This episode of “Wine 101” is sponsored by Whitehaven. From the sunny bays and lush green vineyards of Marlborough comes to a new world Sauvignon Blanc that only New Zealand can offer. White Haven’s winemaking philosophy centers on the pursuit of quality without compromise, a principle that is supported at every step, from vineyard to glass. Whitehaven uses only Marlborough grapes in our wines, ensuring that only truly authentic Marlborough character is in every bottle. Inspired by a dream, try Whitehaven Sauvignon Blanc. Your haven awaits.
On this episode of “Wine 101,” VinePair tastings director Keith Beavers discusses all things Australian wine. Beavers explains that Australia has so much more to offer than just Shiraz. Though each of Australia’s 60 wine producing regions produces Shiraz, the island also grows some of America’s favorite wines, such as Merlot, Cab Franc, Sauvignon Blanc, and even Chardonnay. Beavers also walks listeners through the rich history of how wine first landed in Australia, thanks to a man named James Busby.
Beavers then serves as a personal travel guide as he takes listeners on a journey through the six states where Australian wine is grown. From the Adelaide Hills to the Hunter Valley, Australian wine ranges in everything from terroir to price. Tune in to learn more about how and why your new favorite wine will likely come out of Australia.
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Keith Beavers: My name is Keith Beavers, and what was classical music back in the day? It wasn’t even really classical, right? It was just like “Yo, Bach just dropped his new cantata.”
What’s going on wine lovers! Welcome to Episode 8 of VinePair’s “Wine 101” podcast. My name is Keith Beavers. I’m the tasting director of VinePair. It is Season 2, and how are you? Almost 3,000 miles away from New Zealand is this huge continent, this huge island — the largest in the world — called Australia. They make wine, and we have to talk about it. It’s a little bit crazy. Let’s do this.
It’s big, it’s hot, it’s a continent, and it’s an island. It’s Australia! It is one of the most unique places on earth. Now, New Zealand’s pretty damn unique. We know the biodiversity of New Zealand is crazy. You imagine a place that didn’t see humans until about 800 years ago, and those two islands have been existing for a long time. It’s just crazy. It’s very similar in Australia. It’s just a very different place. Eighty percent of wildlife in Australia is indigenously unique to Australia. You don’t see these species anywhere else. New species are being discovered every couple of years. The Great Barrier Reef is generally regarded as the world’s largest living organism. That’s insanity. It’s the only continent that’s a single country. It’s also the largest island on the planet. If you set it on top of the United States, it’s basically the size of the United States. It’s crazy. When it comes to wine, it’s nuts. This is such a big country, such a big continent, it has six states. Like we have the United States, it has states. But to have six states? Each of them is just huge. That’s the thing about Australia, there’s so much to talk about with Australia that I, as usual, can’t get to it in 20 minutes.
We’re going to have a discussion about Australia, because there are 60 wine regions in that country, and I can’t get to all of them. Even though there are certain varieties that thrive or do well in certain wine regions, the Australians do not discriminate when it comes to grapes. Almost every grape you can name, they have in Australia. In the ‘90s and the late ‘90s as well as the early 2000s, Australian winemakers were considered flying winemakers.
They are a kind of winemaker that is so voracious for information and experience that when their harvest is over in the Southern Hemisphere, they fly to the Northern Hemisphere for harvest and start working in Europe, the United States, and other wine regions. It’s crazy. Some of them never come back to Australia. They stay in Argentina or in California, but they’re some of the most focused, confident winemakers out there. What’s really crazy is, even though there are appellations, I believe their wine regions, like New Zealand, it’s not a definite controlled appellation system. You have these areas and these regions that have vineyards in them with names of the regions, and wine is grown there. But it’s not a full-on controlled appellation system. There’s no way to go through the system to help you guys understand what’s going on.
We’re just going to talk about everything that’s happening. There are no indigenous vines in Australia. There wasn’t a hybrid thing going on there. I’m saying this because it’s so far out there from where vines were that it’s just crazy how European vines made their way to this place, and at some point, started making great wine. None of that would have happened if it wasn’t for the son of a gardener from Edinburgh, Scotland, named James Busby. This guy loved agriculture. When he made it to New Zealand, and then eventually Australia, he fell in love with the place so much that he decided this is where I’m going to grow wine. He had an interest in wine. He actually went all over France, Germany, and Spain to learn about wine. He wrote some books about viticulture, and it was his mission in life to bring the vine to Australia and make it work. He had already done it in New Zealand. He actually was one of the first winemakers in New Zealand where he would sell his wine to British troops. I mentioned that in the New Zealand episode.
