Wine has been made in Australia for almost 200 years, but the large-scale growth of wine production is a recent development because a widespread culture of table wine drinking has only developed over the last 35 years. This recent development is characterized in the industry structure in which most wine is made by just a few large companies, in its willingness to ignore European tradition to produce interregional blends, and in the emphasis it places on technological development. The last 15 years has seen the emergence of very large companies, the largest of which, Southcorp, is responsible for almost 30 percent of wine production and incorporates such historic brand names as Penfolds, Lindemans, Wynns and Seaview. Also important are BRL Hardy, Orlando Wyndham (itself owned by the French company Pernod Ricard), Mildara Blass and Simeon Wines (most of whose production is sold in bulk). Between them, they control more than 70 percent of all production.

A number of renowned middle-ranking producers, such as McWilliams and Rosemount, are still family owned, however, while there are now over 1,100 wine companies in Australia, 98 percent of them produce less than 5 percent of all wine.

This concentration of production is also mirrored geographically. At one extreme, the state of South Australia makes more then half of all Australian wine and is home to the largest producers. At the other, Tasmania, with 8 percent of the companies, makes less than 0.5 percent of the nation's wine.

What is often forgotten in the pursuit of top wines like Penfold's Grange and Henschke's Hill of Grace is that half of all wine consumed in Australia is bulk wine, usually purchased in 1 gallon (4 l) casks. The basis of this wine--and many of the cheaper bottles of Australian wine sold in supermarkets around the world--is the multiregional blend. "Wine of southeastern Australia" on a label means that the wine could come from anywhere except Western Australia, that is, from any of 98 percent of the nation's vineyard area. Such wine may well be sold as varietal blends and will be distinctively Australian, but will fly in the face of the traditional European concept of terroir. However, this does not mean the wines are of poorer quality--these fruity, accessible wines have revolutionized the international wine market in the last two decades--and even Australia's greatest wine, Grange, is traditionally a blend from a number of regions. These mass-produced wines could not exist without the viticultural development of Australia's vast irrigated areas. Most people could not name Australia's largest wine region, but Riverland, watered from the Murray River, produces more than a quarter of the country's wine. Other areas such as Riverina are equally important.

While the all-purpose denomination of "southeastern Australia" covers many wines, the developing system of Geographic Indications to mark out the boundaries of the wine regions is based firmly on the states. Within the states is a hierarchy of zones, regions and subregions of varying sizes. And size rarely relates to volume--the largest region, Great Southern in Western Australia--produces less than 0.2 percent of the country's wine. Yet for all the reliance on large-scale production, there is a growing awareness of the importance of a regional, or even single-vineyard, imprint, especially on premium wines. While distinctive regional styles, such as Hunter Valley semillon and Barossa shiraz (syrah), have been recognized for decades, many other regions (Clare, Coonawarra, Margaret River and Yarra Valley, for instance) are becoming known for making specific varietials in particular styles. Although not widely known now, Mount Barker riesling or Tasmanian sparkling wines may one day be considered world class.

Two things can be singled out to explain Australia's rapid rise to world-quality wine production. The first is the emphasis on technology. Australian wines are often criticized for being too clean, made with a focus on hygiene and minimum oxygen contact, however, the crisp and fresh value-for-money chardonnay that actually tastes of melon and peaches and seems run-of-the-mill today barely existed 20 years ago. Australia came to large-scale wine production without winemaking traditions and with the capital to invest in state-of-the-art equipment and a determination for technological perfection that is also emphasized in Australia's excellent university courses in viticulture and winemaking.

The second factor is the willingness, even keenness, of Australian winemakers to share their own ideas and to learn from their colleagues. An extension of this is the show system of wine competitions spawned by the regional agricultural shows, and it has been of inestimable value in raising the quality of Australian wine. Notwithstanding the obvious marketing benefits of winning medals, many winemakers use the shows to learn from the judges about the strengths and weaknesses of their wines.

The growing domestic popularity of Australian wine has been mirrored by export growth. It has risen in volume from 10.3 million gallons (39 million l) in 1987 to 57 million gallons (216 million l) in 1998-99. Most of the exports are focused on the UK market (45 percent), but the USA, Canada, Japan and Scandinavia are also important. At the same time, the rise in interest in the wines has provoked the new phenomenon of wine tourism. People have been visiting wine regions for years, but deliberately encouraging tourists with tours, accommodation, good food and a host of other related attractions has become a major industry in Australia today.

From "Encyclopedia of Wine"
©Global Book Publishing Pty Limited 2000