Thursday, 16 February 2017

Central Otago

Central Otago, due to its climate and inland location on the South Island, is different from the rest of New Zealand's wine areas. It's the most southerly wine region in the world, vineyards located beneath dramatic mountains on difficult, rocky soils. The wine is uniformly excellent, the climate and soils producing intense, concentrated wines that are only going to get better as the region matures.

One thing Central Otago does share with the rest of New Zealand's wine regions is that it's still very young, producers striving to learn what works and what doesn't. It's only thirty years old, and it's going to be fascinating to see how Central Otago develops. Its future will clearly be dominated by Pinot Noir, but other varieties, particularly white grapes, will help further understanding of this beautiful region.


New Zealand is surrounded by sea, 2,000km from Australia's east coast. The climate is maritime, rain hitting the islands from the ocean throughout the year. The one exception to this maritime climate is Central Otago, which, sheltered from the ocean by mountain ranges, is cool continental. In the summer, the days are hot, reaching as high as 40˚C, and the nights are cool, dropping below 10˚C, so there is intense ripening during the day slowed by the cool nights. Heat summation is similar to northern Chablis, yet Central Otago successfully ripens Pinot Noir. This is due to the intense UV rays coming from the sun, which intensifies ripening - the sun really does have a burning heat to it.

Central Otago regions

There are different climates within Central Otago, which has led to the informal classification of several sub-regions. Altitude is key, where both days and nights are cooler than lower down on the valley floor. The centre of Central Otago is a large valley surrounded by towering mountains, even topped with snow in the summer; this is the Cromwell Basin, which gradually rises at the southern end to the highest quality sub-region, Bannockburn. Here, the sun hits the north-facing slopes while wind rushes down from the mountains and through the valley to provide ventilation. Current plans to formally classify Central Otago have Bannockburn as the one stand-alone sub-region with its own geographical indication. Further north, Bendigo is warmer and the wines are ripe and rich, while to the east Gibbston Valley is higher up and produces thinner, more acidic wines. Many producers blend from the different sub-regions to make balanced wines that express the region as a whole, but the one area that stands out on its own is Bannockburn.


The first commercial wine released in Central Otago was by Gibbston Valley Winery in 1987. There were vines planted in the 1860s, when the region was subject to a huge gold rush, remnants of which are scattered throughout Central Otago, not least in Bannockburn where barren hillsides stand next to recently planted vineyards. Once the gold rush faded, Central Otago became a quiet region populated by shepherds and orchard farmers. Cherries are still a big industry, but the region has been transformed in the last thirty years by wine. There are now well over a hundred producers and, despite the youth of the industry, quality is consistently high. As vines get older, that quality is only going to increase.

Pinot Noir vines at Peregrine winery
However, like the rest of New Zealand, the rush to make wine from the 1980s onwards led to compromises. New Zealand has a strict quarantine policy, which means that any plant matter must spend three years under quarantine before being allowed into the country. The downside to the strict import conditions is that the rapid expansion of the industry in the last twenty years meant that there weren't enough rootstocks available to graft vines on to and new plantings couldn't keep up. Instead, growers simply planted ungrafted vines. Phylloxera as a result is slowly spreading, which means necessary replanting of those young vines. Although it's under control, this is something that may slow the development of New Zealand wine as a whole, Central Otago included.

pinot noir 

Cornish Point vineyard, owned by Felton Road
75% of plantings in Central Otago are of Pinot Noir, the only black grape variety that will reliably ripen there. The hot days get the grapes ripe, while the cool nights preserve acidity and allow the aromatics to slowly develop. The wines vary from sub-region to sub-region, but there is a deep, rich intensity to them, and a deep colour which comes from the skins building up resistance to the UV rays. In a short time, these have come to be known as some of the finest Pinot Noirs in the world. They're certainly very good, but I feel at the moment that we're tasting potential rather than the definite finished result. As the vines age and producers understand site selection better, the wines will continue to improve: producers will worry less about ripe fruit aromas and concentrate more on making Pinot Noir which are compelling expressions of place. That's Central Otago: the youth of its vines as well as its producers leads to rich, fruity wines that will become more complex and intense as the region ages.