James Busby is the father of wine or the prophet of wine or the dude who started the wine thing in Australia. Once he thought vines could grow and wine could be made in Australia, in 1830, he went back to England and proceeded to tour all over the continent of Europe, learning about vines, learning about wine. He ended up taking a bunch of cuttings back to Australia. Basically, he just got the whole wine industry started in Australia. It’s thought that he brought 680 vines. All individual vines are probably a group of one grape, a group of another grape. At this moment, here is this legend, I don’t even know if it’s real or not but it’s a really cool story. The story is that when James Busby was in France, he was in the Rhône region and he got vine cuttings of what they at the time called “Scyras.” He brought that and a bunch of other grapes back to Australia. The Scyras grape was actually Syrah. Since it was labeled Scyras, at some point, the Australian dialect or accent became Scyras into Shiraz. We’re going to talk a lot about that in another episode. That’s a cool, little fun story. I’m not really sure if that’s true or not, but I like it.
Another little fun story about Australia is they’re the ones that invented the bag-in-box by a winemaker named Thomas Angove. In 1965, he was inspired to create this bag-in-box based on a product that was already in the market, but for battery acid. It was a bladder that had battery acid in it, and it was covered by a box, and he wondered what else would we get in that? Wine. Brilliant. If you look at Australia, and you train your eye down towards the southeastern corner of the country/continent/island, that southeastern chunk of Australia, that’s where all the wine is made. There is some wine being made in the southwest, but just not as much. We don’t see a lot of that coming onto the market. We’re starting to see some wines from the Margaret River, but we mostly see wines coming from the southeastern part of the country. These wine regions are in states. And as I said, they’re huge. In the southeastern part of Australia, you have South Australia, the state of South Australia, the state of New South Wales, the state of Queensland. Then, you have Tasmania, which is an island just off the southern coast. That is where the majority of the wine is made even though there are grapes that are doing very well and very popular in certain regions. The Australians plant every grape. There’s Tempranillo from Spain happening in Australia, Riesling, Roussanne from the Rhône, of course, Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Sauvignon blanc, Cab Franc. You name it, it’s being grown in Australia. And if the Australians can make a grape work, they’re going to run with it. However, because of the popularity of Shiraz, almost every region basically grows Shiraz. As I said, there are other grapes.
Let’s get to some of these wine regions so we have an idea of what we’re looking at when we see a bunch of wine bottles from Australia. In this southern east section of the country, in the western corner of this section is the southern part of the state of South Australia. This is where the majority of wine that you will see in the market comes from. It’s responsible for almost half of the annual production of wine in Australia. There are a bunch of wine regions in this area. The ones we’re going to see are a couple of valleys. You have Barossa Valley, which you’re going to see everywhere. It is one of the oldest wine-growing regions in Australia. This is the home of Penfolds, which is the winemaker that made a big statement on the American market. This is a very old historical site, all dry-farmed, meaning it was never irrigated to this day. It is a big deal. We’re going to see a great big, inky, beautiful Shiraz coming from this area.
Barossa Valley‘s neighboring region to its west is a fine wine region called the Adelaide Hills. This is a region that actually has two subregions in it, Piccadilly Valley and Lenswood Valley. Now, I don’t know if you’re going to see that on labels, but it shows that there is terroir here. Whenever you see these subregions, they’re saying not only is Adelaide Hills awesome, but these two places are special for a reason as well. This region is also known for Shiraz, but the Shiraz here — as full-bodied as it is — can get a little bit spicy and almost close to what it’s like in its home in the Rhône of France. Also, what’s done here are sparkling wines made from primarily Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.
Going north, the Adelaide Hills are part of this mountain range. To the north of that is another valley called Clare Valley. Clare Valley is historically very important in Australia. When we do the episode on screw cap versus cork, we’re going to talk a lot about this place. Clare Valley is known for extremely popular, wonderfully age-worthy, crisp and deep Riesling. It’s just amazing how Riesling works in this area. And there are a lot of others — you’re going to see McLaren Vale, which is going to be coming more onto the market with a really kind of spicy, herby Shiraz. There’s also Eden Valley, which is just south of Barossa Valley or neighboring Barossa Valley, and they do Rieslings as well. That’s stuff to keep an eye out on. The Barossa Valley, Clare Valley, Adelaide Hills, you’re definitely going to see.
There’s also a region way down south towards the coast called Coonawarra. That place is known for its Cabernet Sauvignon, not necessarily its Shiraz. We’re going to see more from Coonawarra on the market.
East of the state of South Australia, you move into the state of Victoria. Now, this place is crazy populated with wine and wine history. There are 800 producers in Victoria, and Victoria is pretty small. They’re all packed in there. I think there are 20 wine regions just in Victoria alone. There’s a good amount of wine from Victoria on the American market. You’re going to see them from regions with names like Rutherglen, Alpine Valley, Beechworth, King Valley, Sunbury, Mornington Peninsula, Bendigo. But the one region in Victoria that is making a big noise on the American market is the Yarra Valley. This is very exciting, guys. This is a place where they decided it was a good idea to blend Shiraz with a white wine called Viognier. The result is just awesome. It’s this beautiful, bright, berry fruit, red wine. It has depth to it. Then, you feel this sort of clean, white acidity just running through it. It’s a very cool thing. That’s kind of the one places in Victoria that is standing out.
