About the Region
Last month, I decided to shake up our Grand Tour journey by bringing us down to the Southern Hemisphere. I find that these wines don’t often get the love they deserve, which is why I chose to keep the theme going for another month. This March, we’re leaving South America and heading to the Pacific-- to a land ‘down under,’ as some call it!
Until about 20 years ago, Australia had a rather bad rep in the industry. The continent was known for putting out mass-produced swill that was easily identifiable by animal print labels (not saying any names, but I think you know what I mean). However, an influx of talented winemakers arrived in the late 20th century and immediately took the country’s viticultural scene to new heights. Since then, the wines have only gotten better and better.
The first vine cuttings were brought to New South Wales in the late 1700s, however, these initial winemaking attempts failed. Around 50 years later, James Busby, a British resident of New Zealand, brought over select vine cuttings from France and Spain, which worked rather well in Australia’s soils. Within a few decades, the country’s wine industry was booming. However, around 100 years later, many Australian producers began vinifying with a quantity over quality mentality, which caused the country’s viticultural reputation to plummet.
Thankfully, the last few decades have seen a massive shift. Now more than ever, growers are farming organically and biodynamically across the country’s 160,000 hectares of vines, which sprawl across five major growing regions: South Australia, Victoria, Western Australia, New South Wales, and Tasmania. Each of these regions is distinct in terms of topography, microclimates, and grape varieties cultivated.
First, there’s South Australia, which is Australia’s largest production zone and the home to some of Australia’s oldest vines. Here, you’ll find the appellations of Adelaide Hills, Barossa Valley, McLaren Vale, Clare Valley, Coonawarra, and more. Barossa is best known for powerhouse Shiraz, while Clare Valley is highly regarded for its mineral-driven Riesling. McLaren Vale is home to a variety of red and white wine grapes vinified in more classic styles, while Adelaide Hills has recently become a hotbed for ‘natural’ winemaking. South Australia as a whole is known for its hot, dry climate conditions.
Then there’s Victoria. Here, you’ll find Mornington Peninsula, Rutherglen, Yarra Valley, and a handful of other appellations. Victoria produces 30% of Australia’s wine, and although it’s not the largest, it’s definitely the most diverse. The region is known internationally for its Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, which thrive in the sea-influenced cooler climate. Western Australia is rather isolated and is the most rugged region in the country. Cool climates, golden beaches, and warm ocean breezes create ideal conditions for cultivating ripe, healthy fruit. Expect to find juicy reds and zesty, well-balanced whites.
New South Wales’ claim to fame is the Hunter Valley. Here, structured and soft Sémillon thrives in the region’s red soils. New South Wales is also home to Australia’s first vines (planted in the late 18th century).
Tasmania’s wine production is small, but it’s definitely fierce. Expect to find some of the continent’s finest bottles of bubbles, produced mostly from Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Pair with raw bar favorites for an instant transport to the island’s sleepy seaside coastlines.
Today, Australia is the fifth largest wine exporter in the world. The industry is estimated to be worth about $3 billion, and shockingly, only 16% of wines sold in Australia are imported. Forget the French-- when it comes to drinking like nationalists, Australia’s got it down pat!
The producers we’re featuring this month embody our ethos of what it means to make good wine here at Verve Wine: They farm responsibly, create wines that reflect the place from which they come, and above all, the bottles are downright delicious. Mac Forbes has been an absolute game-changer in the Yarra Valley and I can’t wait for you to taste his thirst-quenching Chardonnay. Eri and Roslyn Happ are two of the OG pioneers of honest winemaking in Western Australia and will undoubtedly go down in the continent’s winemaking history. Ashley and Holly Ratcliffe are finding some amazing solutions to farming climate-adaptive grapes in the midst of global warming. And Brad Hickey! What can I say? A legend, inspiration, and truly genuine guy. NYC misses him!
Forget any past notions you had about Australian wine. I truly hope these bottles open your mind to the rich, complex, and insanely diverse growing areas of the magical land down under!