recommended producers: Felton Road, Burn Cottage, Bannock Brae

pinot gris 

The search across New Zealand has been to find a back-up to Sauvignon Blanc, in case worldwide interest in those wines finally comes to a halt. Many producers have focused on Pinot Gris, an aromatic grape that's closely related to Pinot Noir and not planted that widely across the world. Styles have varied in New Zealand, from dry and insipid to rich and bloated, which hasn't helped spread the wines' popularity. Producers have finally settled on a consistent, recognisable style: off-dry (the slight sweetness offsets the tannins of the grape), aromatic, but not too rich. In Central Otago, the grape accounts for 15% of plantings, and is held up as the region's white equivalent to Pinot Noir. The wines are good, food-friendly, with a refreshing acidity not always found with Pinot Gris. But I do feel that Central Otago producers made a mistake when they chose Pinot Gris rather than Chardonnay as the white equivalent to Pinot Noir. Now, many are having to consider whether to replant to Chardonnay or to stick to Pinot Gris.

recommended producers: Misha's Vineyard


Rippon Vineyard, Lake Wanaka
Central Otago has, with a collective purpose among producers, focused on aromatic white grapes to promote the region. Pinot Gris is the accessible wine, while Riesling is grown for quality and small production. Just 3% of plantings are of Riesling, a variety that's always fashionable among wine geeks like me but difficult to sell. Two producers, Felton Road and Misha's Vineyard, convincingly persuaded me that Central Otago has, in its schist soils and cool continental climate, much in common with Mosel in Germany. Like Mosel, the best wines have some sweetness to them to counterbalance the naturally high acidity that comes with the cool climate. Despite being so food friendly, such wines are not universally fashionable so many producers make dry Rieslings whose acidity I found just too tart - Central Otago's climate really is that cool.

recommended producers: Felton Road, Misha's Vineyard


The elephant in the room is Chardonnay. I am loathe to suggest that yet another region concentrate on producing Chardonnay, but this, besides Pinot Noir, is what Central Otago is best at. The wines have a refreshing, crisp acidity, which allows malolactic fermentation, and a steely, stony texture. They taste exactly how the best Chardonnays should. Yet, only 3% of plantings are to Chardonnay. This is because when many of the current plantings were made twenty years ago, Chardonnay was an unfashionable grape and Pinot Gris was planted instead as an alternative. Now, producers have to decide whether to replant to Chardonnay or to stick to the aromatic varieties they already have. Central Otago is a young region: mistakes are likely to be made before figuring out what works best.

recommended producers: Felton Road, Peregrine

Thursday, 9 February 2017

Hunter Valley

Australia is a vast country, its wine regions stretching over 4,000km from Margaret River south of Perth in Western Australia to Hunter Valley north of Sydney in New South Wales. Those regions vary so much, in soils, in grape varieties grown, and, more than I realised, in climate. Despite those differences, there is a huge level of support for and interest in other regions, even when they're hundreds of kilometres apart.

The one exception to this comradeship is Hunter Valley. Two Australian girls we met in Argentina informed us the wine was terrible. When we told people in South Australia that our Australian journey would culminate in Hunter Valley, the reaction was an incredulous yet muted, "Oh." In Victoria the reaction was more impassioned: "You're saving the worst to last!"

At first I didn't understand their dislike, dismissing it as simple jealousy. Hunter Valley is near Sydney, and its wine industry revolves around Australia's biggest city which is so far away from Australia's other wine regions. So I decided to ignore all those reservations, not least because I wanted to taste and discover more about the unique wine of Hunter Valley: Semillon.

We drove eight hours from Rutherglen through endless nothingness, bypassing the capital Canberra and Sydney (which we returned to). I expected Hunter Valley to be like Napa Valley: close to a major city, beautiful, and full of decorous tasting rooms and expensive restaurants. Instead, it's rather ugly, a flat valley with a small, truncated mountain range to the west, and its tasting rooms looked like they hadn't been touched since the 1970s. There were few restaurants, the locals were unfriendly, and it baffled me why people from Sydney - residents and tourists alike - visit the region so much. In short, all those negative opinions others had voiced were right.

