: south australia

South Australia

Adelaide has long been known as the ‘Queen City of Wine.’ It is home to the most knowledgeable general wine audience in the country, the toughest wine shows, and a source of well deserved parochial pride in their world class wines.


South Australian Wine Industry

map of SA wine regions, click to enlarge

Strict quarantine and remoteness from war zones has meant that South Australia has some of the oldest surviving Shiraz (Syrah), Cabernet, Grenache and Mourvedre vines in the world (Europe's old vines have long been wiped out by the ravages of phylloxera and war). Penfolds claims to have the world's oldest living Cabernet Sauvignon vines in its Barossa Valley vineyards.

Despite the best efforts of Victorians, New Zealanders, South Africans and Chileans over the last decade Adelaide remains the wine capital of the southern hemisphere, and South Australia is by far the biggest wine producer in Australia.

According to the Australian Wine and Brandy Corporation’s data in 2004 the South Australian wine crush was over 620,000 tonnes, roughly equivalent to all the other Australian states and territories put together. A lot of that comes from the big irrigation vineyards in the Riverland and the newer commercial super-vineyards in the south-east of the state around Padthaway and Wrattonbully for use in cask and ‘made in south-eastern Australia’ commercial blends.

However, many regions are justifiably the varietal benchmarks for Australian wine: the Barossa Valley (Shiraz, Grenache, Frontignac, fortifieds) , Eden Valley (Riesling, Shiraz) , McLaren Vale (Shiraz, Chenin Blanc) , Adelaide Hills (Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay) , Clare Valley (Riesling, Shiraz) and the Coonawarra (Cabernet Sauvignon).

Almost all of Australia’s famous and historic wine companies either started or have had to set up substantial operations in South Australia. In NSW and Victoria (with the exception of the historic Rutherglen) many of the claimed historical relationships between contemporary brands and their 19th century forebears are tenuous or concocted corporate spin. In South Australia there really are many wineries really have been run by the founding families for six or seven generations.

The national industry regulatory and export body, Australian Wine and Brandy Corporation, is based in Adelaide, as is the National Wine Centre. Australia’s most prestigious oenology school, the Roseworthy Agricultural College (now part of the University of Adelaide), was located about 50 km north of Adelaide. The wine school activites are shifting over to University of Adelaide's WAITE campus, an agricultural research campus in Adelaides's inner southern suburbs.


The National Wine Centre in the Adelaide Botanic Gardens

The National Wine Centre in the Adelaide Botanic Gardens

The first vines went in almost as soon as the colony of South Australia was founded. In 1837 John Hack planted some vines imported from Van Dieman's Land (Tasmania) not far from the banks of the River Torrens at North Adelaide. The first recorded wine appears to have been made by Walter Duffield who sent Queen Victoria a case of his 1844 Echunga Hock.

Horticulturalists quickly recognised that the area was capable of producing wines able to match the best in Europe and that this should be one of core primary industries for the fledgling colony. Wine-making rapidly took off across the Adelaide plains and adjacent hills and vales. The brands surviving from these early days in what is now metropolitan Adelaide include Hamilton Ewell (1841), Penfolds (1844), Samuel Smith & Son (Yalumba) in 1849, Hardys (1853), Seppelts (1858) and Angoves (1893).

Almost all physical trace of these early vineyards has been swallowed up by the suburban sprawl apart from a few hectares of vines at Penfolds Magill and a small vineyard at Marion used by Leconfield. However, some trace of these historical vines remain in thousands of backyard and small market gardens vines. A l989 project to make wine from volunteered from metropolitan backyard vines unearthed several varieties unidentifiable to Roseworthy Agricultural College staff, and were presumably descendants from the early pioneering plantings.

Wine-making quickly spread

Wine-making quickly spread across the many of the state's eastern agricultural regions south of the Goyder Line, the rainfall gradient where it simply doesn't rain enough for normal agriculture.

About 50 km to the north of Adelaide Johann Gramp planted the first vineyard in the Barossa Valley at Jacob's Creek in 1847. John Reynell planted the first vines in the southern McLaren Vales, at what is now known as Reynella, in 1839. In 1860 Frank Potts (of Bleasdale fame) started making wine over on the other side of the Fleurieu Peninsula at Langhorne Creek. The wine-making spread 130 km north to the Clare Valley when in 1848 a group of Austrian Jesuits established a vineyard at Sevenhills College. The irrigation developments and subsequent growers collectives in the Riverland around Renmark began in the 1880s. In the south-east corner of the state in 1890 John Riddoch set up the Coonawarra Fruit Colony including 95,000 vines of Shiraz, Cabernet, Malbec and Pinot Noir.

By the 1870s the colony was going through its own crisis of wine over-production as production had outstripped local demand and the British market became wary after a glut of poorly made, young wines (and the months of non-refrigerated shipping transport) led some importers to send the wine back. Many vines were ripped out and a closer attention to quality over the next couple of decades led to a more sustainable revival of the industry.

South Australia had several advantages not enjoyed by its colonial competitors. Firstly the initial European settlement was based on ‘free settlers’ (under the Wakefield Plan) who represented a section of British society who had some experience of wine appreciation and drinking. The other colonies were founded on prison labour, and reflected British working class preferences for rum and ale. Wine appreciation in NSW was more an upper class taste of government officials and senior officer corps.

