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.
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.
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)
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 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.
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. ✪✪✪✪
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
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.