Growing grapes the Australian way has taken wine innovation to the world

From “Chateau Chunder from Down Under” to a global wine leader, in 75 years Australian grape and table wine production has evolved from a cottage industry into one of the world’s most popular wine producers.

Grapes have been grown in Australia since European settlement.

In fact, Australia has some of the oldest grape vines in the world because many of Europe‘s established vineyards were destroyed by the pest phylloxera in the 1800s.

However in 1945, if you drank Australian wine there was a good chance it was fortified.

More than 80 per cent of the Australian-made wines then were sweet sherry, brandy and port styles because they were more suitable for storage and transport.

However that was all about to change with the post-war immigration push.

The Europeans who moved to Australia after World War II brought with them a preference for table wine with meals.

Fifth-generation winemaker Stephen Henschke celebrates 75 years of Australian viticulture and winemaking.(Supplied: Dragan Radocaj)

Stephen Henschke’s family have been producing wine in the Barossa Valley for 152 years and this year they won James Halliday’s 2021 Winery of the Year.

The fifth-generation winemaker said the post-war immigrants had a “fun food culture” whereas Australians traditionally were pretty dominated by the traditional British meat and three veg.

As people started to become more affluent with a disposable income, they also began to want wine with their meals.

“Anybody who was slightly more elevated in terms of income tended to drink French wines, so that was the see-saw against Australian wine — it was considered plonk and not as desirable,” Mr Henschke said.

Expansion into cooler climates

As Australia’s population and drinking preference changed so too did where grapes were grown.

Being such a large country Australia’s climate and soils are extremely variable, and that allowed for the production of all the major wine styles, from full-bodied reds and fruity whites, sparkling, dessert and fortified wines.

Emeritus Professor Peter Dry has had a long career in viticulture.(Supplied: Peter Dry)

Traditionally grapes had been grown in warm regions, sown into deep alluvial soils on valley floors such as the Barossa Valley, Swan Valley, McLaren Vale and Clare Valley. But as table wine became more popular, cooler climate regions opened up.

Viticultural scientist, Emeritus Professor Peter Dry AM believed one of the reasons for the success of Australian wine was the emergence of cooler climate wine regions.

Through the 1960s and 1970s there was enormous growth in grape plantings.

Regions such as Coonawarra, Yarra Valley and the Eden Valley had, up until the 1960s, only produced small quantities of wine.

In the 1970s the Adelaide Hills was revitalised, Tasmania began producing commercial quantities of wine, and Victoria’s King Valley started to flourish.

In the late 1970s Margaret River was opened up, and regions such as Padthaway started to get planted up.

Barossa Valley bush grape vines in the 1970s.(Supplied: Peter Dry)

“So [cool regions] have been extremely important because some varieties, such as Pinot Noir, don’t produce good wines in warm regions — they have to be grown in cool regions,” Professor Dry said.

“Some of the new regions were started off simply by keen amateurs.

“In other cases by wine companies that needed to develop wine regions in these cool climates … and there was some serious climate evaluation and site selection involved.”

Doing it the Australian way

Australia’s broad climate range has also had a huge effect on viticulture and wine production.

As a result not only does wine produced in Australia taste different to wine of the same variety produced overseas, it can also vary enormously within Australia as well.

Being a “New World” wine Australian grape growers and wine producers have had more freedom to experiment with wine than some European countries and this has allowed Australians to produce wine their way.

Viticulturalist Prue Henschke has long wanted to make her vineyards look Australian.

Prue Henschke inspects a Christmas bush flower.(ABC Rural: Marty McCarthy)

“We’re not restricted by appellation so that’s meant we can explore new varieties, new roots stocks, new everything, we can change around on its head and see how it performs,” Ms Henschke said.

Irrigation made it possible for wine to be grown in new regions and from there Australia has developed vine and canopy management techniques that have been used throughout the world.

“Cultivation’s gone, because it was really starting to wreck our our soils … and we started looking preservation of organic matter and moisture,” Ms Henschke said.

Professor Dry said Australia took on mechanisation of harvesting and pruning much earlier than anywhere else in the world.

“We used irrigation because we didn’t have the summer rainfall that the Europeans have,” Professor Dry said.

“The Europeans used to make disparaging remarks about the fact Australian vineyards used irrigation, now things have changed enormously … and because their climate is changing they’ve realised they need to irrigate as well.”

The development of an Australian icon

Australia’s varied climate and soils mean grapes can be grown in all states and territories(Supplied: John Kruger)

As more vineyards were planted the Australian taste for wine evolved.

“Red wine was probably the most popular wine in 60s, in the 70s it changed because there was a trend towards white wine drinking because of our climate, and our sunshine, and eating more of those fun foods and the wine was riesling,” Stephen Henschke said.

“It was only in the 1980s chardonnay started to be talked about.”

By the late 1980s Australian wines had burst on to the international market, riding on a wave of Australian international promotion like the ‘Shrimp on the Barbie’ campaign and winning the America’s Cup yacht race.

Big, bold and affordable, Australia’s wines were sought after and one grape variety started to shine through.

That grape was shiraz.

It was one of the early grape varieties brought to Australia and had been used for years for blending and to produce fortified wine.

Fortunately it was fairly easy to grow, was resilient in most climates and it adapted well from a fortified wine to a table wine.

Winemaker Max Schubert was one of the pioneering winemakers at that time and he wanted to create a great Australian red wine that was capable of cellaring for 20 years.

Created initially as an experimental vintage in 1951, it is now worth thousands of dollars.(Supplied: Penfolds)

He developed the Penfolds Grange through the 1950s and 1960s and it has gone on to become one of the world’s most iconic and collected wines.

