Australia is a country steeped in history: It holds the oldest continental crust on Earth, dating to 4.4 billion years ago; its Aboriginal people have the oldest continuous culture on Earth; and the oldest fossils ever found — those of cyanobacteria, dated 3.5 billion years — are from rocks in Western Australia.

Yet Australia is no stranger to innovation. It’s home to many inventions and new technology that, quite literally, changed the world. Refrigeration, electronic pacemakers, cochlear implants, black box flight recorders, simple GPS — all manifestations of Australian innovation.

This duality of old and new can also be seen in Australian wine. Historically, wines have been made in fairly traditional ways, with many winemakers having trained abroad and with respect for established vineyards and regions. But Australian wine is also very innovative, with increasingly daring winemakers ready to experiment and push boundaries. This unique Australian approach to winemaking —  decidedly independent, slightly irreverent, wildly inspired — is well matched to the country’s unique climate and landscape, making for some very diverse, exceptional wines and a very exciting scene.

Australia’s winemaking history stretches back to 1788, when Governor Arthur Phillip brought the first vines to Sydney. In 1833, James Busby, considered the father of the Australian wine industry, brought cuttings from Spain and France and introduced Shiraz (a.k.a. Syrah) and Grenache to the region. In the early years, Australia produced mainly sweet, fortified wines. It was not until the 1960s that the focus turned to typical table wines. Since then, Australia has produced lively, intense, diverse wines — from internationally sought-after icons, like Henschke Hill of Grace, to small natural producers that are making their marks using outside-the-box varieties in unexpected regions.

Map Credit: Wine Australia

Buying wine from this very large place can be a little overwhelming. Here is a breakdown on six of the most prominent grapes grown across Australia and what to expect when opening your next bottle:

MAJOR WHITE GRAPES

Chardonnay

Called the winemaker’s grape for its adaptability and versatility, Chardonnay is an excellent mirror of its terroir and is the most widely planted white variety in Australia. Australian Chardonnay was long associated with the “sunshine in a bottle” style of wine — oaky, buttery and bright yellow. More recently, some production has moved toward a lighter, crisper Chardonnay with many winemakers harvesting the grape earlier. Since these grapes truly have the ability to morph into all manner of wine and winemakers continue to experiment, the future of Chardonnay is looking particularly bright.

Regions to look for:

  • Adelaide Hills
  • Hunter Valley
  • Mornington Peninsula
  • Margaret River
  • Tasmania
  • Yarra Valley

Pairs well with:

Pair richer, oaked Aussie Chardonnays with fattier grilled meats, roast chicken, and heavy cheeses. Unoaked goes well with grilled fish, prawns, and lighter dishes.

Riesling

To those wine drinkers who generally shy away from Riesling for fear of sweetness: Rest easy, the majority of Australian bottlings are bone dry (and if not, the labels will tell you so). Riesling has seen both good and bad times. It was a popular variety for most of the 19th and 20th centuries. It also became unpopular due to sweetness misconceptions. Fortunately, it’s again on the rise and showcasing all sorts of flavor options. There are the slatey, mineral Eden Valley Rieslings, citrus-with-a-side-of-herb Rieslings from Great Southern, and the Rieslings of Clare Valley, which are known for sensational acidity with a unique lime zest note. Because of the elegant structure, Rieslings have great aging potential.

Regions:

  • Clare Valley
  • Eden Valley
  • Great Southern

Pairs well with:

Fish, crustaceans and shellfish, and green foods like lime, jalapeños and tomatillos.

Semillon

One of Australia’s most historic grapes, Semillon has long been a favorite variety among winemakers for its robustness and resistance to disease. Outside of the Hunter Valley, where it is typically a single variety (and highly prized) dry white wine, you’ll most often find Semillon blended with Sauvignon Blanc in the classic white Bordeaux style (what the Aussies call “Sem-Sav”) where it boosts flavor and structure. Australian Semillon is known for its signature green grape aroma, lemon, apple, and quince flavors. The wines tend to age very well, developing more structure and a slight nuttiness with years in the bottle.

Regions:

  • Barossa Valley
  • Clare Valley
  • Hunter Valley
  • Riverina

Pairs well with:

Younger Semillon pairs well with shellfish and crustaceans. Pair bottle-aged Semillon with smoked fish and soft cheeses.

MAJOR RED GRAPES

Shiraz

Shiraz (a.k.a. Syrah in most other parts of the world) is grown in nearly every region in Australia and makes up half of all Australian red wine production. Wines made from Shiraz are known for their diversity of styles and bold flavors. Depending on where it’s grown, Shiraz can be medium- to full-bodied and stylistically fruit-forward, spicy, or peppery, with flavors of dark cherry, tobacco, or coffee, among others. Major producers include Barossa Valley and McLaren Vale, but interest has also increased in cooler-climate Shiraz, which leaves more room for regional and varietal characteristics to shine.

Regions:

  • Adelaide Hills
  • Barossa Valley
  • Clare Valley
  • Hunter Valley
  • McLaren Vale

Pairs well with:

Barbecue, lamb, beef and gamey meats, stews, and casseroles.

Cabernet Sauvignon

Cabernet Sauvignon is the third most-planted grape variety in Australia (after Shiraz and Chardonnay). Australia is home to the world’s oldest productive Cabernet Sauvignon vines, which were planted in the northern Barossa Valley in 1886. Cabernet Sauvignon can be found across Australia, but two regions stand out as top producers: Coonawarra and Margaret River. Coonawarra produces complex, intense wines with bold flavors — dark and red fruits, mint, and cassis. Margaret River wines have a rich and round texture and showcase fruit and herbs. Don’t count out other regions, though.

Regions:

  • Coonawarra
  • Langhorne Creek
  • Margaret River

Pairs well with:

Beef and game meats, fatty meats like lamb chops, duck breast, firm cheeses.

Grenache

Grenache was one of the original varieties brought to Australia by James Busby. This approachable red is part of Australia’s famous GSM blends (Grenache, Shiraz, Mourvèdre), but it’s also proven itself as an important single-varietal wine in Australia over the last decade as winemakers dial back the alcohol and oak and allow the variety’s juicy, alluring qualities to take center stage. Despite thriving in its early years in Australia, Grenache was overlooked for some time. The high-yield grape was popular but used mainly with fortified wines and didn’t get much credit. A decrease in planting and harvesting took its toll and it looked like Grenache might not be able to catch a break. Luckily, some wise winemakers recognized its worth and saw that those old vines had some value. Blending ability is what saved Grenache, but its potential for making outstanding single-variety wines — light, elegant, balanced reds — is what will keep it moving forward.

Regions:

  • Barossa Valley
  • McLaren Vale

Pairs well with:

Grilled steaks, game, and lighter poultry dishes using turkey or duck.

This article is sponsored by Wine Australia.