Soon after landing in the British penal colony of Australia with a boat-load of prisoners, Captain Phillip, the colony's new governor, wrote back to England, remarking on a subject unrelated to correctional matters. Phillip had wine on the mind.
Having observed Australia's climate, he was sure it was perfect for grape growing. Phillip figured Australian wines would soon "become an indispensable part of European tables."
He set about planting the wine vines he had carried south from England. The year was 1788.
Captain Phillip was ahead of his time, of course. Australia was isolated, and initially there was little local taste for wine. The grapes grown in Australia were mostly sacrificed to make sweet fortified wines. The world would have to wait a couple hundred years for Australian wines to become a dominant force in the international wine scene.
Today, however, Australia is the fourth largest wine producer in the world, renowned for making big, ripe, sensuous red wines that fill the mouth with flavor.
The biggest belle of the ball is undoubtedly Shiraz. Australian vintners took the Rhone region's grape, Syrah, renamed it Shiraz, and made it their own, sometimes blending it with Cabernet Sauvignon or Grenache, or more recently, with a splash of Viognier. Australia also makes top-notch Cabernet Sauvignon and Grenache. And it is making headlines with juicy, unoaked Chardonnays and with dry-style, steely Rieslings.
As Captain Phillip observed, the climate of Australia borders on the ideal, borne out most recently by a series of sensational vintages that date back to 2001. Most of the vineyard country runs along a band in the southern portion of the continent, where the Southern Ocean keeps the vineyards cool. To the north, conditions become increasingly inhospitably hot. This is Australia's so-called "Red Center," named more for the rust-colored soils than for the red-hot heat. In general, cool-weather grapes, like Chardonnay and Riesling, are found in the locations closer to the cold ocean; warmth-loving grapes, like Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon, are found closer toward the Red Center.
Let's take a quick look at some of Australia's prime vineyard regions and pair some recipes with the wines being made there.