Australia day wines
Updated: Aug 22, 2020
Australia Day (26th January 2018) is a public holiday Down Under; it has become the day to reflect on what it means to be Australian, to celebrate contemporary Australia and to acknowledge the history of the continent. 14 wine lovers gathered on a lively Friday night in Rudi's Bar in Swindon where we sampled seven cracking wines from this diverse territory.
About Australia and its wines
Australia, the world's largest island, spans an area far greater than Europe and the wines are as diverse as the landscape. The Australian wine industry is, on the whole, high tech and with a certain level of automation, but the wines are charismatic and outgoing. A major difference between Australian wines and those of Europe, is that the Aussies make their wines to be enjoyed young. None of this stuffing in the cellar for 20 years to mature and grow in value.
There is a range of climates across Australia and vines are grown in every state, but the majority of the wine industry can be found centred along the Southern fringes of the country, which fall into the magic 30-50 degrees of latitude, where conditions are best for most grape varieties. The climates are tempered by bodies of water, such as the Southern ocean, the Pacific, the Indian ocean and Murray River, and the high temperatures are cooled by elevated altitude and hills.
Australia is the 4th largest exporter of wine in the world, churning out 750 million litres a year. Only 40% of the production stays at home to be consumed domestically. There are no grape varieties that are native to Australia, the grapes are all common international varieties we recognise - shiraz accounts for 30% of grapes grown, followed by chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon, merlot and semillon.
We started the night with a sparkling wine by way of aperitif. Jacob's Creek Chardonnay Pinot Noir is one of the few Australian sparkling wines on the UK's supermarket shelves (Asda have recently started to stock Wolf Blass's version for a higher price tag), yet in Australia, Jacob's Creek is hard to find.
The company's roots go back to 1840 when a man named William Jacob settled in Rowland Flat in the Barossa Valley. His original cottage is still in the same spot and is part of the newly developed visitors centre. A Bavarian immigrant, Johann Gramp bought up 30 hectares of land on Jacob's Creek and planted vines in 1847, and a few years later, wines were produced. The company has remained in the Gramp family as generations of winemakers have evolved the company into what it is today. The Jacobs Creek branding only came about as recently as 1976 and the sparkling wine was introduced in 1998.
The sparkling wine is made with chardonnay and pinot noir grapes, the 2 dominant varieties in Champagne. However, the Australians don't use the "traditional method" of undergoing a secondary fermentation in the bottle, as this is too time consuming and costly for the bulk commercial production. More likely, it is made with the injection method, where carbon dioxide is injected into the base wine.
Wine One - Tempus Two - Sauvignon Blanc from Waitrose. £7.99
Our tour of Australia starts in the Hunter Valley, home to the oldest vines in Australia, and where there are - in the words of one winemaker - "150 wineries and mobs of kangaroos".
The Hunter Valley lies inland from Sydney and was discovered by accident when British lieutenant John Shortland searched for escaped convicts in 1797. Vines were planted in the area a year later to promote sobriety, at a time when sprits were the alcohol of choice.
However, the plantings had limited success and the first major planting in the Hunter Valley really came in 1825 when James Busby, widely considered the father of Australian wine, purchased vineyard land. With cuttings that he'd accumulated on his travels across Europe and South Africa, he was able to establish the foundations of the wine industry of Hunter Valley.
The area is best known for semillon, which grows well in the Mediterranean climate. Thankfully the mountains to the north and west provide a funnelling effect for cooling winds, without which, it would be too hot and the grapes would get scorched.
Tempus Two winery is in the heart of the beautiful Hunter Valley surrounded by vineyards. The grapes for the Sauvignon Blanc are harvested at night to retain optimum ripeness. The fruit is then pressed immediately, clarified and fermented, ensuring the pure aromas and flavours of this grape variety remain.
This wine is available from Waitrose.
Wine Two - Clare Valley Riesling from Aldi £7.99
Clare Valley lies 100km north of Adelaide on a plateau, with the small town of Clare at its heart. Riesling is synonymous with the area and accounts for nearly 22% of wine production here. Clare Valley enjoys a continental climate that produces cool nights so the grapes ripen slowly, allowing the flavours to develop. There are only 48 wineries in the area, yet Clare Valley brings in 7% of wine medals.
Our tasters were divided in opinion for this riesling. Some felt it tasted a bit sweet (despite it claiming to be dry) whilst others hadn't had riesling since the 70s and 80s, and found this to be a pleasing development.
Wine Three - Vasse Felix Chardonnay from Majestic Wine £15.99 (or £12.99 on a mix six)
Our next wine takes us to Western Australia, where the area of Margaret River boasts a town known for boutique wine producers. Whilst the area is responsible for 3% of Australian wine, it produces 20% of the country's premium wines.
