Appellations Down Under: It pays to know your Australian wine geography

grenache grapes AWith the hundreds of Australian and New Zealand wine choices staring at you, it’s hard, without your own portable wine expert, to know which awesome deal to grab. These guys produce the most flavorful, approachable juice for the money, and limiting yourself to only one inviting bottle per night is getting challenging. Luckily, they label their wines with an appellation, or “Geographic Indication” (GI) as they call it in Australia. This labeling term tells you where the grapes are grown, and the more you know, the more you can cash in on the good values.

Australia has been making wines for as long as the U.S., but they weren’t interrupted by the brainfart known as Prohibition. They embrace technology in winemaking, as evidenced by their use of mechanical harvesters and high-tech fermenters. These practices enable Australians to keep their wines affordable and make us giddy for more. They have also used technology to figure out where they should plant their grapes. Long ago, vines were established near populated areas, but as they mastered soil and climate analysis, they uncovered where classic grape varieties, like syrah, pinot noir, cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay, would thrive.

Australia has five wine-producing states: South Australia, New South Wales, Victoria, Western Australia and Tasmania. As of March 2003, 61 Geographic Indications had been defined in Australia. You’ll see the “South Australia” GI on many bottles of wine, equivalent to printing generic “California” on a label: The fruit can come from anywhere within the expansive South Australia region. But within that GI, there are extraordinary sub-regions worth remembering. Barossa Valley pretty much grows some of the best fruit in the country, but they make concentrated, luscious shiraz, often from gnarled vines more than 100 years old. For cabernet sauvignon fanatics, look for Coonawarra on the label. The mixture of Cab with all sorts of other grapes always seems to turn out delicious. And McClaren Vale is, frankly, a great place for just about any grape to grow, like shiraz, chardonnay and other Rhone varietals such as grenache.

Victoria, the state where Melbourne is, hosts some of the best pinot noir in Australia within its Yarra Valley GI. The varied climate welcomes these hard-to-grow grapes. Tasmanian pinots, just arrived from the chilly island off of Australia’s southern coast, are a welcome addition.

New South Wales’ Hunter Valley makes magnificent chardonnay and even semillon, a dry, full-bodied white wine. Western Australia, with its GI called Margaret River, is a relative newcomer, but it’s already prized. The cool climate in this region yields magnificent sauvignon blancs.

Speaking of amazing sauvignon blancs, my favorite place on Earth for these grapefruit-laden, acid-lovin’ wines has got to be New Zealand. For those labels, the GI to look for is Marlborough. And for smooth talkin’ chardonnay, grab those from Hawkes Bay.

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