All the other places I mentioned and there’s more of them, of course, Shiraz, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc. There are all kinds of grapes being grown in this area. However, Shiraz basically rules the day. Yarra Valley is unique because of that blend of Shiraz and Viognier. You’re not going to see a lot of it right now, but it’s coming. The Bendigo region in Victoria is doing really awesome Cab, and there’s a place called the Goulburn Valley. The unique thing about that area is they’re messing around with Roussanne, which is great. There’s not a lot of it in the American market, but it’s coming, and it’s delicious.
Then, we go north from Victoria into the state of New South Wales. There’s a lot of wine-growing regions here, too. What is blowing the minds of people in the wine industry right now from this region is a valley called Hunter Valley. In this valley, they grow grapes called Semillon. If you remember our Bordeaux episode, you’ll remember that Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc is the blend of Bordeaux. Somehow, this native Bordeaux variety over in the Hunter Valley of Australia makes incredible wine. Semillon that can age — well, so far they’re saying like 20 years, which is wild. It develops into this beautiful thing that if you sip an old Semillon, sometimes, you think that it’s just a bunch of oak, but it’s not. It’s just the age of the wine. It’s a very unique place with a very unique wine. Since the area is so popular, the surrounding regions are starting to get a little bit of recognition as well. This region was originally known mostly for Chardonnay. There’s still good Chardonnay coming out of that area. The climate of that area — warm days and cold nights — it brings a fruity, juicy round Chardonnay. It’s very fun and very enjoyable stuff, very good.
There are more places like Heath Coat and Henty and the Grampians, and there’s actually the Pyrenees. It’s actually a joke, because the Pyrenees is just low-lying hills. There’s wine everywhere in Australia and we’re going to see more of it. Australia never backed away from our market. We backed away from Australia. I think at some point we got overwhelmed, overstimulated, I should say, with the Shiraz — the big inky, full-bodied Shiraz. Of course, Malbec comes into the market and replaces that big inky with Malbec’s big inky.
The thing about Australia and what their focus is going forward is they want to show us on the American market that they are not just a big Shiraz ocean. They want us to know that they can be fine wine and smaller producers. There are a lot of wine regions that we’re going to start seeing in the future from Australia that are small. Some of these wine regions have 20 winemakers in them. What they’re doing is they’re focusing. The Australians are good at this. They are focused, and they are confident. When they hit it right, they hit it, and they just keep on hitting it right.
We’re going to start seeing a lot more of Australia come onto our market, but it’s going to be more expensive. That’s just the way it has to be. It’s because it comes from a long way away, and it’s usually in the smaller yield. The thing is, we have to get used to the idea that Australian wine that’s going to blow our minds is going to be a little bit higher in price.
The thing is, I think we should be open to the idea of tasting these wines because Australia isn’t all just Shiraz. Australia is all kinds of stuff. I would say there’s Riesling, Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Chardonnay. Those four really do well all across the wine-growing regions of Australia. As I said, Tempranillo, Cab Franc, there are so many other vines that are being grown and blended. We just have to wait and see.
Again, this is a very general overview of Australia because of how intense it is. This season, we’re going to have a couple of episodes that will reference Australia, and we’ll get more information on the history of the place. This will get you started in Australia with some regions that you already will see, and an idea of just opening your mind for what’s to come from the land down under.
@VinePairKeith is my Insta. Rate and review this podcast wherever you get your podcasts from. It really helps get the word out there. And now, for some totally awesome credits. “Wine 101″ was produced, recorded, and edited by yours truly, Keith Beavers, at the VinePair headquarters in New York City. I want to give a big ol’ shout out to co-founders Adam Teeter and Josh Malin for creating VinePair. And I mean, a big shout-out to Danielle Grinberg, the art director of VinePair, for creating the most awesome logo for this podcast. Also, Darby Cicci for the theme song. Listen to this. And I want to thank the entire VinePair staff for helping me learn something new every day. See you next week.
This episode of “Wine 101” is sponsored by Whitehaven. From the sunny days in lush green vineyards of Marlborough comes a New World Sauvignon Blanc that only New Zealand can offer. Winehaven’s winemaking philosophy centers on the pursuit of quality without compromise, a principle that is supported every step from vineyard to glass, Whitehaven uses only Marlborough grapes in our wines, ensuring that only truly authentic Marlborough character is in every bottle. Inspired by a dream, try Whitehaven Sauvignon Blanc. Your haven awaits.