Its climate is hot, humid, and windy. Those winds aren't refreshing, but blow the heat and humidity into one's face. The cloud cover smothers the heat further. Hunter Valley really isn't a region made for wine production, yet wine has been made here for two hundred years. James Busby, one of the founding fathers of Australian wine, settled here in the 1820s and the region's proximity to Sydney has sustained its wine industry. I can't imagine a region I'd less want to make wine in.

the one pretty view in Hunter Valley



For all of Hunter Valley's unsuitability for growing grapes, it produces a unique style of wine. Hunter Valley Semillon is one of the world's most ageworthy white wines, and I wanted to learn more about what makes the wine so individual. The answer is a paradox: the high acid, low alcohol wines are a result of the warm climate. The grapes ripen quickly in the heat and are picked early (in part to avoid the heavy rain and hail that falls before the end of the growing season). In the heat, the grapes have developed enough fruit flavour to give the wine body and structure but picking early ensures high acidity and low sugar levels. Once the wine is made, very little happens: it's aged for a couple of months in stainless steel before bottling. Young Hunter Valley Semillon is neutral and quite dull, with at best vaguely fruity, herbaceous aromas. As the wine ages, it changes into something much more interesting: waxy, nutty, and honeyed, rich but retaining the high acidity. Wineries delay releasing their best wines for at least five years, and Hunter Valley Semillon isn't worth drinking before then. This makes it one of the few white wines that genuinely improves with age. Try Brokenwood's ILR Reserve 2009 (A$75; $58 ✪✪✪✪✪ ) for a great example of how Semillon ages - this wine still feels remarkably young, with fresh acidity and grassy aromas, but nutty aromas are beginning to develop and there's a steely, mineral, waxy texture. Such wines are best enjoyed with food, especially with the Asian cuisine so popular throughout Australia.


The other grape variety Hunter Valley is known for is Shiraz. Again paradoxically, the heat produces a restrained style, quite different from the wines of South Australia. The quick ripening and heavy autumn rains lead to an early picking, which means that the Shiraz wines aren't as rich and fruity. Their restraint made them seem quite dull in comparison, though there is an earthy texture which has led to comparisons to the northern Rhône - I felt the wines lack the depth and complexity to justify those comparisons.

Grape growing is so tricky in Hunter Valley that wineries source grapes from elsewhere, even from as far afield as Margaret River. It says a lot about Hunter Valley that the one wine we bought while there was a Shiraz from the cooler climate of Canberra ...

Saturday, 4 February 2017

Rutherglen's Fortifed Wines

Visiting Rutherglen was on the must-do list for my trip to Australia, despite being over three hours from Melbourne and another six to Sydney. Once the centre of the Victoria wine industry, remote Rutherglen is now best known for its world-class fortified wines made from Muscadelle and Muscat. These are some of the most extraordinary wines in the world, intense, long-lived, and not quite like any other. I had to go there to see in person how these wines are made. Doing so gave me an even greater appreciation of the time and dedication required to make these wines.

Pfeiffer: on the site of an old distillery
I visited two producers: Stanton & Killeen, who have been going for seven generations since 1875, and Pfeiffer, who are just on their second generation. History is important here, not least for the styles of wine produced. Fortified wine, here as elsewhere, is often a blend of different vintages going back decades and more. Chris Pfeiffer started with 400l of stock in the mid-1980s and now has 160,000l of wine that he has built up over the last thirty-five years - and he is one of the newer producers. Winemakers have to nurture these wines, passing them on for future generations, and ensuring that the wines produced reflect the past as well as today. This may seem a romantic notion - and it is such romance about fortified wines which appeals to me - but this is a practical, everyday concern which requires the investment of maintaining wines for decades, as well as blending them together to create a consistently high-quality wine. The production of table wine seems short and easy in comparison.


