While Barossa is famous for Shiraz, you’ll soon find out that there’s more than meets the eye with South Australian wines. Learn what wines to look for, what makes them great, and how to find good quality.
Wine lovers are generally of two tribes on Australian wines: those who love Australian wines and those who, let’s say, don’t understand them (yet!). To be fair, I can’t really blame the haters. Encounters with yellow kangaroos and other marsupial-clad wine labels at college parties or backyard BBQs may have scarred them, but let’s hope not irreversibly! We’re not going to talk about the sub $10-retail Australian plonk-wine market. Let’s talk about the good stuff, because there is a wealth of it coming from South Australia.
“If you love Syrah, lust after Cabernet or bold white wines, South Australia has you covered.”
South Australia contains 6 primary growing areas (plus a very lightly-planted 7th area, “The Peninsulas”). The major regions are Barossa, Fleurieu, the Limestone Coast, Lower Murray (Riverland) and Far North (Southern Flinders Ranges). You’ll find wines are stylistically distinct in each area.
Stunningly complex Shiraz, GSM blends, lush white wines (Chardonnay, Sémillon, Viognier), and elegant, dry Riesling
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Sub-regions of Interest: Barossa Valley, Eden Valley
The oldest and most important (in terms of familiarity) is the region of Barossa. Barossa is the larger encompassing area for 2 sub-regions (Geographical Indications or “GIs” for short), called Barossa Valley and Eden Valley. Despite the proximity to each other these two areas, they produce recognizably different styles of wines.
Shiraz from Barossa Valley tends to deliver some of the most powerful, flavorful wines not just in Australia, but world-wide. The typical Barossa Valley Shiraz profile centers around powerfully ripe (confected) blackberry, dried currant and mocha aromas along with a healthy punch of tobacco and an earthiness similar to smelling a wet red clay pot. Often these wines have significant meaty (beef broth, beef jerky) and black pepper aromas as well. The fruit flavors are big. Tannins are generally grippy, but fine-grained and powdery, rather than chapping or harsh. Alcohol levels are naturally quite high, due to the love provided by the Aussie sunshine, starting 14%–15% ABV and continuing upwards. Despite the intense fruitiness to these wines, the highest quality wines from Barossa Valley are known to develop positively for a decades. While Shiraz is the mainstay of this region, you’ll discover that GSM blends and Shiraz-Cabernet blends are quite popular and generally high in quality. Wineries frequently produce blends to tease out even more complexity in their finished wines by combining various flavor profiles.
Eden Valley (and its sub-zone: High Eden) are in a chain of hills called the Mount Lofty Ranges east of Barossa Valley. The increase in elevation makes Eden a distinctly cooler climate, leading to the wines with a tart, intense acidity. Acidity is an important trait for age-worthiness in wines, and thus, some of the most age-worthy Barossa wines are from Eden Valley (or have Eden Valley fruit blended in). Of course, what ages well also takes time to taste great, so keep that in mind when on the hunt for something to drink right now. Shiraz from this area is slightly more elegant (with increased acidity) with an overall more delicate fruit profile, and greater focus on savory Shiraz secondaries. One of Australia’s most famous single vineyard wines, Henschke’s Hill of Grace, is made here. The area also produces the majority of Barossa’s white wines including a very bony, acid-driven style of dry Riesling as well as high-quality, but lush styles of old-world white grapes.
Mount Lofty Ranges
Stately, rich white wines of Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc, dry and floral Riesling, and elegant, earthy red wines of Cabernet Sauvignon
Regions of Interest: Adelaide Hills, Clare Valley
Adelaide Hills is one of the most striking regions to visit in South Australia (and they know it). The roads bumble through gentle, rolling hills and reveal large sheep-covered meadows and beautifully sloping vineyards. The region is cooler than Barossa and thus, you’ll find a prevalence of white wines and red wines that focus on elegance and more savory flavors. The Adelaide hills produce many oak-aged white wines, including filigreed, ambitious examples of Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. Many mass-produced, stainless-steel-raised wines exist as well, but these wines are generally more everyday-oriented than the best rich-style wines.
