Australian Wine – An Overview Of Down Under

Harry Lambourne
3rd August 2023

It’s time to learn about Australian wine. This mammoth wine-making nation is home to some of the best wine in the world.

Much like it’s neighbour to the south, (New Zealand), the history of Australian wine is relatively recent. They are new comers onto the scene, even when compared to other new world wine nations.

Like all great wine-making nations, their rise to fame has not been without its problems. However, they are now a source of fine wine with undeniable variety and quality. Australian wine is some of the most desirable in the world and they are the 7th largest wine producing country in the world, (MacNeil 823).

The sprawling land mass of this continent stretch over 3 million square miles. This is a distance the equivalent of London to the Black Sea, (MacNeil 823). Throughout much of the southern coastal regions, small pockets of fine wine can be found.

This article can serve as a guide to Australian wine. We will take you through their history, as well as the key regions and grape varieties within them. By the end, you’ll be clued up on the vino from down under, so let’s get into it. Let’s learn about Australian wine.

The History and Landscape of Australian Wine

For many years, in the twentieth century, Australian wines were associated with being cheap, sweet and fairly alcoholic.

However, the second half of the twentieth century saw the tide of Australian wine turn. The driving force behind this boom is investment in high-tech infrastructure.

Large percentages of the wineries use state-of-the-art equipment and employ winemakers versed in the most modern technique in the vineyard and the majority of vineyard tasks tend to be automated.

The capacity for producing wine is also growing at a rapid rate. It saw the number of wine companies in the country double between 1995 and 2005, as did the tonnage of grapes that were crushed. While, vineyard plantings tripled to 390000 acres and export value quadrupled, (MacNeil 823).

Currently, there are around 2500 wineries operating in Australia and they produce every style of wine imaginable with more than forty varieties being planted regularly, (MacNeil 824). However, five are the most important. First and foremost is Shiraz, which accounts for 30% of total plantings. Then, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Semillon round out the top 5. There are obviously many more grapes which are deeply important to the Australian wine landscape. These include grapes such as Grenache, Riesling and Pinot Noir.

The Syrah Grape Hanging Out | Australian Wine Star
Syrah/Shiraz Grapes – The Flagship Grape Variety of Australian Wine
The Early Days Of Australian Wine

Winemaking first took hold of Australia towards the end of the 18th century in New South Wales, about 100 years after winemaking had already begun taking off in other New World wine nations like the USA and South Africa.

A similar situation arose in Australia, which stalled the New Zealand wine industry. This was that the original plantings were largely done by English settlers who knew very little about viticulture. Generally, the plantings were all vitis vinifera European cuttings which were transported on from South Africa, where ships would stop on route.

Beyond that, the first plantings were made in deeply hot and humid areas. Grapes rotted, vines died and viticulture stalled. However, the settlers remained undeterred. Instead, they moved. The new home was in modern day Hunter Valley, which we’ll look at in greater detail later.

It was around the 1850s that more wine-savvy settlers joined the movement and things began to improve, (MacNeil 824). Yet, they weren’t out of the woods. That classic pest appeared – phylloxera. They reared their head in Victoria and crippled the wine infrastructure here.

However, they didn’t sweep the nation as they did in French regions like Bordeaux, the Loire Valley and Languedoc-Roussillon. Winemakers adapted and American rootstocks were used to stop the pests gaining further traction.

The plantings were made again with new US rootstocks and it was here that the first steps into fine wine began, admittedly alongside cheap, sweet wines which could be produced from high-yielding grapes in the hot, fertile and irrigated land around the Murray-Darling River System.

Modern Movements

It remained this way for some time, until the 1960s, when changing tastes and economic forces combined to form a new, modern high-tech wine industry, which was a precursor to the one we see today.

The figures behind production showcase the meteoric rise that was about to occur. In 2010, Australia produced 134 million cases of dry table wine, which is an extra 133 million cases when compared to 1960, (MacNeil 825).

Rather amazingly, they grew quicker than anyone could drink! Australia actually produced 20 to 40 million more cases than they sold in 2009, which has led to some winemakers voluntarily reducing the sizes of their vineyards, (MacNeil 825).

Australian wine had modernised and with that the ability to produce high-quality wine had grown greatly. Winemakers had better means and understanding of the natural factors in the vineyard and which grapes will thrive in each region.

One Vineyard or Many?

Another key aspect of the growth of Australian wine was the difference in opinion between conventional European concepts of terroir, or an emphasis on blending.

As an example, the French region of Burgundy places great emphasis on the concept of terroir. Here, each individual vineyard has its own set of unique characteristics. So, wines are often made from a single area and given a name to reflect that.