I came for Muscat, tasted a lot of dry table wine, and came away with a new-found appreciation for Australian ‘port’. This term can no longer be used, but Australians have been making their own style of port for generations. Under pressure from the EU, they renamed it Tawny. This can be misleading as the wines are not always tawny in colour, but I think it's a good thing that Australians were forced to rename the wines as it emphasises how unique the Australian styles are. Tawny is very different from Portuguese fortified wines: depending on their age, the wines are intense, oxidised, often amber in colour, with lots of toffee and dried fruit aromas. They are made all over Australia, not just Rutherglen, and style varies according to producer. Outside Rutherglen, Yalumba's Tawny Museum Reserve, made from Grenache and other Rhône grapes, is a great entry into this style of wine. Within Rutherglen, Pfeiffer have just released their first Rare Tawny, with an average age of 25 years, which is an extraordinary example. Such a wine is best thought of in comparison to a Scotch whisky: the long barrel ageing, deliberate oxidation affecting the colour and aroma, and a leathery, nutty, sweet texture.


intense tasting: young Topaque on the left, old on the right
This is another style that has undergone a forced name change, this time in response to the Hungarian wine industry. Australians traditionally called this style Tokay (pronounced toe-kay), which Hungary protested was too similar to Tokaji (toh-kai). Both styles are sweet, but other than that they have little in common. It's a great shame that the name was switched to Topaque, as this doesn't really evoke the aromatic, complex nature of the wines (not that Tokay did either). These wines are seriously underrated. Made from the Muscadelle grape, which produces erratic yields, the wines are unique, with cold tea and fish oil aromas. These may not seem pleasant attributes, but it's the best way to describe the tangy, viscous quality of the wines. The wines change a lot with age, fresh and aromatic when young, darker and more developed with age. These changes best evoke how wines develop in Rutherglen, as a young Topaque is hugely different from the oldest wines.


solera style system
In an obscure category, Muscat is what Rutherglen is most famous for. Made from Brown Muscat (red-skinned strains of the Muscat variety), the wines maintain the floral, grapey aromatics even through the oldest wines which can be decades old. The wines are even stickier and sweeter than Topaque or Tawny; they also lack the tangy nature of Topaque and have lower acidity, instead being more robust and forward in their fruity aromas. In appearance, Muscat is at first darker than Topaque, though they share a similar, almost black colour when old. That colour comes from deliberate oxidation which takes place in cellars that aren't protected from the warm outside conditions. Such exposure to heat not only changes the colour, but adds nutty, toffee, caramel, dried fruit aromas. All of these wines are intense, sweet, and rich. The oldest wines are the most complex, but require little more than a glass before the syrupy sweetness overcomes the palate. Drink them with dessert (the older the style, the richer the dessert), smoke them with a cigar, or let the richness soak into the stomach after a heavy meal. These are food wines, and should be appreciated as such. Any restaurant, especially within Australia, that doesn't offer one of these wines as a digestif or as an accompaniment to dessert is falling short.

Monday, 30 January 2017


If Australian wine began in South Australia, then Victoria is where it developed into a serious industry. The state dominated exports in the nineteenth century, mostly of fortified wine: remote Rutherglen accounted in the 1890s for a third of all exports. Unlike South Australia, Victoria was hit by phylloxera and it has been shaped by the changing fashions of the industry and consumers. The cooler regions were neglected for much of the twentieth century, as the taste for wine was for full-bodied, often fortified, styles. Now, it's a state that challenges perceptions of Australia as a uniformly warm climate and is at the vanguard of the emergence of quality Pinot Noir.


Travelling through Victoria certainly shifted some of my own preconceptions, not least that Australia's climate is always easy to make wine in. Our day in Yarra Valley was spent sheltering from the persistent rain, with cool weather and clouds shadowing our weekend in Melbourne, whose climate is known as the least predictable of Australia's cities. The areas around Melbourne can in fact be cooler than Burgundy (though Burgundy summers are warmer than people often realise). The Southern Ocean brings in cool breezes from the south, and these can be reinforced by winds from the mountain ranges that surround Melbourne to the north and east. It must be noted that we've visited during a cool, wet summer, which has resulted in a growing season four weeks behind its usual schedule. Nevertheless, it's shown that Australia's climate is up-and-down and not always hot and sunny.