Shiraz is Australia’s number one produced wine grape overall and despite a decrease in 2020 due to the season and bushfires the 2020 harvest yielded a crush of 376,000 tonnes.

And a big part of what has driven demand for red wine, in particular shiraz, in recent years has been the Chinese consumer’s taste for it.

In 2016 Rabobank’s senior analyst Marc Soccio said China’s position as Australia’s largest wine export market had ushered in a ‘red dawn’ for winemakers.

“Overall this has led to a marked shift in demand for red varietals from premium temperate climate regions such as the Barossa Valley, McLaren Vale and Coonawarra, and premium cool climate regions such as the Mornington Peninsula and Tasmania, over fruit from the more commercial warm inland regions,” Mr Soccio said.

In 1981, 8 million litres were exported, in 2020 Australia was the world’s fifth largest wine exporter with more than 60 per cent of the country’s wine exported.

Over the past year, more than 770 million litres have been sent to 117 destinations world wide.

The Chinese market is worth almost four times as much to Australian winemakers as the second most valuable market, the United States.

Aussie ingenuity

Whether it has been innovative techniques in the vineyards, brave winemaking and a willingness to experiment with alternative varieties and organic wine production, Australia’s grape and wine production has a history of innovation.

Angove’s employee Bill Marshall pours a glass of wine from an early version of the cask.(Supplied: Angoves Family Wines)

In the past 75 years there have been some Australian inventions that have revolutionised wine worldwide.

Before cask wine was invented bulk wine was available in half-gallon flagons, but the wine spoilt quickly.

In the 1960s Tom Angove, from Renmark, was interested in the airless flow technique for wine and came up with the idea for cask wine.

Chairman of Angove Family Winemakers John Angove watched on as his father developed and patented the innovation in 1965 that would eventually be used across the world.

“It had a lot of initial shortcomings. Other developments subsequent to that made it a viable package but the fundamental package was something Dad dreamed up and it’s worked ever since,” Mr Angove said.

“Wine prior to that was perhaps a little more elite, and it opened up the opportunity for more people to enjoy wine,” he said.

The world can also thank Clare Valley winemaker Jeffery Grosset for introducing the world to screw caps instead of cork.

“Jeff Grosset was sick of drinking corked wines so he in collaboration with the Wine Research Institute started investigating the use of the screw caps,” Professor Dry said.

“A lot of people thought we’ll just use them for our cheap wines and we’ll continue to put our expensive wine in cork because the consumers won’t like it, but people like Jeff were very brave and put their best wines in the screw top.”

And with that spirit of innovation, the investment the country has made in oenology and viticulture degrees has helped the industry become a world leader in a relatively short time in wine years.

Organisations such as the National Wine Centre and university degrees in viticulture and oenology are helping Australia lead the world in research and education.

Too much of a good thing

It hasn’t all be smooth sailing.

The wine boom and bust cycles have been cyclical and at times savage, with overproduction causing enormous heartache for the industry.

In the late 1980s, before exports really took off, the South Australian Government began its vine pull scheme where growers were paid to remove unproductive to overcome a glut of wine grapes.

Valuable old Barossa Valley wines.(Supplied: Vinehealth Australia)

“It was a disaster, we lost huge tracts of beautiful old Grenache, Mataro, Shiraz and even Riesling that people would die to have these days,” Mr Henschke said.

“So, that’s why our limited resources of those old vines are so precious because they’re a museum for the whole world,” he said.

Low grape prices in the mid 2000s and again in 2010–11 also saw calls for another sponsored grape pull and many grape producers left the industry or ripped vines out.

“We’ve also has Asian Financial Crisis, the GFC and now we’re got COVID.

“We’ve had these booms and busts but Australia’s positioned incredibly well in the world I think, even with our limited resources of water,” Mr Henschke.

“I think we’ve got the creativity of people’s imagination to make wines of almost unlimited styles and grape varieties to keep on creating intrigue for people.”

And that creativity will be needed for the Australian wine industry to tackle the next 75 years.

Adapting for the future

Given it is an industry that draws on the soil and climate for its identity, a changing climate has always played a role in the industry.

Grape growers and winemakers have had to adaptable, changing with consumer preference and now climate change has forced Australia’s famous winegrowing regions to adapt yet again.

A world-first research document known as the Australian Climate Atlas has been developed to help them do that.

Gilli Lipscombe from Sailor Seeks Horse Wines, in Tasmania, is pleased to have information to adapt to the future.(ABC Landline: Mitchell Woolnough)

Paul and Gilli Lipscombe moved to Tasmania’s Huon Valley to grow Pinot Noir in what they call “marginal” country.

“To have really detailed numbers and projections for the next 20, 30, 40, 50 years, it’s hugely beneficial,” Ms Lipscombe said.

“We can make really concrete plans on what we need to do and how we need to approach the next few decades.”

One of Australia’s big advantages in the face of climate change the lack of restrictions on which grapes can be grown and where.

“We have always been very adaptable and we have been introducing new varieties for a very long time and we use at least 160 grape varieties for our wine in Australia, but of course there’s only about 15 to 20 varieties that produce about 90 per cent of our wines,” Professor Dry said.

“But at least we’re introducing these varieties and evaluating them, and varieties such as Fiano which has had a huge impact.

“We have introduced a lot of varieties that are much better adapted to hot climates than the existing varieties or the more traditional varieties that we have been growing,” he said.

Along with embracing non-traditional varieties, biodynamics organics and sustainable farming techniques are increasingly being adopted as the age-old mission of grape and wine making looks to the future.

South Australia’s Riverland has all the ingredients to produce world-class organic vineyards.(ABC Rural: Tom Nancarrow)
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