Lesson 29 – Australia, pt. 1

Browse By

Sommelier School

Lesson 29 – Australia Part 1


Yellow Tail. Australian for Wine. Ok, I can’t be the first to come up with that. Anyway, welcome to the next lesson on Australia. I hope to educate you about the great wines coming from here other than Yellow Tail 😉 Hey, don’t get me wrong, I had my YT phase a few years back. And for what it is, and it’s price, it’s not bad. But, just like everywhere else, there are better wines to be had.

<embed src=”http://blip.tv/play/hbg2goiWUgA%2Em4v” type=”application/x-shockwave-flash” width=”640″ height=”360″ allowscriptaccess=”always” allowfullscreen=”true”></embed>embed src=”http://blip.tv/play/hbg2goiWUgA%2Em4v” type=”application/x-shockwave-flash” width=”640″ height=”360″ allowscriptaccess=”always” allowfullscreen=”true”></embed> wine began like most other New World wines, a group of people came to settle here and brought some vines from Europe and planted them. Australia is a bit different than most other countries in that it was set up as a penal colony first. Over the years things improved, but the Aussies definitely have a cavalier attitude similar to those crazy Texans.

It all started back in 1788 when Arthur Phillip (Governor of New South Wales and an Admiral in the British Navy) brought some clippings. While this attempt wasn’t successful in making wine, by the 1820s commercial wine was being made. Throughout the 1800s many people came to Australia to grow the industry. New varietals were brought in and the areas where varietals were being planted were expanding.

The late 1800s saw Australian wine gaining international recognition. Various events such as the 1878 Paris Exhibition and 1882 Bordeaux International Exhibition brought praise. In addition it stirred controversy in 1873 at the Vienna Exhibition where French judges withdrew in protest after being notified that Victorian wines from a blind tasting had been praised by them.

Then, phylloxera hit. As was the case in many of the wine-growing areas of the world, phylloxera arrived in Victoria in 1877 and began devastating Victoria. In 1899 the Phylloxera and Grape Industry Board of South Australia was founded to help combat phylloxera. It is the only organization like it in the world and funded by the grape growers of Australia.

Post-phylloxera, Australia became known for fortified and sweet wines. In the 1970s that started to change. For another 20 years production continued to increase and improve, but there was a glut. Most of the wine made was consumed domestically. In 1996 the government created what is called “Brand Australia” to market its wine both domestically and, more importantly, internationally.

Over the next ten years wine production soared and with it it exports. With the amount of wine being produced, exports became extremely important as Australia’s population is too small to consume everything that it produces. This came to a head in 2005-2006 when there was such a surplus of grapes that many were never harvested and prices plummeted. 

During this explosion Americans have come to know many of Australia’s brands as they appeared on the shelves of grocery stores and wine shops across the country. Brands like Yellow Tail seemed to appear out of nowhere providing $7 and under wine that Americans drank like it was water (I was one of them). I still have a fondness of Rosemount Estate and Yellow Tail from a few years ago as it was tasty wine on a budget. Besides, I liked the colorful labels of Yellow Tail; it’s how many people buy their wine.

But don’t let these value-priced wines fool you. There are brands like Penfold’s, Brokenwood, Grant Burge, Hardy’s, Wyndham Estate and others that can bring great quality. Some of these brands are mainly high-end while some like Penfold’s and Hardy’s can run the gambit of value to high-end wines.


Ok, so let’s get onto the more detailed stuff. I’ll start with Australian Wine Law. Australia has divided itself into what are known as GIs or Geographical Indications. These come in various levels. First there is the “Superzone” of Southeast Australia. This zone encompasses all or part of 3 States. Each of the 6 States is also a GI. Then come the zones, regions, and sub-regions. Every State of Australia makes wine, however most of it is made in the southeastern portion of the country between Sydney and Adelaide. I’ve listed all of the current GIs below:

 Southeast Australia

    • Parts of South Australia
    • Parts of Queensland
    • Parts of New South Wales
    • All of Victoria


    • Granite Belt
    • South Burnett

 New South Wales

    • Big Rivers
      • Murray Darling
      • Perricoota
      • Riverina
      • Swan Hill
    • Central Ranges
      • Cowra
      • Mudgee
      • Orange
    • Hunter Valley
      • Hunter wine region
        • Broke Fordwich
    • Northern Rivers
      • Hastings River
    • Northern Slopes
    • South Coast
      • Shoalhaven Coast
      • Southern Highlands
    • Southern New South Wales
      • Canberra District (includes the northern part of the Australian Capital Territory)
      • Gundagai
      • Hilltops
      • Tumbarumba