Yarra Yering, Yarra Valley

Pinot Noir

All this leads to the ability to produce quality Pinot Noir, not a grape Australia has been traditionally associated with. This production has been going back to the 1970s, but as Australian trends move towards lighter-bodied red wines the regions have recently been coming back into fashion. It's the area around Melbourne which is most known for Pinot Noir, and the two most popular regions are Yarra Valley to the north-east and Mornington Peninsula to the south-east. The latter is a short drive from the city and by the coast, so is extremely popular among city dwellers. Accordingly, the wines are expensive and in-demand.

Yarra Valley is not more than an hour's drive away, but feels more remote tucked away beneath the mountains. Yarra exudes confidence right now, its wines winning acclaim and fitting right in with current trends. Again, however, the climate is problematic: it can be cool, wet, and windy, yet it's also warm enough to get both Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon fully ripe, although these wines are quite restrained. Being able to grow all these grape varieties is due to location: lower Yarra is flatter, lower, and warmer, while upper Yarra is higher and cooler, producing the concentrated Pinot Noirs the region is famous for.

Joshua Cooper Pinot Noir, Macedon Ranges
Much less well known is Macedon Ranges, to the north-west of Melbourne. Growing conditions here are cool and difficult, restricting investment into the area. Pinot Noir is light, with delicate red fruit and pepper aromas, the most intense, restrained Pinots of the Melbourne area. As Australians look towards cooler climates, it will be interesting to see whether Macedon Ranges attracts more attention from both producers and consumers.

Kelvedon Estate Pinot Noir, Tasmania
We didn't get the chance to visit Tasmania, the small island south of Melbourne which was primarily used for blending in sparkling wines made in Victoria. Now it's getting the attention it deserves, due to the increased focus on cooler-climate wines such as Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. I only got the chance to try one Tasmanian Pinot Noir and it was actually fuller-bodied, riper, and deeper-coloured than any of the wines from Yarra, Mornington Peninsula, or Macedon Ranges. This once again points to the difficulty in defining Australia's climates. For such a small island, Tasmania is very diverse and produces a range of styles. The Pinot I tried, from Kelvedon Estate, was from the east of the island, which is warmer and drier than the regions around Melbourne (to the extent that Zinfandel used to be grown). In contrast, Pipers River to the north of the island is cooler and wetter. As Tasmanian grapes were traditionally for blending, there hasn't been a proper attempt to define the island's different climates and sub-regions. As the wines become more fashionable, this may have to happen.

North-East Victoria

One of the most historic parts of Victoria is not going to suddenly start producing such styles of Pinot. Inland Rutherglen has a warm, continental climate and is most famous for its fortified wines, which I will write about in my next blog post. Due to the sad decline in the popularity of fortified wine, in Australia as elsewhere, the region is trying to redefine itself through its table wines. These wines are full-bodied, intense, and bear a striking resemblance to those of south-west France, continental Spain, and Portugal. They are made from a range of varieties once planted for Australian port. The Portuguese varieties, especially Touriga Nacional, are perhaps the most interesting, capable of producing tannic yet floral wines. Also once planted for fortified wine is Shiraz, which here is more like the robust, tannic wines of the southern rather than the northern Rhône, and Durif. In California, Durif is called Petite Sirah. Like the Californians, the local winemakers are trying to tame this big, tannic, fruity, and deep-coloured wine. They have some way to go yet, but the full, chocolate, coffee aromas suit palates inclined to robust, aggressive wines.

Rutherglen is also near to the Australian Alps, part of the Great Dividing Range, where altitude significantly cools the climate. The town of Beechworth is known for being home to Giaconda, Australia's most expensive Chardonnay, and Hunter Valley producer Brokenwood are also making some good Chardonnays there. Nearby is King Valley, which I hadn't heard of before, but I tasted two Rieslings from the high-altitude region, both from Pfeiffer, a quality Rutherglen producer. The 2016 had pleasant lime, mineral aromas with a deceptively long finish. Owner Chris Pfeiffer was generous enough to open the same wine from 2005, which had developed intense petrol, stone aromas reminiscent of the best Riesling. The last thing I expected to taste in Rutherglen was ageworthy Riesling, which goes to show one should never know what to expect from Australia.

