Australia

Introduction

This self-styled “Great Southern Land” is the oldest continent on the planet and also the driest, which helps to explain and shape its wine industry. Basically, Australia is a desert surrounded by a fertile fringe and growing vines really should not work. Fortunately the local wine regulations allow the use of irrigation without which the industry would not thrive as much as it has in the past few decades. It is now the world’s sixth largest wine producer and makes every one of the international wine styles, besides which it produces some wine (unwooded Semillon from the Hunter Valley and fortified Muscats and Tokays from Victoria) which are unavailable elsewhere. Still its wines are distinctly Antipodean yet fit easily on to the global market.

Most wineries are small with the five biggest companies generating 94% of the grapes crushed at harvest. Indeed 1,800 wineries have sprung up since 1970 but the standard of viticulture and winemaking is very high. The Australian “show” system also ensures a high element of competition and has promoted technical excellence to such an extent that it was the Aussies who pioneered the concept of flying winemakers travelling the world and gathering valuable viticultural experience overseas. Consequently, exports of Australian wine have increased exponentially since 1983 and at one point recently it was the largest exporter of wine to the UK. The wines reflect their country’s national character being open, confident and user-friendly. Whilst both red and white wine sales have increased massively, the volume of fortified wines has declined to just 8% but this has not deterred the drinking public. They now have the highest per capita consumption of wine in the English-speaking world

History

Australia

In 1791 two bunches of grapes were cultivated from the Governor’s garden in Sydney from cuttings transported from the Cape of Good Hope. This is the first recorded instance of viticulture in Australia and between 1820 and 1840 commercial viticulture was progressively established in New South Wales, Tasmania, Western Australia, Victoria and South Australia. There are no native vines in Australia and no hybrids or crossings have ever taken root so the industry is based very much upon European varieties aided by Italian and Swiss migrants amongst others in helping to establish viticulture. By 1870 South Australia, Victoria and New South Wales all had substantial wine industries but by 1890 Victoria was dominant producing more than the other two states combined. This did not last as phylloxera, changing land use, an increase in fortified wine, irrigated vineyards along the Murray river and the removal of trade barriers saw South Australia usurp the crown. By 1930 it produced over 75% of the country’s wine with the Barossa Valley as the centre of production. The type of wine shifted to fortified and between 1927 and 1939 they exported more wine to the UK than France. However by the mid 1950’s cold fermentation of white wine shifted the balance away from fortified wine as did the spectacular growth of red wine. In the 1970’s viticulture became re-established in cooler climate regions like Victoria. Three grape varieties dominate; in 1994 Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz and Chardonnay comprised only 27% of production, by 2004 it was 60%.

The industry growth has been achieved without subsidy or government support, which is why Australia has such a competitive edge over Old World producers.

Climate

Very little of the Australian landmass will support the growth of vines and the majority of the vineyards are planted either in coastal regions or in the Murray-Darling valleys.  As a generalization Australia’s climate for wine growing can be likened to the Mediterranean and can be split into two. The southern states (Western Australia, South Australia, Victoria and Tasmania) experience winter/spring rain with a dry summer and early autumn, and high pressure systems giving a daytime range between 25 – 35 degrees C. This even accumulation of heat is a major factor in promoting wine quality, which is aided by the permitted use of irrigation during the dry summer.

The two northerly states (New South Wales and Queensland) are dominated by more tropical weather, which results in more even rainfall but higher temperatures and humidity. In particular the Hunter Valley suffers from too much rainfall during harvest, but winter and spring drought is aided by humidity and cloud cover which reduces the stress on the vines.

Geography

Vine growing is concentrated in the south east of the continent (with a small outpost in Margaret River, Western Australia). The most important states for wine making are Victoria, New South Wales and South Australia, which can be likened to the importance of California to the US market. South Australia’s Barossa is the key district for fine wine production and is the home of Penfolds with its flagship wine, Grange.

Viticulture

Mechanical harvesting was introduced in the 1960’s and is responsible for 80% of the nation’s crop with mechanisation extended to pruning in the late 1980’s and canopy management thereafter. This means that Australia is able to grow and harvest grapes more economically than California or France (but not necessarily other southern hemisphere nations) and the introduction of minimal pruning was another example of their approach to viticulture. Australian wine-growers have developed advanced trellis and canopy management systems which mirrors the traditional French balance between canopy and crop yield. Vine densities have been increased and there is a move towards sustainable viticulture and integrated pest management.

Wine-making

Wineries are more comprehensively equipped compared to Europe with facilities for basic analysis and refrigeration plus crusher, press and filtration equipment supplemented with rotofermenters and fermentation vessels. Wineries work 24 hours a day during harvest with the chief winemaker putting in 18 hour shifts but it is the manner in which they use their technology which differentiates them from other countries. Fermentation is swifter using cultured yeasts and white wines are fermented at relatively lower temperatures. Tartaric acid is used because of the generally lower acidity levels and chaptalization (the method of increasing alcoholic strength through the addition of sugar to the grape juice during fermentation) is prohibited. Pneumatic devices are used for punching down the fermenting grapes. French oak is preferred for top-quality white wines, Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon with American oak preferred for Shiraz and red blends. Finally the problem of cork taint has led to the mass migration of wine-makers to screw caps including up to 50% of premium or super-premium wines.

Investment Wines & Producers

Investment Wines & Producers
Penfolds Grange