 South Australia – Adelaide Super Zone includes Mount Lofty Ranges, Fleurieu and Barossa

    • Barossa
      • Barossa Valley
      • Eden Valley
        • High Eden
    • Far North
      • Southern Flinders Ranges
    • Fleurieu
      • Currency Creek
      • Kangaroo Island
      • Langhorne Creek
      • McLaren Vale
      • Southern Fleurieu
    • Limestone Coast
      • Coonawarra
      • Mount Benson
      • Padthaway
      • Wrattonbully
      • Robe
      • Bordertown
    • Lower Murray
      • Riverland
    • Mount Lofty Ranges
      • Adelaide Hills
        • Lenswood
        • Piccadilly Valley
      • Adelaide Plains
      • Clare Valley
    • The Peninsulas


    • Central Victoria
      • Bendigo
      • Goulburn Valley
        • Nagambie Lakes
      • Heathcote
      • Strathbogie Ranges
      • Upper Goulburn
    • Gippsland
    • North East Victoria
      • Alpine Valleys
      • Beechworth
      • Glenrowan
      • Rutherglen
    • North West Victoria
      • Murray Darling
      • Swan Hill
    • Port Phillip
      • Geelong
      • Macedon Ranges
      • Mornington Peninsula
      • Sunbury
      • Yarra Valley
    • Western Victoria
      • Grampians
      • Henty
      • Pyrenees

 West Australia

    • Central Western Australia
    • Eastern Plains, inland and northern Western Australia
    • Greater Perth
      • Peel
      • Perth Hills
      • Swan District
        • Swan Valley
    • South West Australia
      • Blackwood Valley
      • Geographe
      • Great Southern
        • Albany
        • Denmark
        • Frankland River
        • Mount Barker
        • Porongurup
      • Manjimup
      • Margaret River
      • Pemberton
    • Western Australia South East Coastal


Australian Capital Territory

Northern Territory 

OK, so that’s a lot of information to take in. As usual I’m giving you more info than you need to know for the Introductory test. So what do you need to remember? The bold type listings for sure. Also remember some of other major areas in no particular order:

  •  Yarra Valley
  •  Coonawarra
  •  Hunter Valley
  •  Barossa
  •  Limestone Coast
  •  Mudgee
  •  Claire Valley
  •  McClaren Vale
  •  Geelong
  •  Mornington Peninsula

These should suffice for now for GIs. All these GIs really do is define where a wine is from. There are no laws dictating varietals, blends, yields, sugar levels, etc. The only other main law here is the rule of 85%. 85% of the grapes in a wine must come from the GI on the label in order to use that GI. The other 15% can come from anywhere else. There are a few more details to the law, but this is all we need to know for now.

Varietals. Well, as can be expected, the usual suspects can be found here. Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Sémillon, etc. However, it’s the Syrah grape that really took hold here. In Australia it’s known as Shiraz (sheer azz, not sure ahhzzz). So if you hear me or someone else pronounce it like that, it’s OK. And just so we are clear, the origin of this grape is not the city of Shiraz. The exact origin of the name isn’t known, but it’s use in Australia for the Syrah grape has been going on for a long time.

Now that I’ve listed all these areas for you, let’s delve a little deeper into a couple of the States.

New South Wales

“You told me to go back to the beginning. So I have.” Inigo Montoya. Where it started for wine in Australia. This is where Arthur Phillip planted his first vineyard. Since the attempt failed, it took another 30+ years for James Busby to make another attempt at a vineyard in New South Wales. He was granted 800 hectares of land along the Hunter River in 1824. A few years later he was successful enough to write a book, tour Europe, and bring back over 600 vine samples to expand the wine industry.

New South Wales’ climate can be described as similar to the Languedoc in France. However, it’s a big state and a great deal of variation. Within the state is the Great Dividing Range that also influences the climate. Depending on where you’re at, it can be hot and humid like the Hunter Valley or much drier like Mudgee, Cowra, and Big Rivers with irrigation not uncommon.

Out of most of the zones here in NSW, the Hunter Valley will get the most attention. It doesn’t hurt that it’s also close to Sydney for the tourists. Here, as in most places in Australia, Shiraz is a staple of the area. However, Sémillon is also a major player here. One other tidbit of information about Sémillon here is that it has been called Hunter Riesling in the past. Make no mistake, it’s not a Riesling. Chardonnay is also another major varietal in the area. In addition to all of these, Cabernet Sauvignon is the other main red varietal.

