Australian Wines for Old World Palates

by Fred Swan - Guest Blogger

While much of Australia is sun-baked—some of it indeed a Surfer’s Paradise—the country’s wine regions reside in its southernmost, and coolest, latitudes. Many of them hug coastlines where the water can be quite cool, chilled by the Antarctic which is due south. All that water, and the refreshing breezes it generates, moderate temperatures and allow grapes to maintain acidity while achieving phenolic ripeness.

As a result, Australia is not just a great country for robust Shiraz, fruity Grenache and powerful Chardonnay. It offers precise Pinot Noir, lean Chardonnay, elegant Cabernet Sauvignon and other surprises.

A Brokenwood Estate Vineyard in Hunter ValleyHunter Valley is further north than most Australian wine regions and has a semi-tropical climate. Despite getting quite hot during the growing season, three factors lead to wines that are much less ripe than one would expect.

  • Summer is the Hunter’s rainiest season and there is a lot of cloud cover, this leads to filtered sunlight that retards ripening.
  • The temperatures drop substantially at night, slowing ripening and preserving acidity.
  • The growing season is somewhat short, due to substantial risk of both rain and mold due to humidity.

Hunter Valley Semillon is one of the world’s most unique wines. Whereas Semillon in Bordeaux and Napa Valley is round, waxy and a bit fat, making it a good blending partner for Sauvignon Blanc, Hunter Valley Semillon is lean, electric with acidity and low in alcohol.

For food pairings, consider using Hunter Valley Semillon in place of unoaked Chablis. And, like fine Chablis, very good Hunter Valley Semillon will improve with many years of cellaring. One of the most iconic producers of Hunter Valley Semillon is Tyrell’s. The winery holds many of its wines, like this one which is their flagship Semillon, for bottle aging so they are drinkable upon release.

2011 Tyrell’s Semillon Vat 1 Hunter Valley, Australia

For a taste of a younger Hunter Valley Semillon, try the the 2014 Brokenwood. It has a core of lime with notes of hay and lemongrass and is very fresh on the palate, but just a smidge of sweetness takes the edge off and makes it ready to drink now. With it's bargain price and alcohol of just 11%, it's a fabulous summer sipper. Try it with oysters or scallops.

2014 Brokenwood Semillon Hunter Valley, Australia

Riesling is a variety we associate with the cool climates of Germany, Austria and Alsace. It seems an odd choice for Australia, but Riesling was first planted there way back in 1838. And Riesling was the most grown white grape Down Under until the 1990’s when Chardonnay finally overtook it.

The style of Riesling in Australia is almost invariably bone dry. The wines are very brisk in acidity, low in alcohol and typically show a core of lemon-lime. However, Riesling is very transparent to terroir and each of the regions that grow it adds a distinctive signature to the wine.

There are several regions in which Riesling thrives, including Margaret River, Great Southern, Frankland River, Tasmania and Clare Valley. None is better for Riesling than Eden Valley though. It lies directly southeast of Barossa Valley but is considerably higher in altitude making it quite a bit cooler. Its Rieslings tend to about about lime and steel. And they age very well.

Pewsey Vale is one of the region’s better Riesling producers and its “The Contours” is a special release. The grapes come from old vines on terraced slopes in the coolest part of their vineyard.  The winery also bottle ages this wine for five years before release. That maturation softens the wine a little and adds toasty complexity.

2010 Pewsey Vale Riesling “The Contours” Eden Valley, Australia

Like California, Australia has been saddled with a reputation for making only highly ripe, fruit-forward wines. In reality, there are many very cool growing regions in Australia and many of its wines, including Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Grenache from those areas, can be confused for Old World productions. Hunter Valley Semillon and Australia's dry Rieslings are especially unique, food-friendly and worth trying for anyone with a preference for fresh, focused wine.

Photos of Hunter Valley courtesy of Brokenwood Estate.

JJ Buckley guest blogger Fred Swan is a San Francisco-based wine writer, educator, and authority on California wines and wineries. His writing has appeared in The Tasting Panel and SOMM Journal, where he is a contributing editor. Online, he writes for his own site, FredSwan.Wine (formerly NorCalWine), PlanetGrape, and the San Francisco Wine School where he also teaches. Fred’s certifications include the WSET Diploma, Certified Sommelier, California Wine Appellation Specialist, Certified Specialist of Wine, French Wine Scholar, Italian Wine Professional, Napa Valley Wine Educator and Level 3 WSET Educator. In 2009, he was awarded a fellowship by the Symposium for Professional Wine Writers. In that same year, he was inducted into the Eschansonnerie des Papes, the honorary society of the Chateauneuf-du-Pape AOC.