Burgundy Wine Region - Côte d'Or
Burgundy Wine Region – The Biggest Proponents Of Terroir

They would argue that a single vineyard site is required to produce good wine, as it means you have to have an understanding of the land and how best it can be harnessed to produce high quality wine.

However, a number of Australians winemakers would adopt a different approach. Blending is instead the king. This can be blending of grapes, from across a sometimes extensive range of vineyards. Grapes can be pulled from huge areas, (which you’ll often see referred to as territories).

As an example, South Eastern Australian wines can use grapes from, (quite literally), anywhere within the south eastern portion of this continent, (MacNeil 826).

It’s worth noting that blending, when it is conducted over these vast areas, is generally reserved for lower priced wines. The goal is to achieve consistency in a recognisable brand.

However, there are some prestigious wine brands which also use these practices. Rather, than looking for consistency. These winemakers are looking for complexity.

The fabled Australian wines of Penfolds Grange is a perfect example of this, as it blends Shiraz and small amount of Cabernet Sauvignon from vineyards over 600 miles apart, (MacNeil 826).

Penfolds Grange is still considered by many as the gold standard of Australian wine. Dr Christopher Rawson Penfold, emigrated to South Australia from England and established the Penfold winery in 1844 to treat patients with anemia using a Port style wine, (MacNeil 834).

This points to the fact that the land behind Australian wine is not a monolith. It is made up of pockets of land across the continent, (and the island of Tasmania to the south). Let’s look at some of the key natural factors that are found across this land mass.

Key Natural Factors In Australian Wine

The landscape of Australian wine is an ancient landmass, with an array of soil in exposed, eroded areas. The outback is a dominant feature of the landscape. The name is given to the vast, arid area which fails to see any rain for years at a time.

Yet, the Australian wine world is anything but devoid of water. It is an island after all and the bulk of the vineyard areas are concentrated to areas which are nearer the ocean and sea.

Most of the key wine-producing regions in Australian wine share some similar characteristics. They’re sunny and stable with Mediterranean climates.

In some regions, night time temperatures are cool which allows for a high diurnal range and locks in freshness and acidity, while the grapes still ripen fully in the sunny daytime. As an example, the wonderfully structured dry Riesling in Australia benefits from this greatly.

Australian winemakers are not without their challenges from the climate. Rot, wildfires, frost, drought, heavy winds can all be detrimental, as can the local fauna. Kangaroos are known for jumping the fences at a vineyard, (with ease), and chomping on budding vines.

Someone enjoying a tour of some Grenache vines in the Barossa Valley
Someone looking for some grapes to eat.

The Australian Wine Regions

The world of Australian wine can be broadly divided into five smaller regions. They are South Australia, New South Wales, Victoria, Western Australia and Tasmania. Let’s learn more.

South Australia

This is the driest region in the world of Australian wine, responsible for producing more than half of the wine in the whole of Australia, (MacNeil 836).

One of the largest single wine-producing regions of Australia is located here in the cool climate of the Adelaide Hills. Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon have all found a home here.

Then, you have Eden and Clare Valley are both known for world class Riesling. Eden is floral and medium bodied and Clare is citrusy and acidic. Both are known for the cool nights and water-retentive soil which preserves the acidity of these wines.

Next is McLaren Vale. Here, they are known for Shiraz, with over 50% of the wine in this area being dedicated to the grape. Shiraz from the McLaren Valley is powerful, ripe and host to flavours of olive, menthol, dark chocolate and that characteristic spice.

Shiraz is the signature grape variety of the whole country. However, it wasn’t called Shiraz until recently. Until the late 1980s, you’d often see it called Hermitage, (the famous Rhône Valley appellation). This could be a source of confusion, as Australian Shiraz established a reputation for itself in its own right. So, they opted to change, (MacNeil 833).

Penfolds Grange - Australian Wine
Penfolds Grange Using Old Hermitage Labelling

Shiraz likely comes from a derivation from one of Syrah’s other French names. Some include ‘schrias’, ‘sirac’ and ‘serine’. Shiraz is just another evolution in the naming of Syrah, (MacNeil 834).

This grape is one of the driving forces behind the establishing of Australia as a world class wine nation. Soft and jammy with a hedonistic mix of black fruit flavours alongside mocha, violet and pepper. There is also sometimes a gamey iron note.

Another region of South Australia is Coonawarra, (which comes from the aboriginal word for honeysuckle). This area is renowned for Cabernet Sauvignon. In fact, it is some of the best Cabernet Sauvignon in the whole of Australia. The strip of land has terra rosa soil.

