Here in the U.S., there has never been a better time to drink Australian wine. Exports, particularly of premium wines, are at the highest they’ve been in 15 years, meaning there’s increased brand diversity and availability of Aussie wines. And despite a tumultuous couples of years for the industry—a perfect storm that crashed and banged to the tune of a global pandemic, the loss of its largest export market, China, due to trade disputes, and extreme weather events like wildfires and floods—Australian wine shines brighter than ever.
It’s an interesting backdrop to Australia Day, a national holiday that takes place on January 26th. Held on the same day that Great Britain’s First Fleet landed in Sydney in 1788, the nation’s national holiday sees flag-waving, fireworks displays and other patriotic revelries. It is also, however, considered a day of mourning by Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, who call it Invasion Day. They point to the 26th of January as the start of European colonization and the destruction of their culture and people. Recent polls show a steep increase in the number of Aussies who believe the date should be moved.
These things and more are in our minds as we consider Australia’s exceptional wine scene. It is a country that is simultaneously staggeringly old and refreshingly new. Its soils are the oldest on earth; its indigenous culture stretches back, continuously, longer than any other. Its vines—the most elderly of which dates back to 1843—are some of the oldest still-producing grapevines on the planet.
A Brief History of Australian Wine
For a population ten times smaller than that of the United States, Australia lays claim to an outsized number of now-indispensable inventions, like the refrigerator (1856), the electronic pacemaker (1926), wi-fi (1992), Google Maps (2003) and, perhaps most life-changing of all, bag-in-box wine.
Invented by winemaker Thomas Angove in 1964, the plastic wine bladder-in-a-box (also known as a “cask” or a “goon bag” Down Under) may be inherently Aussie. There’s even a drinking game, Goon of Fortune, created for it, often played on Australia Day. The nation’s history with the fermented grape stretches back far longer.
Australia’s Indigenous peoples have been fermenting drinks Down Under for millennia. But wine cultivation dates back to that very first ship in 1788, which brought vine cuttings to Sydney Harbor. By the early to mid-1800s, regions like Hunter Valley in New South Wales; Swan Valley in Western Australia; Yarra Valley, Geelong and Rutherglen in Victoria; and McLaren Vale, Coonawarra and Barossa, Eden and Clare Valleys in South Australia were established. Australia’s early wines were mostly fortified—much of it shipped back to England, but plenty drunk domestically, too—along with sweet “moselle” (Riesling) in the early 20th century.
Tastes changed in the mid-20th century to dry table wines, particularly American oak-aged reds from varieties like Cabernet and Shiraz. The pendulum swung towards cool climate wines in the ‘80s when drinkers discovered rich, textural Chardonnay and savory, eucalyptus-flecked Cabernet Sauvignon from Margaret River in Western Australia; bright, lemony, green-edged Sauvignon Blanc from the Adelaide Hills in South Australia; traditional method sparklers from Tasmania; elegant, red-fruited Pinot Noir from Mornington Peninsula in Victoria; and, ever the outlier, inimitable, long-lived Hunter Valley Semillon.
It swung back yet again towards the end of the ‘90s to full-figured, spicy, now-mostly-French-oak-aged Shiraz and muscular GSM (Grenache, Shiraz, Mataro) blends from Barossa and McLaren Vale and plump, minty Coonawarra Cabs.
Then came organics, biodynamics and the natural wine movement in the early 21st century. This relatively hands-off—if sometimes overtly faulty—winemaking approach had a particularly big impact on the wine industry, which many previously criticized as veering too technical, thereby producing squeaky clean but soulless, overly tricked-up wines. (The influence of Australia’s wine show system—traditionally run by its agricultural societies and a deeply engrained part of Aussie wine culture—on the nation’s styles cannot be overstated.)
The Modern Australian Wine Scene
Recent years have seen the pendulum, at last, swing towards center. Sure, a sea of cookie cutter commercial wines from large-scale producers still get pumped into the market each year. And natural wine, with all its vagaries, isn’t going anywhere. But many of Australia’s most exciting producers have found that sweet spot in the middle.
They’re armed with the experience and knowledge to know when to utilize modern wine science and technology to help them farm with less chemical inputs and make stable, fault-free wine, but they also know when to sit back and let nature take its course.
