If Australia had access to unlimited water, they would become the world’s dominant force in wine production. Even without it, they manage to produce a vast amount of premium wine from regions as diverse as the hot and dry Hunter Valley to the cool island vineyards of Tasmania.

South Australia, a vast region covering the center portion of the southern half of the continent, produces sixty percent of the country’s wine. While quite a bit of bulk wine is produced here, so is Grange, a wine sought after by collectors the world over. The regions of Barossa and Coonawarra are both located here, as are the less well-known but equally impressive Clare Valley, Eden Valley, and McLaren Vale. Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz, and Semillon are the major players.

New South Wales is known the world over for Hunter Valley Shiraz and its long-lived Semillon. Southcorp, the group which owns Penfolds, Lindemans, and
Seppelt, is based here, as is Rosemount Estate. It is standard practice for these large conglomerates to use fruit from more than one wine district. If they do, they must default to the “umbrella”zone of Southeastern Australia, which covers New South Wales, South Australia, and Victoria.

Victoria is famous for dessert wine ( Brown Brothers Late Harvest Muscat), sparkling wine (Chandon’s Green Point), Chardonnay (Mitchelton), Marsanne (Chateau Tahbilk’s of Goulburn Valley), and Pinot Noir (Coldstream Hills, of Yarra Valley.)

Besides the mythological Devil, Tasmania is known as a producer of fine sparkling wine from the Pipers Brook region. This fruit is highly sought after by sparkling wine producers in mainland Victoria as well. Way out west, the vineyards of Western Australia provide a selection of wines slightly lighter on their feet than their neighbors to the east.

To the U.S. consumer, the wines of Australia have already achieved a solid reputation for value. The common wisdom seems to be that Australian wines offer great value in the marketplace and tend to be very consistent. In general terms, these assumptions are correct. The Australian wine industry did a great deal to help pioneer the methods that brought mechanization and improved quality control to large-scale commercial viticulture. As the Australian industry is (in quantity) dominated by a handful of very large wineries with a great interest in export markets. This has meant that the world has received Australian wines of both consistently high quality and attractive prices.

There has, however, been a sea change in Australian viticulture. Aussie wines have gone decidedly upscale. As the large firms have gained acceptance in export markets for Australian wines, many of the country's hundreds of boutique producers have begun to export as well, and none of the varietals they produce has made a bigger splash than Shiraz. While Australia certainly produces fine varietals of all stripes, the world has woken up to its Shiraz in particular. Big, rich, and intense, Aussie Shiraz is a wine like no other in the world, and while being one of the world's acknowledged great originals, it is immensely enjoyable in youth. Consumers at any level of the market can find great pleasure in it. Beyond Shiraz, Australia is also making world class Cabernet, Chardonnay, Riesling, Semillon, Grenache, and Dessert Wines.

While the selection of Aussie wines available in the U.S. has never been wider, quantities can still be a problem. The most coveted boutique producers sell out quickly. Savvy consumers will need a plan to acquire show wines such as Grange, Henschke, or Clarendon Hills. Fostering a relationship with a quality retailer will virtually be a prerequisite, but the wines are well worth the effort. Any would make a welcome addition to a well-stocked cellar. While these wines are indeed getting more and more expensive, prices are still quite reasonable when compared to the shenanigans going on in Bordeaux or Burgundy, particularly when one considers the limited quantities in question.

If you don't have the inclination to play the allocation game, there are still a number of outstanding wines to be found from Australia that are made in large quantities, including wines from the coveted trilogy of Shiraz, Cabernet, and Chardonnay. Additionally, most prices are still quite reasonable. On the other hand, when it comes to less popular varietals such as Semillon or Riesling, the wines can be almost embarrassingly cheap.

Key Aussie Varietals & Wine Styles

Shiraz: Shiraz has been the most widely planted red grape in Australia since the 19th century, when cuttings were brought from Rhône Valley Syrah vines in France. Shiraz prospers in many Australian wine-producing regions and the country has at its disposal a healthy amount of old Shiraz vines producing spicy, concentrated wines in the same manner as old vines produce the finest northern Rhône wines. Penfold's Grange, made since the 1950s, has garnered a reputation as one of the world's greatest wines, and has served as a role model for the heights that Shiraz can achieve within Australia. In recent years U.S. consumers have woken up to the greatness of Australian red wines and Shiraz wines in particular. This has driven prices of super premium wines up to and beyond the $100 mark. While the new boutique wines are generating a great deal of interest at the high end, prices have not increased for all Shiraz across the board (as has happened with California Cabernet.) The large firms are still making extremely attractive Shiraz at very reasonable prices and Australian red wine is still at the very top of the "value for money" list.

Cabernet Sauvignon & Merlot: Until the last decade, the average Australian wine drinker would place a greater emphasis on Cabernet Sauvignon than Shiraz. This may sound surprising to others around the world who think of Australia and Shiraz as being virtually synonymous, but, as is often the case, familiarity can breed contempt. Shiraz dominated Australian viticulture well into the 60s and 70s, yet it was thought of more as a rustic, indigenous wine (California Zinfandel, anyone?). World class meant mastering Cabernet Sauvignon, and so Australia blindly followed the worldwide Cabernet phenomenon. It was only through the intense international praise lavished upon Aussie Shiraz that the Australians themselves have begun to rediscover their national grape. What happened in the meantime however, was the creation of a new national wine style, Cabernet Sauvignon.

