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Although the first settlers planted the first vines in Australia, it's only in the last 100 years that the Australian wine industry has really taken off, and only the last 20 that it's done so with any force. And what a force. Australia doesn't do anything by halves.
After a period of heavy investment, including developing some of the most modern wineries, using the most up to date wine producing techniques and forcing the Old World to revaluate their winemaking techniques and attitudes along the way, Australia has become the 4th largest wine exporter in the world. Its estimated that over 20% of all wine sold in the UK is from Australia alone, and six out of the top ten brands are from this young vibrant country. Nearly half of all Australian wine comes from South Australia, with key wine growing regions around the Adelaide Hills, Barossa and Clare Valleys.
Victoria offers a diverse range of wines and Hunter Valley in New South Wales is a great place to look for some delicious Shiraz and Semillon. Western Australia has earned a reputation for producing more expensive, boutique quality wines. Tasmania doesn't immediately spring to mind when you think of wine, most people think of small furry mammals instead. As well as Devils, cool-climate Tasmania is producing some fabulous sparkling wine, fine Pinot Noir and sweeter German or Alsace style Rieslings.
You'll probably be surprised to hear that there are approximately 90 different grape varieties planted commercially in Australia. 16 of these, eight white and eight red are planted most widely, and these tend to be the more familiar international varieties. More and more winemakers are experimenting with unfamiliar types though, so watch out for more unusual styles, grapes and blends.
Shiraz is the classic grape variety most people associate with Australian wine. Years ago it used to be unfashionable but today things are far different. Producing a range of styles from soft and spicy through to leaner, more peppery versions, most Australian wine fans can't get enough of this tasty grape. Try it softened up and blended with a little Petit Verdot, Cabernet, or Viognier.
Cabernet Sauvignon is full of dark black fruit. It is an extremely robust, firm grape, which produces some very bold, powerful Australian wines, the fullest of these being from Coonewara on the Limestone coast. Here the soil is rich and red, called Terra Rossa, and it infuses the wine with heat, spice, and a heck of a punch. If you like your red wines a little softer, look out for blends with Shiraz or Merlot.
Traditionally Chardonnay has been a popular Australian grape and is famed for its versatility. Oaked versions made their name a decade or so ago before becoming unfashionable after the market was flooded with overoaked gummy wine. As part of the backlash against these unoaked versions are becoming increasingly popular.
For a citrussy fruity white why not try an Australian Riesling. Very different in style to the sweeter German versions, you'll be bowled over by these crisp refreshing wines.
In your quest for Australian wines, you'll probably come across Semillon. Often under-appreciated, this grape produces some delicious light bodied, crisp wines, with honey, nutty flavours. You may find it blended with Sauvignon Blanc for added zestiness. Semillon also produces fantastic sweet wine, so look out for late harvest botrytis Semillon for an unctuous sticky treat. These are most often sold in half bottles and are a perfect accompaniment to desserts. Experimental Aussies.
For a country producing some of the most homogenous wine in the world, Australia is also at the forefront of innovation. Anything tried in other countries is also tried here. Australian wine-makers are experimenting with styles, different grapes, and blends, and producing some very interesting wine. Look out for sparkling red wines, interesting and different, Australians drink it at Christmas!
Most brands sold in the last 20 years have been largely aimed at the budget end of the market. They are crowd-pleasing fruit-filled, high-alcohol wines, which appeal to everyone, and unlike French or Italian wine, they don't have to accompany food to get the most out of them.
Land in Australia is plentiful and they don't have the restrictions of space that European wine producers do, nor do they have centuries of legislation to get around. This means that wine makers are free to experiment with blends and varieties. As the climate doesn't vary much from year to year wines don't tend to differ much between vintages. Australian wines have a degree of reliability impossible to guarantee from Old World countries, even if sometimes they lack subtlety. Typically, large-scale wineries will blend wine from various grape varieties and several regions to meet a price point and style sought. While you can be sure that the wine will have been produced according to rigorous quality standards, it also may have had other ingredients added to it to make sure it all tastes the same.
If you steer clear of the big supermarket names however, and do a bit of hunting around, there are increasing numbers of small innovative producers bucking the trend and producing Australian wines of quality rather than quantity. Look to the boutique producers and you'll find a wealth of interesting tasty wine easily as good as anything from the Old World. So if it's originality, soul and value for money that you are after, make sure you check out the smaller wineries, where the wine is made for love and not money.
Old World wine labelling can be confusing and it's sometimes hard to tell what it is you are drinking. In Australia, wine labels are much simpler, with the grape and region named so you can always tell what you are drinking, which has made it easier for even the beginner wine enthusiast to understand.
Australia has suffered the effects of several droughts, floods and fires in recent years, which hasn't done the wine crops any favours and Australian wines have been hit by price hikes as a consequence. However, there's still value to be found if you look off the beaten track and we're confident that this situation will change shortly.