The Cool Australian Regions Crafting Lighter, Lower-Alcohol Wines

Australian wine bottles
Photo by Tom Arena

Associated with abundant sunshine, Australia may not be the place you turn for light, low-alcohol wines. But with 64 winemaking regions across a country similar in size to the U.S., Oz boasts a plethora of cooler areas, in addition to those that produce the country’s famed rich, muscular Shiraz.

Despite climate change, these chilled-out regions still produce rapier-like Riesling, elegant Pinot Noir, traditional-method bubbly and, yes, Shiraz, but with light to medium body. While elevation benefits some of these, many others keep cool thanks to both latitude and the ocean. Get to know three of the most prominent: Tasmania, Mornington Peninsula and Yarra Valley.

The Real Difference Between Cool-Climate and Warm-Climate Wine

Tasmania

For an island roughly the size of Ohio, Tasmania, off the southeast coast of Australia’s mainland, offers an embarrassment of riches when it comes to both natural beauty and local food and wine pleasures.

Once dismissed as a rural backwater by many mainlanders, Australia’s smallest state has overhauled its image in recent years, thanks in part to the flocks of big-city chefs and sommeliers who awoke to Tasmania’s outstanding produce. A flourishing farm-to-table scene now draws gaggles of food and wine-loving tourists to this rugged agricultural nirvana.

Tasmania is Australia’s coolest winemaking region, with a mean temperature in January of 60° F (about six degrees colder than the country’s other cool climate regions). It’s carved a reputation for the country’s finest, most complex traditional-method sparkling wine as well as world-class Pinot Noir.

Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Gris are also happy on this windswept island.

“We rarely get extremes of heat here, so we retain a lot of natural acidity,” says Fred Peacock, owner of Bream Creek Vineyard and one of Tasmania’s viticulture pioneers. “Tasmania gets huge seasonal variations. We’re a little island, so there’s no big continent to protect us, and whatever weather comes in off the Southern Ocean slams into Tas, and that has a big impact on our seasonal conditions.”

Tasmania’s winegrowing areas are largely on the eastern half of the island (most of its west coast is mountainous with dense forests). They include Tamar Valley and Pipers River in the north, the East Coast area, the Coal River and Derwent Valleys just outside of Hobart, and the Huon Valley in the far south.

To pin down style differences between these areas can be tricky, since they vary less in temperature and soil composition and more in rain patterns. But, overall, Tasmanian wineries—which, despite growing investment in land from larger wine companies, are still mostly boutique, quality-focused businesses—craft wines of elegance, texture, bright fruit and pristine acidity.

Australian wine bottles
Photo by Tom Arena

Wines to Try

Dalrymple 2017 Pipers River Cottage Block Pinot Noir; $80, 94 points. A multifaceted, characterful bottling from Australia’s coolest winemaking region, this Pinot opens on the medicinal, sappy side, with sassafras root, cherry cordial, violet and roses on their stems, and a slight charred-meat nuance. The palate is medium in weight, simultaneously earthy, tangy, fruity and savory, with some whole bunch-derived spice and a grip of well placed tannins. A mutable wine that will likely offer a multitude of personalities over the years. Drink now–2030. Negociants USA–Winebow.

Tolpuddle 2018 Chardonnay; $60, 94 points. The Chardonnay from this single-vineyard, southern Tasmanian site is a rich, polished bottling that will please many a Burghound. The nose leads with notes of roasted nuts, toasty oak, struck match and saline amid lemon curd and pineapple rind. The palate is opulent but focused. Oak and saline characters dominate flavorwise, but there’s balance, structure and fruit purity, too. A fair amount of highfalutin winemaking here but should age with grace. Drink 2021–2030. Negociants USA–Winebow. Cellar Selection.

Apogee 2014 Deluxe Rosé Single Vineyard Andrew Pirie Sparkling; $98, 93 points. Renowned winemaker Andrew Pirie helped put Tasmania and its traditional method sparkling wines on the map. Apogee is Pirie’s single site, quality-led label in Northern Tasmania. Sunset-hued, this sparkling rosé is reminiscent of strawberries and cream, watermelon rind, white spices and cherry preserves. Behind these come waves of nuts, yeast and a faint mineral streak. The palate is dry and highly textural with prickly acidity, bright bubbles, a lovely mousse and a savory herbal quality to the finish. A focused and site expressive sparkler that defies all Aussie stereotypes. American Estates Wines, Inc.

Mornington Peninsula

Compared to bustling Melbourne, Mornington Peninsula, the boot-shaped landmass less than an hour southeast, is the picture of tranquility.

In between the golf courses and holiday homes that cater to weekenders, vineyards dot the rolling hills, all within four miles of the ocean. In fact, Mornington’s climate is about as maritime as it gets, engulfed by Port Phillip to the west, Western Port to the east and Bass Strait to the south.

“The water on three sides of our peninsula cools and moistens the air, so ripening is slowed and complexity of flavor and concentrations of sugar is achieved over time, without loss of lovely natural acidity,” says Kate McIntyre, MW, a winemaker alongside her father, Richard, at family-owned Moorooduc Estate.

Renowned for some of Australia’s most perfumed and precise Pinot Noir, Mornington also excels at cool-climate Chardonnay, and, to a lesser extent, Pinot Gris.

In particular, Pinot styles can differ, depending where on the peninsula the variety is planted. The soils vary immensely.