This is the red clay and limestone soil, with a maritime climate which is comparable to Bordeaux. This explains the excellent Cabernet Sauvignon. They’ll display ripe blackcurrant notes, alongside unique notes of bell pepper, menthol and eucalyptus.

Yet, it is likely the Barossa Valley which is the best known region in perhaps all of Australia. Fertile rolling hills of quartz, limestone and red clay flow throughout the region which is also home to a cornucopia of produce, orchids and sheep.

Cabernet Sauvignon has had success here. As has Grenache and Grenache-blends. Yet, it is once more Shiraz that goes above all else. Rich, syrupy with powerful berry flavours, wild lavender, spice, bramble, liquorice. Along with this, they are structured, balanced and precise.

New South Wales

This is the second leading state in wine production, although a lot of the produce is inexpensive, simple wine.

The key area is Hunter Valley, which sits just north of Sydney. It was also Australia’s first wine area, with vineyards beginning in the nineteenth century by the country’s first European settlers.

This Australian wine region today is a bit of an anomaly. One of Australia’s most northerly regions, which is closer to the equator and influenced by warm ocean currents from the tropics. It can be very warm and humid to the point where it may be detrimental to the grapes. However, it is home to world class Chardonnay and Shiraz.

However, this is Semillon country. It is picked really early, due to the cloudy climate of the region, (MacNeil 831). The end result is an intensely bracing white wine, with lime and white pepper notes, as well as the most acid you can imagine. But, age it for 5-10 years. Then, it changes. Rich, nutty and buttery fruit flavours – like nothing else in the world, (MacNeil 836).

Victoria

Victoria went through a gold rush in 1851. This is similar to California just a few years earlier. The increase in people and disposable income paved the way for a new form of industry – wine. Sadly, the gold ran out and Victoria’s fortunes spiralled. Phylloxera took its inevitable toll, as did the inevitable crash of the gold rush.

It wasn’t until the whole Australian wine industry boomed that Victoria found more growth. It is the smallest of Australia’s mainland wine regions, with a deeply varied climate thanks to the Great Dividing Range splitting it in two. It creates a lot of mountains and hills, which allows for altitude and aspect to improve the wines of Victoria.

Great Dividing Range
Great Dividing Range

Three key areas are Yarra Valley, Geelong, Mornington Peninsula are close to the sea and benefit from cool breezes. Pinot Noir and racy Chardonnay are most at home here, as well as some great sparkling wine. Champagne house Moët & Chandon actually founded Chandon Australia in the Yarra Valley.

You’ll also find a world class fortified wine, (often referred to locally as ‘stickies‘), in Rutherglen. They’re a key element to the history of Australia, but fine wine examples are relatively recent. Muscat from Rutherglen is one particularly good example, but they aren’t exported in the same volume as other Australian wines, (MacNeil 835).

They’re late harvest wines which allow for sugar to intensify in gradually drying grapes. They are then aged for ten to twenty years in small old oak barrels which are set up in a system that resembles the solera system in sherry production. Toffee, brown sugar, vanilla, chocolate, molasses and honey. The list goes on.

Western Australia

Here is an isolated part of the Australian wine world, roughly 3000 miles away on the other side of the continent, near the city of Perth.

The most renowned area in Western Australia is Margaret River. It is also one of the newer wine regions in the world with vines only being planted here for the first time in the 1960s. The climate is maritime, with many of the local wine workers going surfing before a day of work.

It has gravel soils, which led the winemakers to focus on Bordeaux grapes. Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon all play a part here. Beyond that, Chardonnay does well here.

It’s ideal, sunny and cooled by the ocean. Yet, there’s an issue – birds! Once the grapes are ripening, huge nets have to be deployed. Before this, 60% of the crops were eaten by the local ‘silvereye’ birds, (MacNeil 837).

Silvereye Birds
Silvereye Birds – A Certified Pest Of Western Australia Wine
Tasmania

Tasmania is the smallest state in Australia and has less of an established reputation when it comes to wine production. It had just 100 acres of vines in the 1950s, today it has around 3700 acres, (MacNeil 839).

The island is named after explorer Abel Tasman who discovered the island in 1642. It is a mountainous island. The altitude of the vines, when paired with a sunny, cool maritime climate means that it is well equipped to produce racy, acidic wines. Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc are all specialities here. You can also find high quality sparkling wine.


That’s our look into the world of Australian wine. It’s a rich and varied country with an array of wine to try. Whatever your particularly fancy is, then you’re sure to find something to like in Australian.


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