The area is on the coast, south of Perth where it enjoys a humid Mediterranean climate, cooled by fresh sea breezes that produce high quality fruit flavours in the grapes.
The Vasse Felix winery is Margaret River’s founding wine estate and was established in 1967. It acquired its name from a seaman called Thomas Vasse, who was believed to have drowned when swept overboard from his vessel in 1801. To bring luck to the winery, the word "Felix" was added, meaning "lucky". However, the grapes on the first vines planted were destroyed either by rot or got eaten by native birds, so a peregrine falcon was brought in to scare off the birds.
This also proved disastrous, as the peregrine flew off into the woods on its first release, never to return. The peregrine lives on as a depiction on the wine labels, and thankfully the winery is thriving in 2018.
This chardonnay is full bodied, having been fermented in french oak barriques (smaller than barrels to concentrate oak flavours better). The wine has been allowed to undergo its natural malolactic fermentation to produce buttery and toasty notes. Opinion was divided. For those that love an oaked chardonnay, this was bliss, but there were others who couldn't bear it.
Wine Four - Asda Extra Special Pinot Noir, £7.99
The Yarra Valley enjoys a cooler climate as the Upper Yarra lies 400m above sea level, making it ideal for pinot noir. The pinot noir grape is quite a fussy grape, preferring cooler climates and long growing days. For that reason, we grow it successfully here in the UK for our amazing sparkling wines (and New Zealand produce some belters!).
In the Yarra Valley, pinot noir accounts for 36% of the grapes grown, and 15% of it finds its way to the UK as the 2nd biggest consumer. The largest demand is from China, which imports 45% of the output, and demand continues to rise.
This wine was light bodied as you'd expect from a pinot noir, and whilst not particularly complex, the fruit flavours of cherry, raspberry and wild strawberry were prominent. On the whole, the tasters were impressed with this example, and pleased at the reasonable price tag. Some were eager to move on to a fuller bodied red, which we found in our next bottle...
Wine Five - Kangarilla Road Cabernet Sauvignon, Majestic Wines £19.99 (or £15.99 on a mix six)
Our most expensive wine of the night is a Cabernet Sauvignon from Kangarilla Road; a small boutique winery in the up-and-coming McLaren Vale area. South of Adelaide, the vineyards are nestled in the foothills of the South Mount Lofty mountain ranges where the gully winds off the hills and the sea breezes produce climatic diversity.
The Cabernet Sauvignon grape has a thicker skin than the previous pinot noir, making the wine deeper in colour and fuller in body. The wine is a powerful and complex mix of pepper, earth and black fruit characters, with smooth tannins and a long finish. This was well received by everyone, although its price was a deciding factor of whether people would buy it again.
(Update 2020: You can no longer buy this from Majestic Wine, but why not try the Primitivo instead?)
Wine Six - Barossa Ink Shiraz - Asda / Tesco £10
Our final wine of the night comes from the Barossa Valley, where we started with Jacob's Creek. This was a wine that a couple of our tasters had already tried with their Christmas dinner, and were already fans. The Barossa Valley is known for its shiraz due to the hot continental climate that is conducive to very ripe fruit and robust grapes.
Unlike other grape regions in Australia, the British didn't play a large part in founding the region, which lies 35 miles northeast of Adelaide. It was flooded with German settlers seeking refuge from persecution, and they originally concentrated on growing grapes to distil into brandy spirit, or port style fortified wines.
In the 1980s, several wineries began capitalising on the old vines of shiraz that had been planted, and Barossa's reputation for producing quality shiraz grew. In February 2011, South Australian Premier Mike Rann announced that special legislation would be introduced to protect the unique heritage of the Barossa Valley and McLaren Vale. Premier Rann said: "Barossa and McLaren Vale food and wine are key icons of South Australia. We must never allow the Barossa or McLaren Vale to become suburbs of Adelaide."
The tasters found this wine decadent and punchy, with an inky colour as its name suggests.
So with everything consumed, and following a rousing chorus of Waltzing Matilda, which were the favourite wines of the night? Each taster was asked to vote for their ultimate favourite - this is their percentage of votes:
Jacobs Creek Sparkling 0%
Tempus Two Sauvignon Blanc 0%
Clare Valley Riesling 0%
Margaret River Vasse Felix Chardonnay 7%
Extra Special Yarra Valley Pinot Noir 22%
Kangarilla Rd Cabernet Sauvignon (McLaren Vale) 43%
Barossa Ink Shiraz 28%