In the deep, sandy soils of the northern flatlands, for example, the wines tend toward more power and plushness. The red volcanic soils of the more elevated sites in the west and south yield Pinot that’s more deeply structured with fine-grained tannins.

Chardonnay can fluctuate depending on winemaker preference, from unoaked and crisp to richly textured, nutty and complex.

Like most of the wine world, Mornington feels the effects of climate change. Harvest arrives a full month earlier than in the past. Extreme weather during growing season often brings wind and hail, while dryness has increased during the longer summers. But through it all, the region continues to lead the cool-climate charge with its graceful, pristine wines.

australian wine bottles
Photo by Tom Arena

Wines to Try

Kooyong 2016 Estate Chardonnay; $39, 94 points. The nose of this wine is a fruit bowl, but a delicate one. There’s grilled peach, stone fruit, melon and citrus, along with seashell and toasty oak characters. The palate is creamy in texture but cut through the middle with laser-focused acidity. The oak is present but plays a supporting role rather than a leading one. The focus narrows even more on the tangy, citrusy finish. This is an ultrafine, sleek Chard that should cellar beautifully for through 2026.

Ocean Eight 2015 Verve Chardonnay; $46, 94 points. Hudson Wine Brokers. Editors’ Choice.

Moorooduc 2016 Pinot Noir; $38, 93 points. This wine is pretty and autumnal, a fragrant concoction of cherries, plums, sumac, wild herbs and flowers, dried leaves and damp earth after a soft rain. This softness carries through to the palate, but there’s also a laser-like line of acidity lifting the fruit into tart, crunchy territory. Tannins are fine grained, supporting and not overwhelming. A phenolic bitter note rears up at the finish, but overall this is a textural, food-friendly wine to drink now or until 2026. Little Peacock Imports. Editors’ Choice.

Yarra Valley

Like Mornington Peninsula, Yarra Valley is less than an hour from Melbourne, but to the northeast of the city. The two shouldn’t be confused, as they are vastly different.

The region refuses to be typecast in almost every way. It’s home to an abundance of creative, young winemakers, yet Yarra Valley also boasts a rich history of winemaking that dates to the mid-1800s, with some historic wineries still in operation.

It has a dizzying, sometimes complicated, array of climactic and geographic variations, influenced by the chilly Southern Ocean, but with a mostly continental climate. It excels at bright and tropical Sauvignon Blanc, Burgundian-like Chardonnay, as well as classy, vibrant Pinot Noir. Other notable wines include spicy Cabernet, savory Shiraz (often called Syrah here) and even some highly regarded single-vineyard Nebbiolo.

“There are no hard and fast rules about what is grown where, as each microclimate can be very different,” says winemaker Sandra de Pury, whose historic winery, Yeringberg, has been in her family for more than 150 years.

Yarra is divided into two distinct subregions: the Valley Floor and the Upper Yarra. The floor is warmer and sits 164–262 feet above sea level with mostly grey soils and patches of granite. These warmer sites are where Cabernet and Shiraz are happiest.

Upper Yarra is higher in elevation, up to 1,312 feet. It’s cooler and windier than the Valley Floor, with younger, more fertile red soils. Some of the region’s top Pinots thrive here.

Yarra may not be the easiest place to commit to memory, but its diversity is one of its greatest strengths. It’s a Renaissance region that offers something for everyone.

In the Heights

These other cool-climate regions are aided by elevation.

New South Wales
Canberra District(866–4,656 feet)
Orange (1,234–4,560 feet)
Tumbarumba (686–4,232 feet)

Victoria
Macedon Ranges(692–3,323 feet)
Grampians(466–3,809 feet)

South Australia
Adelaide Hills(489–2,343 feet)
Clare Valley(623–1,998 feet)
Eden Valley(719–2,073 feet)

Wines to Try

Giant Steps 2018 Tarraford Vineyard Syrah; $42, 95 points. This producer may be more lauded for Chardonnay and Pinot, but this Syrah is downright sexy—cool-climate Shiraz at its finest. There’s something comforting yet dynamic about the nose, the way it interlaces juicy, pristine plum and berry fruit with violets, licorice and soft baking and earthy spices. The palate is medium bodied with elegance and focus. Taut, powdery tannins slink around silky-textured fruit, and the gently pepper finish is long and fine. Drinking beautifully now but could likely cellar for another decade. Old Bridge Cellars. Editors’ Choice.

Punt Road 2017 Pinot Noir; $35, 93 points. This isn’t one of those Aussie Pinots that’s immediately fruity with a riotous explosion of berries, but its underlying complexities are what makes it so good. A touch reductive at first, it’s these secondary notes that come first, like raw beef marinating in hoisin sauce besides bowls of ground white pepper and fresh tarragon. But it opens rapidly in glass, fruit floating to the fore—primarily wild strawberries and cherries. The palate is silky and the red berries really pop here, crunching in the mouth as if releasing molecules of sunshine, reined in by chalky fine tannins. Little Peacock Imports. Editors’ Choice.

Yeringberg 2016 Red; $90, 91 points. As always, wines from this historic and charming Yarra Valley estate walk to their own beat. This classic Bordeaux-style blend is perfumed and fruity this vintage, bursting with aromas of strawberry juice and undercurrents of violets and their stems, cinnamon and hints of something more savory and meaty. Juicy, bright fruit provides an appealing juxtaposition to the tight squeeze of tannins on the tongue. Brimming with personality and affability, this bottle could easily be enjoyed now, but should cellar well through 2030. Old Bridge Cellars.

Published on July 16, 2020
Topics: Australian Wine