Around Down Under - A Geographic Tour of Australia
Copyright 2003 by Robin Garr. All rights reserved. Originally printed September 21, 2003. For more information go to wineloverspage.com
I've just finished packing as I write this, and in a few hours I'll be heading back to Australia for a 2 1/2-week round of wine judging, wine-and-food visits and catching up with friends Down Under.
For today's edition, I thought I would finish up a week of Antipodean discussion with one more good red wine from Down Under, and a quick verbal map of Australia.
If you're like me, you'll enjoy a bottle of Australian wine without really focusing on the geography of the place. Most of us tend to forget that this nation is no small piece of real estate but an entire continent that's just about the same size as the Continental United States, and not entirely dissimilar in shape insofar as both land masses occupy a rough horizontal rectangle.
But Australia has only about 20 million people rattling around in all that space, about one-fifteenth of the 292 million Americans; and just about all of them are clustered around the southern and southeastern seacoasts, shunning the arid Outback and tropical north for a narrow band of fertile land with a delicious climate not unlike California's.
And like California, some of the most climate-endowed and scenic parts are planted in vineyards. Without going into great geographical detail, let's run down some of the more familiar wine-country names in a quick virtual tour across the country from east to west, highlighting each section by its proximity to the larger cities.
SYDNEY, in the state of New South Wales, is Australia's largest city with almost 4 million residents, but only one wine region lies nearby: The Hunter Valley, about a two-hour drive north of the city, is one of Australia's oldest wine regions, but I don't often see its wine exports in this region of the U.S. In older times, it was best known for simple table wines dubbed "Hunter Riesling" (which was really Semillon) and "Hunter Burgundy" (which was really Shiraz), a practice mirroring the old U.S. generic "burgundy" and "chablis" but, according to legend, with much finer wines.
Fast-growing MELBOURNE, on the south coast about a two-hour flight southwest of Sydney, boasts more than 3 million residents and is moving up fast. A number of designated wine regions surround it in the state of Victoria, some within an hour's drive and some farther out; Rutherglen, known for its rich and sweet dessert wines, and the Yarra Valley with its refined reds may be the most well-known. Other Victoria regions, less well-known but worth exploring, include the Pyrenees, the Grampians, the Nagambie Lakes, Goulborn Valley, the Macedon Ranges, Mornington Peninsula and Geelong. Cool Tasmania, a large island off the southern coast, contains its own wine regions, of increasing interest in Australia but not often seen exported.
Farther west from Melbourne, about halfway on to Adelaide, you'll find the famous Coonawarra region, a flat prairie of red soil that has been described as one of the world's least scenic wine regions (but I love its wines).
Speaking of Adelaide, this pretty and relatively compact city of 1 million in South Australia may be the one best place for wine-savvy tourists to stop over in the unhappy event that you can only stop in one place. Why? It is within short day-trip drives of some of the most respected wine regions, producers of its most sought-after wines: The first-rate Barossa and McLaren Vale bracket the city on the north and south, with Clare Valley just a bit farther north.
Far over on the western edge of the continent, roughly as far from Melbourne as from Atlanta to Los Angeles, the small city of PERTH is jumping-off point for trips to Margaret River, a small region that is making noise in wine circles that significantly exceeds its size. Wines of unusual balance and refinement are coming from the Margaret River, and I'm tasting as many of them as I can. Maybe I'll get out that way the next time I visit Down Under.