Intro to South Australia
When talking about wine growing in South Australia, I think it's important to reiterate that this is a cool-climate wine growing region. My days there were on average about 14 degrees celsius, or about 57 degrees fahrenheit. I think many people (my prior self included) have an idea that Australia is all warm climate, and this is far from the case. Even knowing that South Australia, and particularly the wine growing regions, are cool climate is something entirely different than being there to experience it myself.
Best known from the region, and probably from all of Australia when it comes to wine, is the Barossa. Known for their big, bold Shiraz, they’re moving to a slightly softer style overall, as well as gaining notoriety for other varietals, including Grenache. In fact, this year’s Jimmy Watson Memorial Trophy (essentially “Best Australian Wine” as voted on by the Australian industry) went to a Grenache made by Turkey Flat.
The Barossa includes both the Barossa Valley and the Eden Valley, separated roughly north/south with Eden Valley to the east and Barossa Valley to the west. Having never been subject to the vine pest phylloxera (as is the case in all of South Australia), the Barossa is home to some of the oldest vines in the world, many over 150 years of age. In 2009 the Barossa Old Vine Charter was introduced, which was instituted to register vineyards by age in an effort to encourage preservation of these old vines.
The Charter states than an Old vine is at least 35 years old, a Survivor vine is older than 70 years, a Centenarian vine is older than 100 years old, and an Ancestor vine is older than 125 years old.
Roughly divided into three areas, the Barossa Valley has various soil types. The Southern Grounds are sandy and clay loams, the Central Grounds have sandy brown loams, and the Northern Grounds are mostly red-yellow brown loams over red clay.
Towards the Western Ridge the soils have a high quantity of shattered ironstones.
Another region in South Australia making exciting wine is the McLaren Vale. Mostly noted for Shiraz in the past, much like in the Barossa they’re now producing some very high-quality Grenache, many wineries are experimenting with what are currently being called “alternative varieties,” though some winemakers resist that moniker. Italian varietals for the most part, some grapes being worked with are Vermentino, Fiano, Nero d’Avola, and Sangiovese.
Like Barossa, McLaren Vale remains unaffected by phylloxera, and grenache was first planted there in 1838. Though it was mostly used to make stickies (Australian fortified wines), Grenache accounted for up to 60% of vineyard plantings. Thanks to having been covered by glaciers that crushed the earth as they receded and being along the Willunga Fault Line, McLaren Vale is home to 19 different districts with distinctly different geologies.
The southern area of the region is the youngest, and home to mostly alluvial clay soils, often resulting in generous, opulent, and fruit-forward wines. In the center and western part of the region there are very shallow soils, with the topsoil being mostly sand and silt over limestone. This results typically in wines with lots of earth, structure, and initially closed wines. In the Bluehill springs area of the region there are deep sandy soils with lots of organic matter, which results in wines with great body and character with elegant, lean, and mineral driven wines with great fruit.
The third region of South Australia I visited was the Adelaide Hills, which is approximately 80 kilometers long and 30 kilometers wide. 76% of the grapes grown in
the region are from independent growers, and in 2016 about 27,000 tons of grapes were crushed. Having shifted slightly in recent years, the most widely planted grapes now are Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, with Shiraz, Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc, and Pinot Gris also being planted. There are about 100 producers in the region, which has the highest price/ton of grapes in Southern Australia, due to the highest cost of land per hectare.
One of the most surprising finds from my trip is that there are a several wineries in the Adelaide Hills that are producing Gruner Veltliner. There were 3 clones of Gruner imported in 2006 by Hahndorf Hill, and after being quarantined in Melbourne for three years, were planted. Shockingly they produced fruit enough to make a small vintage in 2010, which was the first. There are now approximately 35 wineries making Gruner Veltliner.
The main things to take away from South Australia is that it is indeed cool-climate grape growing, they’re still making classic Australian wine, and they’re starting to branch out and experiment as well.