It’s why Aussie wine has never been more exciting; why there can be found wines of extraordinary character, site expression and downright deliciousness across all 65 wine regions in Australia from hundreds of different grape varieties. Whether it be for Australia Day or any other occasion, there is an Aussie wine for every palate. Dive in.
The 12 Best Australian Wines
Best Hidden Gem: Lambert 2019 Nebbiolo (Yarra Valley)
97 Points Wine Enthusiast
Renowned for his seductive Syrah and Chardonnay, artisanal producer Luke Lambert is turning his focus exclusively to Nebbiolo. He has succeeded in producing one of the finest expressions of this notoriously fussy variety outside its native Piedmont. Elegant, pure and complex, there’s an unforced beauty in the fresh wild strawberries and raspberries, florals, white pepper and mineral characters. Fabulously crunchy acidity and powdery, fine tannins structure a silky texture. With a sense of place, varietal character and major food friendliness, this still-young beauty could be drunk now but should cellar gracefully for at least until 2032. Editor’s Choice —Christina Pickard
Best Wine from an Indigenous-Owned Winery: Mt Yengo 2021 Pinot Gris (Adelaide Hills)
88 Points Wine Enthusiast
With a little trapped CO2 upon pouring, there’s a reductiveness here that takes its time blowing off, but when it does, subtle citrus, pear and stone fruit aromas float to the fore. The palate is light but with a hint of textural weight and lemon-lime acidity. —C.P.
Best Bordeaux Blend from a Biodynamic Rockstar: Cullen 2019 Wilyabrup Cabernet Sauvignon-Merlot (Margaret River)
96 Points Wine Enthusiast
The wines from this iconic, biodynamic estate always sing of their place. 2019 was a cooler-than-average vintage but one that’s winning over this reviewer for the wines’ aromatics and elegance. Layered and highly characterful, the nose is floral, like West Aussie wildflowers, and a bit meaty, like the pan scrapings from a roast. The fruit comes in compote form, like freshly canned rhubarb, plum and currant. There’s an earthy, savory spine like beet juice, olive brine and cedar shavings. A cool eucalyptus edge adds to the vintage charm. Chiseled, sappy tannins are powerful but leave ample room for flavor. Exceptional quality at an attainable price, this drinks well now with decanter and protein at hand, or could cellar beautifully for a decade at least. Editor’s Choice —C.P.
Best Bang for Your Buck: Chambers Rosewood Vineyards NV Muscat (Rutherglen)
93 Points Wine Enthusiast
Chambers is a benchmark producer of the Rutherglen style and this late-picked Muscat offers a burnt-orange-sunset hue in the glass, with a green rim. Evoking enticing aromas of orange marmalade, honey, medjool dates and almond blossom, the palate continues along similar lines. Unctuous and intensely sweet, there’s just enough acidity keep this from syrup territory. It would benefit enormously from a creamy, salty cheese pairing. #8 Enthusiast 100 2021 —C.P.
Best Way to Taste Australian Wine History: Seppeltsfield 1921 Para Shiraz-Grenache (Barossa Valley)
100 Points Wine Enthusiast
Released every year since 1878, this is thought to be the world’s only single vintage wine with such unbroken lineage. A deep umber hue, it envelops the senses with endless layers of aroma and flavor that conjure snapshots of the past: the dried leather pungency of a tannery; the equal parts polish and dust of cracked-spine books lining glossy mahogany shelves of an old library; smoked chestnuts; dark chocolate, and date cake. Texturally it’s like drinking satin, unctuous but not cloying (it’s astoundingly fresh actually). The alcohol creeps in later but is overwhelmed by richness of flavor and a finish that lasts for full minutes. Picture it gently siphoned from its 100-year slumber in the ancient barrel halls of Seppeltsfield’s Centennial Cellar—which is exactly what happens each time an order is placed. There’s been a hefty price hike recently, but for a once-in-a-lifetime treasure such as this, it’s justified. —C.P.
Best Aromatic Wine: Stargazer 2019 Tupelo White (Tasmania)
93 Points Wine Enthusiast
Tasmania is Australia’s coolest climate winegrowing region, and this small-batch label from winemaker Samantha Connew deftly expresses the region’s capacity for elegant and refreshing wines. Tupelo is made of 57% Pinot Gris, 32% Riesling and 11% Gewürztraminer. The blend is a lithe expression of each variety. Delicate notes of rose water, orange and honey-flecked pear are accompanied by a light spritz when first opened, offering a lovely texture and crystalline acidity. This is a thirst-quenching drop that would pair perfectly with a wide range of Southeast Asian cuisine. —C.P.
