medal count, with Mount Pleasant Lovedale in hot pursuit.

 

Unwanted grapes lead to world-class sweet wine

The sweet styles from Bordeaux are echoed by one of Australia’s most awarded wines, De Bortoli's Noble One. It was first made in 1982 from unwanted semillon grapes infected with botrytis cinerea – the "noble rot" that makes Sauternes and sweet rieslings of Germany great. Since its release, there has been a shower of medals, trophies and accolades. Noble One has been awarded 104 trophies, 352 gold medals and 113 international awards – not bad for a wine made from undesirable grapes.

 

The wines of Bordeaux can sometimes be a blend of semillon with sauvignon blanc. These "classic dry whites" fuse the best of both varieties – the exuberance of sauvignon blanc and the structure and underlying power of semillon, often with oak influence to add complexity. So why not try semillon and sauvignon blanc on their own or dive into the style as a blend of the two?

 

Food friends

Both varieties pair well with seafood and white meats with a spice kick; sweet semillon makes an ideal match for desserts like lemon tart.

 

Riesling

Although Busby brought hundreds of grape varieties to Australia, it’s the German "vine dressers" from Prussia who championed riesling, their indigenous grape. Johann Gramp first planted vines in 1847 at Jacob’s Creek in the Barossa. That same year, Englishman James Gilbert planted riesling cuttings at Pewsey Vale, a historic vineyard site that was replanted in 1961 and remains part of the Hill Smith family empire. The fortunes of riesling have waxed and waned, with the Clare Valley emerging as an

important source, its plantings dating back to the 1880s.

 

The big break for riesling occurred in the early 1950s. The new wave of technology that began with the introduction of temperature-controlled fermentation in stainless steel vats generated a fruity, bright style of riesling, which was lapped up by an eager audience, many of them women, raised on sherry, brandy and dry, or Cinzano.

 

Over the past 50 years, Australian riesling has been redefined and refined. Benchmarks from Clare and Eden Valleys are joined by those from Western Australia’s Great Southern region and the Canberra district as the producers of top-class dry rieslings, while Tasmania offers both the dry style and sweeter styles in the German tradition.

 

Food friends

Fish and chips is pure Australian fare and a perfect partner to a tangy riesling. Forget the squeeze of lemon – it’s already in the glass.

 

Shiraz

No other grape variety defines Australian wine like shiraz. Forget the confusion between shiraz and syrah. They are the same variety with the original cuttings sourced from France's great hill of Hermitage in 1831. Indeed, Australia now has older shiraz/syrah vines than the French as they were forced to replant their vineyards after the devastation of phylloxera, using American rootstock grafted with syrah. Australian shiraz is mostly planted on its own roots with Barossa's Langmeil Freedom vineyard (1843) recognised as the oldest shiraz in the world.

 

Australian shiraz: Diversity like no other

The synergy between the warm southern Australian regions (Barossa, Clare Valley and McLaren Vale) is amply demonstrated by iconic producers like Wendouree, Jim Barry, Henschke, Penfolds, Yalumba, d’Arenberg et al. However, it’s the enormous spread of shiraz across the country that’s so exciting. The super savoury styles of Heathcote and the Pyrenees contrast with the white pepper-spliced shiraz of the Grampians and Great Western, all from the tiny state of Victoria. The Great Southern dominates Western Australian shiraz with sweet spices and lots of red berry fruits. And then there’s New South Wales with the Hunter Valley claiming original vines and its own unique earthy style. Cross the Great Divide to Mudgee, Orange and the Hilltops for three more incarnations of this agile variety, before settling in the Canberra District. There, Tim Kirk has spawned a whole new genre of shiraz, by adding a splash of the Rhône white grape, viognier. His Clonakilla Shiraz Viognier has reaped loads of awards with the 1998 vintage named the NSW Wine of the Year. It's through these many incarnations of shiraz from numerous regions that we can confidently say no other country has the stylistic diversity of Australian shiraz.

 

Food friends

There’s no better way to celebrate Australia Day than with barbecued lamb chops and a great Australian shiraz.

 

Pinot

Pinot noir is the newest addition to our selection of homegrown varieties, only hitting its vinous straps in the

last 20 years.

 

As with many cornerstone French grapes, the early plantings of pinot noir ended up in warm sites, which were completely unsuited to this sensitive variety whose homeland lies in the cool climate of France’s Burgundy. The original clone MV6 (mother vine 6) from the James Busby collection still dominates Australia’s pinot plantings with some of the best found in southern Victoria and Tasmania, as well as in the Adelaide Hills and Beechworth regions, where wines typically show a bit of extra spice.

 

In search of new clones, our viticulturists made an unsuccessful foray to California before importing the best Dijon clones from Burgundy with numbers such as 113, 114, 667, 777. All gobbledygook to the everyday consumer but important stuff to the winemakers and viticulturists who make our world-class pinot noirs.

 

And while this young variety is still finding its feet in Australia, pinot noir has boundless potential for growth here, with perhaps a fighting chance to lay some ground to build up competition against the world-acclaimed Burgundy style.

 

Australia's own unique pinot noir style

Our pinots may stand confidently alongside others on the world's wine stage, but they are expressed with an Aussie accent. It’s all about purity, subtle winemaking and eschewing new oak to allow the red berry fruit to shine. High-quality pinot can only be made in small volumes, in cool sites with low yields and with high human input. And, while good pinot isn’t cheap, it’s worth spending a few extra dollars to buy the best.

 

Food friends

Duck and pinot noir is a classic combination. Share a bottle of good pinot with your beloved over Peking duck on Valentine’s Day.