Australian Wine Finds Its Edge

James T. Murray

The Land Down Under has a reputation for producing wine that’s anything but subtle, but that’s not the full story.

Margaret River: Burgundy Down Under

The Lay of the Land: An artery of rivers—including the namesake Margaret River—snakes through the region, moderating and defining the viticultural landscape on its way to the Indian and Southern oceans. And out of this laid-back surfers’ paradise comes wine reminiscent of Grand Vin De Bourgogne.

The Local Standout: Winemaker Virginia Wilcock has been the doyenne of the region for a quarter century. In 2006, she took over at Vasse Felix and began crafting wines that reflect the fruits of her globe-trotting viticultural studies and a deep understanding of Western Australia’s potential.

The Bottle to Buy: The 2011 Heytesbury Chardonnay ($43; screams Burgundy, thanks to minimal sulfur and just the right amount of toasted oak. Wilcox’s barrel-select bottling includes only the best wine from each vintage and drinks with refinement, seamless acidity and minerality reserved for top-notch Mersault.

Adelaide Hills: The Elegance of Altitude

The Lay of the Land: The Adelaide Hills sit just southeast of the Barossa Valley, a wine region known for its hot continental climate and the ripe, powerful fruit it produces. The Hills, by contrast, are part of the Mount Lofty Ranges, which reach 2,385 feet at the highest peak. The fruit from these vineyards in the clouds makes for reds and whites that are subtle, graceful and light on their feet.

The Local Standout: Brendon Keys was a globe-trotting DJ and snowboarder before a wine sales job in London eventually led to a winemaking career that took him to New Zealand, California and finally the cool, elevated Lenswood pocket of the Adelaide Hills.

The Bottles to Buy: The fruit for BK Wines’ wildly fragrant Skin n’ Bones Pinot Noir ($60; is placed in barrels grape by grape and utilizes seriously extended skin contact—about 276 days for the 2012 vintage. The result is an unmistakable yet delicate aroma of fresh berries and a wine that’s downright gulpable. The single-vineyard 2012 Swaby Chardonnay ($60;, planted on Picadilly’s breezy hillsides, is clean, textured and focused.

And Don’t Miss... The Sauvignon Blanc and the Riesling from Shaw and Smith.

Hunter Valley: Sémillon at Its Best

The Lay of the Land: Viticulture is an uphill battle, thanks to the heat and heavy rains of the Hunter Valley, and Sémillon—best known for the sweet wines it produces in Sauternes—is not an easy grape to hang your hat on. The fruit is picked early, which can result in undrinkably acidic wines. But after three or four years of cellaring at the winery, Hunter Valley Sémillon transforms from a kind of piercing limeade to an electric, age-worthy wine with the creaminess and balanced acidity of great French Chablis.

The Local Standout: Bruce Tyrrell is the fourth-generation winemaker at his family’s namesake winery and seems to relish the challenge of growing an unpopular grape in an underdog region. “Sémillon,” he says, “has been an obsession.”

The Bottle to Buy: Sourced from the original 1908 Sémillon block, Tyrrell’s HVD Vineyard (from $13; is the region’s gold standard.

McLaren Vale: An Aussie Take on Italy

The Lay of the Land: This is as old-world as the New World gets: Vines were first planted here in 1838, and the McLaren Vale is a geological mosaic composed of rock dating back between 15,000 to 650 million years.

The Local Standout: In a region rife with Cabernet, Shiraz and Grenache, Mark Lloyd of Coriole wines has a simple explanation for his planting of Sangiovese, Fiano and Nero d’Avola: “We didn’t like the French, so we decided to plant Italian grapes.” A ride down Coriole’s cypress-lined drive feels like a foray into Tuscany.

The Bottle to Buy: There’s something disorienting about the screw cap on Coriole’s McLaren Vale Sangiovese ($12;, which encloses pastoral Italian values with Australia’s industrious innovation. The wine shows its age with hues of garnet and channels the Old World with a nose of roasted tomatoes and herbs.

Yarra Valley: Don’t Call It Shiraz

The Lay of the Land: The Yarra’s deep soils are home to apple orchards and endless acres of Shiraz that the big brands use to mass-produce jug wine. But today the region is home to a growing crop of artisan producers who turn out nuanced Pinot Noir and Shiraz balanced with grapes grown on cooler hillside vineyards.

The Local Standout: In 2004, Luke Lambert outfitted a dirt-floored iron shed behind his house with a small basket press and a few old barrels and began the Herculean pursuit of taking on the blockbuster Shirazes of his homeland. He labels his wine Syrah, using the European nomenclature to declare a move away from Australia’s massive, inky, overripe expression of the grape.

The Bottles to Buy: Australia’s best imitation of the northern Rhone style is Lambert’s 2010 Yarra Valley Syrah ($72;—complex, mysterious, unfiltered and unfined. His entry-level 2010 Crudo Syrah ($42; is a juicier interpretation for everyday drinking.

And Don’t Miss... The Pinot Noir from Punt Road and the Oakridge Chardonnay.

The Best of the Old School

The conversation about contemporary Australian wine is driven by youth and experimentation; Henschke Hill of Grace Shiraz ($790;, produced in the Eden Valley, is the antithesis of all that. Some vines on the one-acre plot date back to the 1860s, when the wine was used for sacramental purposes at the nearby Hill of Grace church, from which the vineyard takes its name. Today this single-vineyard bottling is one of the country’s best; the 2006 vintage—powerful but never flamboyant—is shot through with blueberries, spice and sandalwood. Like a great Romanée-Conti, this is a wine that speaks deeply and directly to the place it’s from.

Doing the Bondi Beach Thing

Nestled in Sydney’s iconic seaside suburb, Stay Bondi (from $1,630; address provided upon booking; 61-2/9316-9066; is the brainchild of landscape designer William Dangar and craftsman Bill Clifton—codirectors of the famed Robert Plumb design project. Together they created a pair of fully furnished three-bedroom beach shacks—Bondi 100 and Bondi 133—that combine a sleek Scandinavian aesthetic with a sun-bleached, surfed-out Aussie sensibility. It’s just a few blocks from the lush courtyard stocked with Clifton’s elegant outdoor furniture to Australia’s most famous strip of sand. —Marie Le Fort