Best Australian Riesling: Frankland Estate 2019 Estate Grown Dry Riesling (Frankland River)
95 Points Wine Enthusiast
This is a wonderfully complex and delicious Riesling that’s also an outstanding value. It offers depth of flavor in the form of fresh lemon, scrubby wild lavender, kerosene and crushed gravel. It’s slinky and slippery, with vibrancy, juiciness and a long, lemony finish. An expression of a unique place; all at once accessible and ageworthy. Drink now–2032. Editor’s Choice —C.P.
Best Pet Nat from an Obscure Grape Variety: Delinquente 2021 Tuff Nutt Bianco d’Alessano Sparkling (Riverland)
92 Points Wine Enthusiast
This artisanal Riverland producer’s motto, “embrace the weirdness” perfectly suits this cloudy pét-nat. Made from the obscure Puglian variety, Bianco d’Alessano, it opens with a heady combo of aromas like pineapple chunks, honeysuckle and ginger spice. The pithy palate is less zingy than the nose suggests but there’s prickly bubbles, crunchy acidity and a finish of citrus and pineapple rind. It makes for great porch-pounding summer sipping. —C.P.
Best Grenache from a Historic Producer: Angove 2019 Warboys Vineyard Grenache (McLaren Vale)
95 Points Wine Enthusiast
One of this organic-biodynamic producer’s finest wines to date, this is from coastal vineyards over 50 years in age and pressed in an antique wooden basket press. It’s a tightrope of complexity and drinkability. The brambly blueberry fruit is backed by a potpourri dish of florals, dried herbs and spices, and there’s a warm pavement nuance. The palate is elegant and refined with a linear structure. There’s fabulous acidity, particularly for Grenache, and taut, powdery tannins. Drink now and up to around 2037. Editor’s Choice—C.P.
Best Game-Changing, Cool Climate Shiraz: Clonakilla 2019 Shiraz-Viognier (Canberra District)
97 Points Wine Enthusiast
Clonakilla’s Shiraz-Viognier was one of the first of its kind, ushering in a new era of more delicately aromatic and succulent Shiraz Down Under. It remains a benchmark of the style. The color of cherry juice, it’s beautifully perfumed, with aromas of rose petals and white pepper atop earthier, meatier notes. Warm stone undertones back fresh squeezed raspberry, cherry and cranberry juice. In the mouth there’s a succulence to the brambly fruit that comes like the pop of a fresh red berry in the mouth. Crunchy acidity and the raspy power of sappy, fine tannins add structure and complexity. This is finely crafted and distinctly cool climate Aussie wine that drinks well now but is capable of aging until 2037 at least. #7 Enthusiast 100 2022 —C.P.
Best Bottle to Make You Change Your Mind About Aussie Chardonnay: Bindi 2019 Kostas Rind Chardonnay (Victoria)
95 Points Wine Enthusiast
Sensitive and highly experienced winegrower Michael Dhillon turns out a Chardonnay of both delicacy and concentration that makes you feel like you’re on vacation. There’s a perfume of honeysuckle and jasmine lacing citrus and stone fruit, and a creamy, flinty underbelly. In the mouth it’s slippery yet linear with purity of fruit and bright acidity. It’s not overly rich nor is it skeletal; neither achingly cool nor old school traditional. It simply expresses the land from which it came, and for that is a complex and beautiful wine. Drink now–2030. —C.P.
Best Celebratory Bottle: Clover Hill 2015 Cuvée Exceptionnelle Blanc De Blancs Sparkling (Tasmania)
95 Points Wine Enthusiast
This is a stellar vintage of Clover’s Blanc de Blancs. It’s pale gold with vigorous, shimmering bubbles. The heady nose conjures an apple orchard late in the season when most of the apples have fallen to the ground, sun-kissed and slightly bruised, flecked with honey and brioche. In the mouth, a big lift of crunchy acidity and a persistent mousse adds to a feeling of both opulence and refreshment. It’s bone dry, with flavors of marmalade and honey and a long, tangy finish. Drink now. —C.P.
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