Down-Under Wine Guide
Syracuse University “Wine Appreciation” professor and Liquor City employee Torrey Grant shares what wines to look for in Australia and New Zealand, winery recommendations, and more.
Q: First of all, what makes Australia and New Zealand so great for wine?
A: So for the most part, it’s climate. Even though we tend to think of that as being very far south, it’s important to know that they’re actually just as temperate in many ways as we are. With New Zealand, you’ve got a country where no vineyard is more than 120 miles from the ocean, so you have coastal influence all around. You also have a pretty decent amount of land. All the winemaking in Australia takes place in a really tiny area in the southeast, but you have basically unlimited property and coastal influence.
Q: Where in each country are the best wines coming from?
A: With Australia, it’s pretty much the southeast coast and the southwest coast; that’s it. There’s nothing in the Outback; I’d say if you go more than 200 miles from the coast, you’ve left the entire winemaking industry behind. The big regions historically have been Hunter Valley, Barossa, and McLaren Vale all in the southeast. In the west you’ve also got Perth Hills and Margaret River. There’s one I love right now in South Australia, Clare Valley, with cool white wines coming out. They’re doing a lot of things with Riesling and Sémillon.
New Zealand is a little more spread out, but the north end of the South Island, which is where Marlborough is, is the biggest concentration. It’s their Napa Valley, their most famous region. The sort of up-and-coming region now is Central Otago, which is the south end of the South Island. That’s where you see more Pinot Noir. On the North Island, Waiheke Island a little bit, and in Hawke’s Bay, you’re seeing some Riesling and Sauvignon Blanc. But most of it is Marlborough and Central Otago.
Q: What wines will travelers find Down Under?
A: In New Zealand, Sauvignon Blanc is where they’ve made all their fame, fortune, reputation. Pinot Noir is periodically seen as up-and-coming. We go through these little trends where everyone’s hot on New Zealand Pinot.
In Australia, they made their name on Shiraz — what the rest of the world calls Syrah. For your white grapes, there’s Chardonnay, also Riesling and Sémillon, which are starting to make headway. But they do also grow Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Grenache, and Mourvèdre. In France’s Rhône Valley, you have Grenache, Syrah, and Mourvèdre being blended together. They do the same thing in Australia; they call them GSM blends. But Shiraz by far is the big one — 30% of all the plantings in Australia.
Q: What qualities and attributes should they look for in the wines?
A: With Australia, the biggest thing I notice that separates their Shiraz from ours is you get minty eucalyptus notes. You also get one of my favorites — burnt rubber. It tastes like rubber that’s been burned, like if you’ve ever smelled someone hit their brakes very hard. I get that a lot in Aussie Shiraz. In Australia, a lot of boutiquey wines are high in alcohol — 15, 16%. When you get into warm climate growing areas, you have more ripening, and more sugar turns into more alcohol. You can cool them at night because of the proximity to the coast, but they’re able to achieve some pretty big alcohol there.
In New Zealand with the Sauvignon Blanc, you get notes of grapefruit, tomato leaf, lemon, lime. That’s some what’s expected of Sauvignon Blanc, but you have much riper grapefruit and tropical fruit flavors here. The Pinot Noirs in New Zealand to me are somewhere in between Burgundy and Oregon Pinots. They tend to have bright, red fruit like cranberry and raspberry, but they can have these undergrowth, underbrush, kind of earthy aromas, too. Pinot Noir does better further south because it doesn’t need all that sugar development you get in warm climates, but what it does need is acid development brought on by cold weather.
Q: If you could go to any wineries in Australia, where would you go?
A: In the McLaren Vale is one of my favorite wineries, Mollydooker, which means a left-handed person. A couple started it (though they’re divorced now); they’re both lefties. Their wines are some of those at 15.5%, 16% alcohol, but it’s not super high-end. Their lowest wines are all about $20 to $25, but they go up into the range of a couple hundred dollars per bottle. Jim Barry Wines in the Clare Valley is probably another one of my favorites.
I’d also go to Torbreck for sure, d’Arenberg, and Penfolds. For d’Arenberg, if you were to sort of classify Australian wineries, they’re one of the ones that would be considered — and there’s no such classification — a premier cru (“first growth” — the highest classification). They’ve been around for a long time. They make wines like Stump Jump which is like, $8.99 a bottle, all the way up into their Dead Arm Shiraz and all of their boutiquey bottles. They run the gamut, but they’re a pretty cool winery.
The most famous wine in Australia is Penfolds Grange, made from Shiraz with a bit of Cab. It can be $400 to $500 a bottle. It’s also hard to get; it comes out, people buy it, and then you can’t get it again until the end of the year. They own multiple properties in Adelaide Hills, McGill Estate, Barossa, Coonoara, but Barossa is where the actual winery is. They just own property and buy grapes from these other places. I’d go to Penfolds just for the Grange.
Q: What about in New Zealand?
A: In New Zealand, one of the ones I’d check out would be Loveblock because it’s by Kim Crawford, who started Kim Crawford and then sold the business in his name and started Loveblock. His winery is on the cutting edge of organics, sustainability, and lowering your carbon footprint. I’d also like to go to Brancott. I don’t love the wines anymore, but it was the first. The Montana Wines company is sort of what started the New Zealand wine industry under the Brancott label, so it’s historically one of the oldest. I mean, you’re talking about a country that only has a wine industry going back to about the 1970s, so it’s not super long. Mussel Bay* is a cool producer in New Zealand that I try to get people into. There’s also Yealands; I like their wines.
*Editor’s note: couldn’t find a cellar door/estate location for this one
Q: Ok, so from what I experienced, alcohol is very expensive in that part of the world. How can students experience good wine there without breaking the bank?
A: This would be my advice no matter where they went: You meet people who are local, your own age, and find out what they’re drinking. The romantic part of the wine world is that you’re going to travel somewhere for the first time and see all these wines you’ve never seen before. When you go into the local stores in smaller towns, versus the huge tourist capitals, you’re going see what’s available. But even if you meet whisky and beer drinkers, they’re bound to have at least a couple of friends that drink wine. Domestically, Australians drink about 84% of their own wines. I definitely think anything imported would be super expensive because it’s not easy to get there, so it’s actually in your best interest to find local wines.
Featured photo by Kristin, University of Queensland (home university: Purdue University)