Dustin Wilson, Master Sommelier
Mac Forbes Chardonnay
Born and raised in the Yarra Valley, Mac Forbes actually cut his teeth on the wine industry in Southwest France at the young age of 18. After many years spent working in French, Portuguese, and Austrian vineyards, Mac finally returned to the Southern Hemisphere in 2004 and dedicated his life to putting small yet fierce Australian growing sites on the map. Today, Mac produces a line of terroir-driven bottles from six different vineyard sites across the Yarra, with a focus on Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. His entry level varietal Chardonnay is handpicked, destemmed, and crushed before pressing. Juice ferments with native yeasts and ages for 10 months in a combination of new and used oak. The wine is restrained yet fruit-forward and marked by notes of juicy yellow apple, lemon skin, white flowers, and chalk..
PAIRING IDEAS: The lip-tingling acidity and fruit-for- ward nature of this wine make it a perfect match for white pizza, creamy pasta sauces, and fresh seafood-based dishes.
Brash Higgins NDV Amphora Project
Chicago native Brad Hickey and his life partner Nicole Thorpe founded Brash Higgins back in 2007. After years of working in French vineyards and restaurants as a child, Brad went on to brew beer and bake bread in Portland, as well as manage some of New York City’s top wine programs, before heading to the land down under. Today, the duo creates rustic ‘Old World influenced’ wines in the heart of McLaren Vale, which are all produced from organically farmed fruit. Inspired by the wines of Sicily, Brad decided to graft one hectare of Shiraz vines with Nero d’Avola and vinify the juice in amphora with six months of skin contact. A long natural fermentation and extended maceration make this wine insanely textured and perfumed. Flavors of pomegranate, sour cherries, orange peel, and freshly cut herbs lead to a grainy and grippy finish.
PAIRING IDEAS: The fruit-driven nature and well integrated tannins of this varietal Nero d’Avola make it the ideal match for grilled white meats, game, and oven-roasted veggies. Serve slightly chilled.
Happs Wines Sémillon
Erl and Roslyn Happ founded this family owned and operated estate back in 1977. It has since become one of the most respected estates in Western Australia. At Happs Wines, all vineyard sites are farmed organically, minimal fertilizers are used, and herbicides are forbidden. Fruit for this varietal Sémillon is hand-harvested from unirrigated vines in the extreme south of Margaret River. Post harvest, the wine is aged on its lees in stainless steel, followed by a few years of aging in bottle to ‘bring out the honeyed character of Margaret River Sémillon.’ Concentrated and full-bodied, this mouth-filling wine oozes with rich flavors of sappy stone fruit, lemon rind, and cream.
PAIRING IDEAS: This unctuous bottle of white is perfect for pairing with fatty fish, poultry based dishes, or a killer home-prepared cheese board.
Ricca Terra Vintners ‘Marathon Man’
Ricca Terra Vintners was founded by Ashley & Holly Ratcliff back in 2003 after the duo purchased an 8-hectare plot of vines in South Australia. Ricca Terra, which means ‘Rich Earth’ in Italian, is dominated by red earth over limestone soils. The soil is extremely conducive for the cultivation of Mediterranean varieties, including Fiano, Arinto, and Nero d’Avola, as well as Bordeaux varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Verdot. Ashley and Holly farm all of their vineyards organically and have since dedicated their lives to the pioneering of climate adaptive varieties in South Australia. ‘Marathon Man’ is a full-bodied blend of Petite Sirah, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Petit Verdot. Notes of sappy blackberries, stewed plums, cassis, wet earth, and bay leaf dominate this in-your-face bottle of red. ‘Marathon Man’ is named for the physical and mental challenges faced by marathon runners, similar to those faced by vignerons seeking to make great wines (Ashley has also run numerous marathons himself).
PAIRING IDEAS: This bold and boisterous red blend screams for something equally hearty. Pair with hamburgers, bean chili, and all things barbecue.