Wednesday, 25 January 2017

South Australia

From the young wine regions of Western Australia, we flew direct to Adelaide to explore the older, historic regions of South Australia. Adelaide is known for being quite a sleepy city, but there are some exceptional bars (for instance, East End Cellars, La Buvette, and The Bibliotecha Bar & Book Exchange). Like Cape Town, Adelaide has many great wine regions in easy driving distance: the valleys of Barossa, Eden, and Clare to the north; McLaren Vale to the south; and Adelaide Hills to the east. And then there's the famous Penfolds, which is within the environs of the city itself. It's impossible to appreciate it all in just a few days, but we did our best.


Australia has traditionally been dominated by big brands, such as Hardys, Jacob’s Creek, Lindeman's, and Penfolds. These were established in the nineteenth century, founded by immigrants in the fledging country. Penfolds is the one brand that specialises in high-end wines, not least in Grange, one of the most expensive wines in the world. The history of Penfolds parallels that of Australia's wine industry: founded in the 1840s by an English doctor who made fortified wine for medicinal purposes, the company came to dominate the fortified wine industry which defined Australian wine, both domestically and abroad, until the 1960s.

The change in Australian drinking habits was gradual, beginning after the Second World War by the changing tastes of returning soldiers. Penfolds sent one of their young winemakers, Max Schubert, to Bordeaux to research the wines those soldiers had been drinking and how they were made. The trip inspired him to make an ageable dry red wine, which he called Grange Hermitage: Grange after the on-site cottage the vines surrounded, and Hermitage as the wine was mostly from Shiraz. The family bosses of the big brand initially rejected the wine, deeming it undrinkable, and Schubert was forced to continue making it in secret before he was able to win the owners over. Since then, Grange (it changed its name from Grange Hermitage in 1990) has become one of Australia's great wines.

the change from Grange Hermitage to Grange

Penfolds is a huge name in the Australian wine industry, often resented for its dominant presence. They own vineyards all over South Australia, and there's a relentlessness to their pursuit of regional dominance. However, they make some seriously good wines. Those wines are often at their most interesting when they are a blend of different regions, sometimes hundreds of kilometres apart. This is unheard of in Europe, but such blending is an historic part of Australian winemaking.

Grange 2012 (A$800; $615) 

This is one of the iconic wines of Australia, which began the slow transition from fortified wine to quality dry table wine. It's also one of the most expensive: it is hard to justify a wine being this price, however great it is. Nevertheless, it was a once in a lifetime experience tasting the wine. Penfolds own vineyards all over South Australia, and the best are blended into the Grange, in this case from Barossa Valley and McLaren Vale. It's 98% Shiraz and 2% Cabernet Sauvignon and is always aged in new American oak - a tradition begun by Max Schubert because he couldn't afford to buy French oak. Grange is also known for its volatile acidity, which when out of control can give vinegar aromas (Lebanon's Chateau Musar is another wine that has noticeable volatile acidity). Penfolds' winemakers control it more closely now, but there's still a moderate balsamic quality. It's a rich, ripe wine with aromas of dark chocolate and praline, dates, cloves, liquorice, pot pourri, and vanilla, with coconut, maple syrup, smoke, and tobacco from the American oak. A very smooth wine despite the rich complexity, although the alcohol is a little high - 14.5% compared to the 13% that it once used to be. ✪✪✪✪✪✪

Barossa & Eden Valleys 

The development of winemaking in South Australia was shaped heavily by German immigrants. From the 1840s onwards, they settled in the neighbouring valleys of Barossa and Eden, planting Riesling as well as working with Shiraz, Grenache, and other varieties already planted. This history is still noticeable in the many Lutheran churches around the valleys, although many of the place names were changed from German to English after the First and Second World Wars.

old-vine Grenache, 1940s
South Australia is still one of the few grape-growing regions anywhere that is phylloxera free and both Barossa and Eden Valleys are populated by old vines, going all the way back to the late 1850s, the oldest working vines in the world. There's plenty of old vine Grenache in Barossa Valley, the old vines giving a concentration and intensity to the wines and offsetting their rich, ripe fruitiness. In many ways, these are some of the most exciting wines being produced, but it's hard to resist Shiraz which is so indicative of the region. I was fortunate enough to visit Hill of Grace in Eden Valley, a vineyard with just over half a hectare of Shiraz vines dating back to 1860, as well as Shiraz, Mataro, and Riesling vines from the early to mid-twentieth century. Its name comes from the German Gnadensberg and it's located next to a Lutheran church built by the Henschke family who have owned the vineyard since 1891. They still make the altar wine for the church (from fortified wine from as far back as the 1940s - the kind of church I'd attend frequently!), as well as one of the great wines of Australia - or anywhere - from the vineyard's old vines.