There are a couple characteristics of Shiraz from here. One is the ability of these wines to age for decades. This is due to the high tannic levels of many of the wines. Another is the sweaty saddle aroma that can be present. Some people like it, others don’t. I’m in the camp that kind of likes that. This is actually considered a wine fault related to yeast. 

We’ve talked about yeast’s role in the fermentation process before. While I didn’t really go into too much depth about it, there are scores of different yeasts that can be involved with fermentation. Many winemakers cultivate particular strains of yeast to use. This is one component of why one wine tastes different than another. Some winemakers use “wild yeasts.” These are yeasts that occur naturally in the area.

So why mention this? Like I already mentioned, yeast is what causes this sweaty saddle aroma. It’s a yeast called Brettanomyces. It’s also know as Brett. Some people are very sensitive to Brett, others not so much. And of those that are sensitive to it, some don’t like it.

The Hunter Valley isn’t the only area here. You also have the Central Ranges, Southern New South Wales, and the Big Rivers Zone. The first two of these are known for better wines. The Big Rivers zone is home to more of the box wines and other mass produced wines. Look for Cowra, Mudgee, and Canberra sub-regions here.

South Australia

The other area I’ll talk about today is South Australia. This is the other main producing wine region in Australia. It produces almost half of all of the wine in Australia. Wine has been produced here since the 1840s. So it too has a long history of wine. 

You’ll find all the usual suspects when it comes to varietals. Its climate and terroir are suited to just about all varietals. Many areas have very low amounts of rainfall so irrigation is a must here. For the terroir, you’ll hear about terra rossa. This is a red soil found in Coonawarra. You’ll also find limestone, clay, and sandy soils throughout South Australia.

I won’t go through all of the zones here as they are listed above, however, I will highlight a few. I’ll start with the Barossa Zone. I think most people will be familiar with this name. Many a wine drank comes from Barossa. With that said, the Barossa Valley is where you’ll find many premium wines. Jancis Robinson likens it to the Napa Valley of Australia. With Adelaide a short drive away it gets plenty of visits. Another thing to take note of. Wines labelled “Barossa” are different than those labelled “Barossa Valley.” The first are wines that come from the larger Barossa region that includes the Eden Valley. Obviously Barossa Valley is just from the Barossa Valley.

Shiraz, just like most of Australia is the predominant varietal here. These are typically big and bold wines with spice and chocolate characteristics. In addition to Shiraz you’ll find Grenache, Mourvèdre, Chardonnay, Riesling, Sémillon, among others. One other wine you’ll find here is a “GSM” wine. These are wines blended with Grenache, Shiraz, and Mourvèdre. Try one if you find it.

Big and bold describe wines here. Much of that is from the climate. Since the summers here can get quite hot and dry, the grapes ripen easily. Sometimes they over ripen. With the climate like it is, irrigation is the norm. 

One other thing to note is that this is a phylloxera-free area. It is one of several areas in Australia that never had an issue with Phylloxera. However, there are other areas that suffer from it like Victoria. I include a link to the Phylloxera and Grape Industry Board of South Australia that has map that details the areas that are phylloxera-free, have phylloxera, or it is unknown if there is phylloxera, but it’s also never been reported. Check it out here.

The McLaren Vale is another area to highlight. It is contained in the Fluerieu Zone. It is south of Adelaide. Excellent weather here allows a wide variety of grapes to be grown. You’ll find many excellent wines made from Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay, Sémillon, and Sauvignon Blanc.

One other area to highlight (remember we don’t need to know everything right now) is the Limestone Coast Zone. This is home to Coonawarra. For all that talk of Shiraz in Australia, Cabernet Sauvignon is the main grape here. Or at least the best known.

In this zone there are two soil types. You have the namesake, limestone obviously. Then there is the terra rossa of Coonawarra. This soil is especially suited for agriculture, and fruit in particular. However, it wasn’t until the 1960s that wine grapes really started taking off when table wines really became popular in Australia. The climate here is considered Mediterranean too. 

So it’s becoming normal for me to have a few weeks between lessons. Since I no longer have a “deadline” to make I’ve allowed myself to have more personal time as many of you should be noticing. While I could tell you that I hope to have part 2 ready next week, knowing my schedule for the next month makes it look improbable. However, I will be working on it. Once I return to do some wine reviews, I plan on some changes to the site and also the look and feel of the podcasts. More so the reviews than the lessons, but I’d like to do more with the lessons once I begin working on my next certifications in earnest.

As always, thanks for reading and watching. I hope to return quickly with part 2!

Mark V. Fusco

CSW and Sommelier 😉

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: