Christmas wine gifts — regional vignettes

You don’t have to be a wine lover to love a bottle of wine for Christmas. And with Australian regions now offering such a diversity of styles, a gift of regional, varietal wine ticks so many boxes: it’s lovingly grown and made by people with a passion for what they’re doing; it can be shared and savoured with friends and family; it can be put aside as a memento for later enjoyment; and it can have a great story to tell.

My wine shopping lists looks not at individual makers but a tiny vignette of distinguished regions with world-class wines to offer.

Barossa Valley – shiraz, grenache and mourvedre (aka mataro)
An hour north of Adelaide, and home of big, warm, soft reds made from one, some, or all of shiraz, grenache and mourvedre, quite often from extremely old vines. Look in particular for wines from individual vineyards. Like sleuths, an army of enthusiastic winemakers now criss-crosses the Barossa sourcing outstanding material from venerable old vines that once contributed their fruit anonymously to regional or cross-regional blends. You can now taste the fascinating Barossa wine story from vines dating to first European settlement in the mid nineteenth century and from all of the little nooks and crannies of this fascinating area.

Clare Valley – riesling
Riesling is the signature blend. The best are dry, vibrant, delicate and fruity when young and age well in good cellars, particularly reliably now that we have the screw cap. The Clare has no official sub-regions, but there’s a considerable range of riesling styles attached to locally known names like Sevenhill, Clare (the town itself), Watervale and Polish Hill. Prices vary between $15 and $45 for very high quality wines.

Adelaide Hills – chardonnay
This region comprises a high, cool slice of the north-to-south running Mount Lofty Ranges, bordered by McLaren Vale to the south and the Eden Valley to the north (and Clare is further north on the same ranges).
It makes a number of varieties well, including delightful, fine-boned shiraz, and Stephen George’s beautiful Ashton Hills pinot noir. But to me its high achievement to date is opulent, fine, complex chardonnay, produced in the broader region as well as in its two official, and cooler, sub-regions, Lenswood and Piccadilly Valley.

McLaren Vale – shiraz
McLaren Vale, bordering Adelaide’s southern suburbs, makes a bit of everything, but nothing finer than its ripe but delightfully savoury shiraz. It’s another of our very old producing regions with many winemakers exploring its diverse sites.

Coonawarra – cabernet sauvignon
It’s about four hours’ drive south of Adelaide and one from the Robe, on the Southern Ocean. The cool maritime climate favours cabernet sauvignon, the clear champion of the area. But the warm northern end grows good shiraz, too, and historically some of Coonawarra’s best wines have been blends of shiraz and cabernet. Nevertheless, cabernet reigns and the best are powerful but elegant, long-lived examples of this noble variety.

Grampians – shiraz
This western Victorian region producers many wine styles, but none better than shiraz. We’re now considerably south of South Australia’s McLaren Vale and Barossa regions, meaning a significantly cooler climate. In turn, this means considerably different styles of shiraz – flavours lean to the peppery and savoury with a more elegant structure than we see in those from the warmer north.

Macedon Ranges  – pinot noir and chardonnay
The elevated, cool Macedon region, on the Great Divide, an hour’s drive north west of Melbourne, specialise in pinot noir and chardonnay. As the altitude, and therefore growing temperatures, vary considerably, Macedon makes outstanding table and sparkling wine from the two varieties – bubblies from the cooler sites and table wine from the warmer ones. The bubblies can be straight chardonnay, straight pinot noir or, more commonly, a blend of both. The best chardonnay and pinot noir table wines stand with the best in Australia.

Mornington Peninsula – pinot noir and chardonnay
This is another beautiful and unique Victorian region, a little south of Melbourne, with Port Phillip Bay to its west and Westernport Bay to its east. Pinot noir and chardonnay are the stars, although the region’s producers have pinned their star to the pinot noir banner. With the affluent Melbourne market nearby, thirty years’ of hard graft by the local growers, some very well funded, means very rich pickings. This is definitely one of Australia’s most exciting cool-climate growing regions.

Yarra Valley – shiraz, pinot noir, chardonnay cabernet sauvignon
Because of its size and diversity, the Yarra hits the excitement button with a wider range of varieties than most. Few regions could say, “my best shiraz, best pinot, best chardonnay and best cabernet are all as good as the best in the country”. The Yarra can.

Tasmania – riesling, chardonnay and pinot noir
Surrounded by the Southern Ocean and with its southerly location, Tasmania produces small crops of high quality wine grapes – two thirds of them chardonnay and pinot noir — used in both table and sparkling wine production. More than eighty small makers now turn out exciting wines, and larger producers increasingly source Tasmanian fruit for top end bubbly and table wines. While the real excitement lies in chardonnay and pinot, riesling hits the high notes, too.

Rutherglen – fortified muscat and muscadelle (formerly known as tokay)
Rutherglen, in Victoria’s hot northeast makes robust table wines. But its greatest achievements are the complex, sometimes profound, barrel aged fortified wines, culminating in the very old ‘rare’ category. There’s the intensely grapey, luscious muscat and equally luscious, but less grapey, muscadelle. Until recently muscadelle was labelled as ‘tokay’. But when the Hungarians claimed the name, our makers coined ‘topaque’, used by some makers. Others prefer to call the wine by its varietal name, muscadelle.

Canberra – riesling and shiraz
While fine, spicy, elegant shiraz (sometimes with a splash of viognier) is our standout wine style, made successfully now by many local producers, our rieslings are increasingly on the money.

Hunter Valley – semillon, chardonnay and shiraz
It’s a perennially niche region but it makes graceful, long lived wines from semillon chardonnay and shiraz. The semillons begin life austere and lemony but, with age, they develop a delicious toasty and honeyed depth – a distinctive style that people either love or hate. The chardonnays are generous and round but finely textured, utterly delicious and age well. Hunter shiraz is medium bodied, beautifully soft, almost tender, and develops an earthy, gamey complexity over time. The Hunter is something of an enigma – a region this far north should be too warm to make such graceful wines.

Margaret River – cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay
With Coonawarra, Western Australia’s Margaret River is Australia’s cabernet capital – although quite often it’s at its best coupled with merlot. Surprising for a region where vines can shoot as early as June, Margaret Rivers makes some of our most complex, interesting chardonnay, although I suspect it’s not a region-wide success.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2009