Completely detached from the rest of the Mount Lofty Ranges GIs is Clare Valley. The Clare arguably produces some of the finest dry Riesling in Australia, especially from the famous sites at Watervale, namely Polish Hill. Despite their fame for Riesling, several wineries produce outstanding, elegant, complex savory-and-fruity Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Sauvignon-Merlot blends. We tasted several aged (10 years or older) examples to discover beautifully balanced, tobacco-laced lush red wines that could have easily lasted another 5 years or more
Rich, fudge-y Shiraz and Cabernet with savory notes of scorched earth
Regions of Interest: McLaren Vale, Langhorne Creek
The dry oak-covered hills of Paso Robles are to Napa Valley as the southern hot rolling hills of Fleurieu are to Barossa. The focus in Fleurieu is primarily Shiraz in the rolling hills around McLaren Vale and Cabernet Sauvignon in flats around Langhorne Creek (although both regions grow grapes styles quite successfully).
The temperature increase as you drive into Fleurieu is noticeable and the wines take a more rugged, animalistic presence in how they’re flavored. Intense, savory notes lace these wines: licorice, roast meat flavors, mocha, graphite and exotic spices. The alcohol levels can get naturally quite high around 15%–16% ABV, so be sure to pour yourself a teensy portion and swirl it rigorously. If you like rich, flavorful wines it will be hard not to pour more…
South Australia wouldn’t be the amazing region it is today had it not been for a scourge (phylloxera) which decimated the fledgling wine industry in Victoria (around Melbourne) in the late 1800s. The disease’s spread to South Australia was limited, and as a result, South Australia has some of the oldest continually-producing vineyards on the planet, some of them with planting dates in the middle 19th century. To preserve this heritage, the Australians have worked very hard to keep the louse from entering South Australia’s pre-phylloxera vineyards. If you plan to travel there, be sure to clean your shoes well or take them off when you’re in the vineyard!
Black fruit driven, Tobacco-laced Cabernet with mint and spice
Regions of Interest: Coonawarra, Wrattonbully, Padthaway
The name of the limestone coast comes from a millions-of-years old sea that once covered the land. This formed the chalky white bedrock of the region which was slowly covered with iron-rich clay soils which have garnered the name “Terra Rossa” for their red color (not a place for white-pants-wearers!). Cabernet-based wines from the region offer up black and red fruit flavors with tobacco, and a savory leafy, minty note. While the majority of the wines from the region are quite affordable (through mechanization), a number of producers hand-harvest their Cabernet vines and produce some of the most respected Cabernet in Australia, especially from Coonawarra.
Smoky, sweet-tobacco Shiraz and Cabernet wines for everyday drinking
By volume, The Riverland GI produces a whopping majority of wine from South Australia. Most of the grapes grown in Riverland go into the most affordable wine labels. Despite the lack of pretense to Riverland (it’s basically a large flat farming community) the wines can be quite delicious for the price. The better wines from the area are the reds (including Shiraz and Cabernet), and while a wealth of Chardonnay is planted in Riverland, most are quite big-boned, and very low in natural acid.
Southern Flinders Ranges
High-desert style red-fruit driven, juicy red wines of Syrah, Sangiovese, Grenache and Tempranillo
In 1865 surveyor George Goyder identified a line north of Adelaide, above which agricultural plants will not survive. Goyder’s line also marks the upper reach of the Southern Flinders Ranges GI. Above this line, the Australia’s interior is imply too dry (and hot) to grow anything. Wineries in SFR are sparse and rely on elevation and the durability of desert-climate grape varieties to create their enigmatic wines. All of this is to say we don’t see very many of them in the United States. Oddly enough, despite the dryness of the region, the climate is a little less hot overall (because of cool, higher-altitude nights) and wines are typically harvested later in the season. For this reason, you’ll find them to have lots of fruit, but naturally higher acids. While the area is known for Cabernet and Syrah (like all of South Australia), it’s the other more desert-friendly varieties of Sangiovese and Tempranillo that show the most exciting potential.
Last Word on South Australia
While modern tastes have turned away slightly from the staggeringly opulent, powerful wines that South Australia made their name on in the late 1990s, the deep history and new energy in South Australia can’t be ignored. Many classic producers continue to make brazen, full-on reds but there’s a whole new wave of producers focusing on the other potentials of South Australia — vineyard-focused, low-intervention wine making, obscure varieties, and new vineyard sites are all coming into vogue. But what do I know? Maybe I should shut up, and keep this place my secret treasure trove of delight…