Eden Valley and Barossa Valley both fall under the same general regional indication: Barossa. If 85% of the wine comes from one of those valleys, then it can take the name of that valley. As Barossa is such a famous name, Eden Valley can get a little lost. It's a shame, as this is a great, albeit remote, wine region, producing exceptional Riesling and Shiraz.

Eden Valley - Henschke Hill of Grace 2010 (A$750; $575) 

old-vine Shiraz, Hill of Grace, 1860
Another wine at a price that I can't imagine ever paying, but tasting this after visiting the old vines was an unforgettable experience. Made completely from Shiraz, it's a ripe, voluptuous wine but one balanced by a tannic structure and lively acidity. The ripe aromas of blackberry, mulberry, damson, cherry, and plum dominate at first, giving way to spicy aromas of cloves, nutmeg, black pepper, and star anise, with a herbal, oregano feel too. And then there's cedar, smoke, tobacco, and cigars from the oak (65% new, 95% French). Wonderfully complex and long-lived. ✪✪✪✪✪✪✪

Barossa Valley - Charles Melton Nine Popes 2013 and 2014 (A$68; $50) 

I always thought this wine was a joke reference to Châteauneuf-du-Pape but it seems Barossa winemaker Charles Melton actually thought Nine Popes was the correct translation. He's been making this wine, a Grenache-based blend, since the late 1980s. Tasting two vintages side by side shows that vintage variation certainly exists in Australia. 2013 was a warm, dry year and that's reflected in the ripe red and black fruits in the wine, balanced by a perfumed nose, herbs, and spices. ✪✪✪✪✪ 2014 also began very warm, before summer rains (it rains a lot more in Australia than I had realised) led to a cool end to the ripening season. This time the wine is more tannic and grainy, tighter and more structured than the 2013. ✪✪✪✪✪ Both great wines, with a rich, fruity core, expressive of the different growing conditions.

Clare Valley 

Clare Valley and Eden Valley are 100km apart, but both are known for Riesling. Australia is a very warm, often hot, country, but there are plenty of localised climates with cooling influences, altitude in the case of these two valleys. The German immigrants spotted the higher elevations and planted Riesling. I wonder just how well they realised this difficult, and very particular, grape variety would be suited to the two valleys.

Eden Valley Riesling has a fruity lime character, inviting and zesty. Clare Valley's Riesling is perhaps more intense, smoky, dry, and almost meaty. The wines are especially ageworthy, developing involved petrol aromas. Clare Valley is also known for restrained Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon, although these are still fruity, ripe wines.

When we arrived in Clare Valley, the temperature was 41˚C; when we left two days later, it was raining. Altitude plays a key role in moderating the climate, but climate change is apparent too. Kevin Mitchell of Kilikanoon said there was 30-40% less rain in Clare Valley than in the 1970s, when vines were mostly dry-farmed. This vintage has been an unpredictable one wherever we've visited in the Southern Hemisphere, cooler with occasional showers. It will be interesting how drastically the weather changes with each future vintage.

Jim Barry Florita 2009 (A$55; $40) 

Jim Barry are one of the iconic, long-standing family producers in Clare Valley. Likewise, Florita is one of the region's best vineyards for Riesling. It's a winning combination, and this wine from 2009 demonstrates how well Clare Valley Riesling ages. It has the characteristic smoke and petrol aromas of mature Riesling, but still with a vibrant acidity and ripe stone and tropical fruits. It's rich and dry, with a spicy cinnamon, ginger texture, and a long finish. Despite its age, this wine has another twenty years in it at least. ✪✪✪✪✪✪