Australia actually adopted Cabernet at an early stage of its development as a quality wine producer, and Merlot is now increasingly popular. Cabernet and Shiraz blends found favor and acclaim before the more classical Bordeaux blend of Cabernet and Merlot. With Merlot vines now bearing fruit in the cooler regions of Australia, Merlot varietal wines and Bordeaux blends are appearing on the marketplace in commercial quantities. The sources of Australia's finest Bordeaux varietal wines are the country's cooler regions, notably Coonawarra, Margaret River, and the upcoming Padthaway region, although the Barossa Valley produces rich Cabernets with higher alcohol levels and richer flavors. In relation to premium California wines, Aussie Cabernets will often have a more restrained character, sporting 12-13% alcohol, though they are distinctly New World in their fruity generosity of flavors.

Chardonnay: Australia is home to some of the world's outstanding Chardonnays and a huge volume of competitively priced, competently made bottlings. Most fighting varietal brands will carry the wide ranging South Eastern Australia appellation that plays host to many of the country's viticultural districts, though premium estate wines will carry such familiar appellations as Padthaway, McLaren Vale, and Eden Valley, to name but a few. In recent years Australians have had a rethink about Chardonnay styles. The fashion is now for cooler climate areas, far less oak influence, and more vibrant citrus fruit flavors. The cool Padthaway region is now closely associated with this fresher style of Australian Chardonnay. Many wines now proudly state on the label that they are unwooded. With Australia at the forefront of technological advancement in viticulture and enology, and driven by a diversity of enormous commercial exporting producers and boutique wineries, Aussie Chardonnays will continue to compete effectively for the attention of U.S. consumers.

Semillon: While Semillon outside Australia is best known as the "other" grape in white Bordeaux and an essential component in Sauternes, inside Australia it is justly famous for making exceptional and distinctive white table wines. The style was pioneered in the warm Hunter Valley near Sydney, where the wines are typically unoaked. Taping into a young bottle, the novice consumer would be pardoned for asking what all the fuss is about. Young Hunter Semillons tend to be reserved and crisp with a linear acidic backbone. In five to ten years, however, the wines begin to develop outrageous waxy, lanolin-like flavors and deep colors while retaining their firm acidic structures. They continue to age for years, with tasty 30 and 40 year-old examples being not unheard of. The wines of Lindemans in particular typify this style. For those without the cellar-patience required, an increasing number of oaked Semillons have been on offer as of late, from the Barossa Valley as well as the Hunter. These versions are much more developed on release, but don't seem to work quite as well with food as their more traditional counterparts. Nonetheless, either version provides a welcome respite from yet another Chardonnay. At present, fine Semillon is amazingly underpriced.

Riesling: Though many wine drinkers think of Australia as a hot and dusty country (correctly), there are a handful of regions which do quite well with Riesling. The Eden and Clare Valleys, in particular, produce an exceptional style. These wines tend to feature great underlying acidity allied to solid ripeness levels. Flavors tend to be very precise with a classic, pithy, lime-like quality. All but the cheapest commercial wines are dry and most age quite well. Being unoaked, they pair brilliantly with food. Like Semillon, they are grossly under appreciated, particularly in the U.S., and fine examples can be had for laughable prices. They cannot be recommended highly enough.

Dessert Wines: Quality fortified wine industries cannot be started overnight, as aged stocks of fortified wine are required for blending the final product. Australia used to be a nation of fortified sweet wine drinkers before the modern wine boom started. To this day many of Australia's top producers are those firms with a century or more of history in making sweet fortified wines.

Australian tawny 'port' is sometimes compared to Portuguese tawny Portos, though they have their own distinctive identity and are generally made in a sweeter, richer style. In many ways the finest Australian tawnies show a greater degree of complexity than the wood-dominated Portuguese originals. At the pinnacle of Australian sweet wines, however, are the nectarous Liqueur Muscats and Tokays. These extraordinary wines take their place among the most exquisite dessert wines of the world. Reduced and concentrated by long periods of aging in old wood barrels, these wines tend to be thick and rich with mind boggling aromatics and great complexity of flavor. Vintage ports are also produced in Australia, frequently from the Shiraz grape variety. They are bold and fruity, requiring some cellaring, though in no way comparable to Portuguese Vintage Portos.

Sparklers: The Australian wine industry manages to make Methode Champenoise wines of serious quality at prices that would make Champagne producers turn as green as their unripe grapes. Fruity, generous wines that can show fine yeasty notes often associated with more expensive wines, typify the Australian sparkling wine style. Nearly all Aussie sparklers use Champagne grape varieties (Pinot Noir and Chardonnay) and most can be purchased quite reasonably. An esoteric specialty that is unique to Australia is Sparkling Shiraz. This is a fruity red sparkling wine that has flavors more commonly associated with Shiraz red table wines. Few examples are imported, but more adventurous drinkers may wish to seek them out. (Wine/Appellations)