Australia is divided into six states, with South Australia sitting in the south-central portion of the continent. The region accounts for over half of all wine production in Australia. Not surprising, most of region is extremely hot and dry driving most of the quality winemaking closer to the cooler, southeastern corner of the state. Most of the well-known sub regions sit closer to the water near the city of Adelaide and further south along the Limestone Coast.
As with most major wine regions, altitude, vineyard aspect, and proximity to water all influence which grapes are grown and where they are planted. Top appellations include Barossa Valley, Eden Valley, Adelaide Hills, Clare Valley, McClaren Vale, and Coonawarra. While the widely known Shiraz (Syrah) reigns throughout South Australia, you will also find fabulous dry Rieslings, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Grenache, and Cabernet Sauvignon. South Australia is also one of the few regions that remain largely untouched by the infamous phylloxera louse, meaning that it is not uncommon to find vines well over 100 years old in some places.
Widely known to host extremely old vines, the Barossa Valley has built its reputation for extremely full-bodied Shiraz-based reds with textured soft tannins. The climate is hot and dry, and the grapes have no trouble achieving ripeness. We are talking powerful wines with ripe dark fruits, chocolatey or mocha tones, meaty, smoky, and sometimes peppery flavors. Shiraz is often blended with Cabernet Sauvignon or in a ‘GSM’ blend (Grenache, Shiraz, Mourvèdre). Right next door (still part of the overall Barossa zone), the Eden Valley sits a little higher up to the east and is known to produce wines of higher acidity and elegance. These can include more elegant versions of Shiraz, or crisp, racy dry Riesling.
Clare Valley sits on its own well north and slightly west of Barossa and is known to produce some of the best dry Riesling in the world. These are age-able wines driven by flavors of citrus blossom, lime, green apple, and crushed rock with intense, mouthwatering acidity. The climate here is cooler and elevations significantly higher than Barossa. Red wines are typically built around Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon and are typically very high quality.
Adelaide Hills, to the south of the Barossa zone, is again a bit on the cooler side, thus producing wines of more elegance. White wines are a bit more prevalent so keep your eye out for solid Sauvignon Blanc as well as high quality Chardonnays.
To the southwest of Adelaide Hills, McClaren Vale runs along the first part of the Fleurieu Penninsula. Another well-known spot for gnarly old vines, this area thrives on Shiraz driven blends, but is also known for a diversity of microclimates allowing for production of a wide array of grapes from Chardonnay, Cab and Merlot to Tempranillo and even Sangiovese.
Finally, much further south along the coast,Coonawarra is a hugely important appellation within the Limestone Coast that is known for its unique reddish-brown “terra rosa” soils. While different varietals are produced here, Cabernet Sauvignon is the star and the wines are known to have classic red and black fruit flavors with savory tobacco, minty or eucalyptus notes.
You may or may not realize that Australian wine certainly had its heyday some time ago when the export market latched on to big, bold intense red wines built around Shiraz. Whatever your take on those ripe, extracted styles, it is clear that there is much more to discover when you take a closer look, and South Australia offers a great place to start.
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