Wine production in South Australia dates back to 1836, when prominent farmer, businessman and public figure John Barton Hack first planted vines in North Adelaide. These were pulled up only a few years later to make room for urban development, and replanted in a new vineyard at Echunga Springs, where upon Hack, delighted with the wine he subsequently produced, sent a case to Queen Victoria. This was the first ever Australian wine to reach the Queen.
Nowadays, South Australia has a booming wine industry, outshining that of its Aussie counterparts thanks largely to the avoidance of phylloxera in the late 19th century, and the many wine producers who chose to stick to their guns during the gold rush instead of abandoning their businesses in pursuit of treasure – as was the case in many other parts of the country.
The third biggest export after metals and wheat, wine from the area accounts for more than 50% of wine produced in the whole of Australia, and in 2012-13 its total value topped $1.87bn. The state has the second largest number of wine producers in Australia (720, to Victoria’s 773) and exports its wines to more than 100 countries, the most prominent export markets being the UK, USA and China. Adelaide, the state’s capital, serves as a central hub for winemaking activity in the region – indeed, 70% of all Australian vines are situated within 300km of the city.
Such is the vast size of the country – and its six individual states – that the climate of South Australia varies wildly. Interior regions such as the Riverland are intensely hot, while coastal areas such as Adelaide Hills are notably cooler. Altitudes range from low valley regions of the Barossa, up to 1,970ft high in vineyards in the Eden Valley. Soils are also diverse, ranging from limestone-marl to sandy clay. A low annual rainfall across the state means the terrain calls for regular and careful irrigation to counter droughts.
Australia has been using an appellation system – known as the Australian Geographical Indication (AGI) – since the 1960s. Distinguishing the geographical origins of the grape, these laws say that at least 85% of the grapes in any wine must come from the region designated on the label. In the late 1990s more definitive boundaries were set, dividing the country into zones, regions and subregions. South Australia is also home to a ‘super zone’ – a group of adjoining zones – consisting of Barossa, Fleurieu and Mount Lofty Ranges.
A good many vineyards in South Australia work to quench the thirst of the everyday market, with popular brands such as Jacob’s Creek, Hardys and Oxford Landing adorning the tables of casual drinkers at home and abroad, but several regions close to Adelaide produce wines considered to be some of the finest in Australia – if not the world.
The Barossa Valley is one of Australia’s oldest and most prestigious wine producing regions, with many physical similarities to California’s Napa Valley, known predominantly for its Shiraz – although the last 15 years or so has seen increased interest in Grenache and Mourvedre. The incorporated Eden Valley is highly respected for its Riesling, and some of Australia’s finest coopers have long-established links to the area.
McLaren Vale is another exceptional fine wine-producing zone. South of Adelaide, its mild climate is heavily influenced by the sea and gives rise to fantastic Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay. Some of the most successful wineries are situated on ridges with phenomenal views of the Gulf St Vincent – the starting point for most of the country’s wine exports.
South Australia is responsible for some of the most expensive wines in the country. The top five spots in winesearcher.com’s list of the top 50 is dominated by those from the Barossa Valley, with offerings from Penfolds and Henschke Hill topping the charts. In fact, while regarded by the wine industry as a ‘New World’ producer, South Australia puts up a strong fight – in both price and quality – against the traditional wines of old.