Secondly South Australia had a large influx of European religious refugees (mainly German and Polish) who brought their passion for wine-making along with them. Victoria, benefited from similar influx of Swiss and German wine-lovers in the 19th century and for a period had a larger wine industry, but its wine-making was all but wiped out by phylloxera and the economic depression of the 1890s. NSW largely escaped phylloxera but its wine-makers didn’t escape post-Federation trade liberalisation. South Australian wine in most cases was simply better and cheaper. Western Australia had its own pioneering wine industry but no means of transporting its wine at competitive prices to eastern states markets.

After the first world war returned service men were subsidised to buy rural land in the Riverland and
Coonawarra – and to grow grapes. By the 1920s South Australia was making over 75% of all Australian wine, although it was hit later in decade and into the 1930s by a second crisis of overproduction as the British export market fell away and the Great Depression led to a 60% drop on Australian consumption. The soldier-settlers were now encouraged to rip out their vines, while the pragmatic wine-makers in the Barossa swung to making cheap fortifieds in the ensuing decades.

World class

World class table wine-making was still happening – as Max Schubert at Penfolds showed with the Grange Hermitages from the mid 1950s. The Coonawarra's 'Clarets' also led the revival of a national quality table red wine drinking in the 1960s, while innovative new players like Wolf Blass and Petaluma were leading the white wine boom of the 1970s and 1980s. At the lower end of the market Wynns came out with one of the the world’s first ‘bag-in-a box’ cask in 1971 (there is some dispute over the first cask wine box). Soon nearly half of South Australian wine was coming out in casks but the low cost kept wine-drinking in most of the state’s household budgets.

South Australian like the rest of the Australian wine industry has been transformed by the revival of a mass market for quality table wines and the considerably enhanced export opportunities into the UK, North America and more recently into Asia. The impact was different in Victoria which has had to rebuild from virtually nothing but now has more wineries, mainly small and boutique. SA already had many, established quality producers, to join the flood of new small players coming into most regions since the early 1990s.

Small, boutique wineries

The most pronounced changes were seen in the Adelaide Super-Zone (Barossa, Mt. Lofty Ranges and Fleurieu) are a whole lot of new, small boutique wineries with an eye to the high prices US wine lovers are prepared to pay for a big Robert Parker endorsed South Australian Shiraz. The Adelaide Hills is undergoing the biggest change with vast swathes of the Mount Loft Ranges now covered with bird netting to protect the cold climate Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Grigio, Viognier, Nebbiolo and Tempranillo vines along with the traditional Chardonnays, Rieslings and Cabernet Sauvignons.

Kangaroo Island

Wine-making is also being taken up a lot more on the chilly, windswept Kangaroo Island with mainland wine-makers such as Chain of Ponds working with local growers. A new official region near the mouth of the River Murray, Currency Creek, has joined the nearby Langhorne Creek as a quality producer of rich but mellow reds.

Limestone coast

In the cool south-east of the state Limestone Coast Zone the expansion of ‘Chardonnay Country’ is being led mainly by the vineyards of the wine super-conglomerates such as Hardy’s Stonehaven rather than lots of boutique, family-run wineries. The swampy. limestone plains are well suited to the large scale production of reliable, sometimes excellent, Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon. Nevertheless Wrattonbully, Mount Benson and Padthaway have been granted official GI regional status, and Robe can’t be too far away from gaining official status. The size of the wine crush from Wrattonbully now nearly matches that of the Coonawarra.

The focus of the wine corporations on these new cool climate regions will create problems with growers in less fashionable river irrigation regions such as the recent Simeon-McGuigan crisis in the Riverland has highlighted. The protracted drought and climate change has been felt profoundly on the irrigation dependent growers along the Murray River basin who generate much of Australia's budget export wines. Water allowances are being cut to near zero as scarce water is being used by NSW, Queensland and Victorian agricultural concerns before it reaches the South Australian borders.

To the north

To the north the Clare Valley is benefiting from wine tourism including the famous Riesling cycling trail and the entry of several ambitious new wineries. Some old favourites like Quartellers (now rebadged as Annie’s Lane) have been modernised and turned into major national brands that you are just as likely to find in the wine bar at Brisbane Airport than in the local cellars.

North of Clare a new warm climate wine region, the Southern Flinders Ranges, has emerged along the top end of the Spencer Gulf on the hills around Pt. Pirie, Jamestown and Gladstone. There are also a couple of wineries on the other side of Spencer Gulf around Pt. Lincoln that form the Peninsulas Wine Zone. top


Dennis cellar door at McLaren Vale to the south of Adelaide

Bleasedale (langhorne Creek)

Bleasedale is a 150 year old winery at Langhorne Creek founded by Frank Port

Stonehaven (Padthaway region)

Stonehaven (Hardys) was the flagship winery in the new Padthaway region in the cool south-east corner of the state but has been recently put up for dale

Hill Smith (eden Valley)

Hill Smith (Eden Valley) is a famous name in the history of the South Australian wine industry but survives as a Yalumba brand (a well made Sauvignon Blanc

grant burge cellardoor

Grant Burge cellar door in the Barossa Valley

Mount Horrocks (clare Valley)

Mount Horrocks (Clare Valley) is a famous Riesling producer


International tourists doing structured tastings in the National Wine Centre