Kilikanoon Oracle Shiraz 2012 (A$80; $60) and 2009 

Australian producers make a vast, and often bewildering, array of wines. Kilikanoon, established twenty years ago by winemaker Kevin Mitchell, are no exception. There's excellent Riesling, meaty Rhône blends, old-vine Grenache, high-altitude Mataro, ripe Cabernet, and world-class Shiraz. The Oracle has twice been awarded world's best Shiraz by Decanter, so it was fascinating to taste two vintages side by side. The 2012 is ripe and voluptuous, though well structured with firm, ripe tannins. ✪✪✪✪✪ The complex aromas of blackberries, vanilla, violets, and liquorice are echoed in the 2009, but taken further with mushrooms, dried fruits, barbecue meat, chorizo, and paprika. ✪✪✪✪✪✪ Both wines are smooth, rich, yet clearly ageworthy.

McLaren Vale 

Adelaide used to be surrounded by vineyards, until urban sprawl in the 1970s and 80s took them over. This was a time when the Australian wine industry was seen as a failing one, with not enough demand to meet supply. Old-vine Shiraz and Grenache were ripped out in Barossa and elsewhere, while entire vineyards were replaced by housing projects that now fill the never-ending, repetitive suburbs of Adelaide.

Not all regions survived, but McLaren Vale, just a forty-five minute drive from the city, is still with us. Not only could McLaren Vale have been wiped out by the suburbs, but in the 1970s and 80s the focus was on Chardonnay which I don't think is particularly well-suited to the region. Thankfully, the Australian wine industry survived the destructive tendencies of those decades and now, as it should be, McLaren Vale's speciality is old-vine Grenache, a variety which thrives in the region's warm climate - though Mataro and, as always, Shiraz, are worth investigating.

Yangarra Old Vine Grenache (A$35; $27) 

Part of the large Kendall Jackson portfolio, Yangarra is a relatively new winery (2002) making good value wines mainly from Rhône varieties. The property has Grenache vines from 1946 which receive no irrigation - those old vines planted throughout South Australia are well enough established that they don't need watering. Grenache in McLaren Vale has a sweet ripeness, and there are juicy aromas of strawberry and raspberry as well as liquorice, with grainy tannins giving the wine backbone. ✪✪✪✪

Adelaide Hills 

We never actually visited any Adelaide Hills wineries, although we drove through the region on our way out of Adelaide on the long drive towards Melbourne. This is an area everyone we met raved about as ideal for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, distinguishing it from the wines of the other warmer regions. We also got to taste plenty of wine from the region, as many wineries are now buying fruit from there. As the name suggests, it's hilly, stretching out away east from Adelaide and up to Eden Valley. The Pinot Noirs I tried were too fruity and big, but the Chardonnays were uniformly excellent, crisp, with enough natural acidity to undergo malolactic fermentation. Definitely a region to look out for.

Penfolds Bin 09A Chardonnay 2009 (A$90; $70)

For all the full-bodied reds I tasted at Penfolds, it was the Chardonnays that stood out. This wine shows how the best whites can stand the test of time, retaining a fresh acidity and primary stone fruit aromas while developing some mature nutty aromas. There's a smoky, almost tannic texture to the wine, with some spices too. A powerful, structured wine, but fresh and alive too, able to last another ten years. ✪✪✪✪✪✪

Coonawarra and Padthaway 

terra rossa soil
These are the only two important regions a long drive (three hours plus) from Adelaide. Padthaway is not well known, but was the focus of plantings by the big Australian brands from the 1960s onwards. It's in the middle of nowhere, vast swathes of nothingness interrupted by fields of vines used for blending. If it weren't so remote, then I feel more small producers would be inclined to invest in the region as it's capable of producing full-bodied, rich, yet balanced red wines from Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon.

Coonawarra is no less remote, simply a main road stretching through vineyards and little more. It's a lot more famous though, due to the terra rossa soil which is a highlight of the region. It produces some of Australia's best Cabernet Sauvignon, with distinctive, pronounced aromas of mint and eucalyptus. This is one of the few regions I've seen that lacks natural beauty or appeal for tourists. To come here, you have to go a long, long way from anywhere interesting. That, however, is the essence of Australia's geography and personality.