Riverland is one of Australia’s most important wine regions and lies around 3 hours north of Adelaide. In terms of quality it is home to everything from innovative small producers such as Sigismondi Estate Wines to household names like Banrock Station. Riverland is the largest Australian wine region in terms of production, with around 400,000 tonnes of grapes being produced annually, grapes which in turn contribute between a quarter and a third to Australia’s entire wine production.
Riverland's vine growing history dates back to the late 19th century following the landmark irrigation agreement of 1887. Over the next three decades the region's vineyards grew steadily with the help of an influx of European settlers post World War 1. These newcomers recognised the land's immense potential for making high quality wines and brought with them winemaking traditions that helped it to thrive. A further surge occurred post World War 2 and in the 1950s Riverland began embracing the irrigation technology changes that would enable it to become a production powerhouse. Today, further change is sweeping through Riverland as winemakers seek to produce premium wines that reflect Riverland's typicity. In doing so they are reawakening the dreams of the pioneering producers and inciting fresh interest from the wine press and trade.
Riverland: A vine’s idea of heaven?
Riverland lies in the east of South Australia within the Lower Murray zone close to the Victoria border. The region enjoys a warm, temperate climate but suffers from a lack of precipitation – during the vine growing season (October-April) Riverland receives on average a mere 5 inches of rain. This, coupled with its relatively low altitude of just over 80 feet, means Riverlands’s gently undulating terrain has a continental climate and can be fiercely hot in summer with temperatures in excess of 110° being not uncommon.
Vine growing in this environment wouldn't be possible were it not for the Murray River, Australia's longest, which winds through it for more than 600km. For vines, and other forms of agriculture, the Murray is the giver of life and for generations vineyard owners have taken full advantage of it to produce regular harvests of high-quality grapes. Owing to the areas benign climate and gentle relief, Riverland is home to a range of noble and premium varietals including Chardonnay, Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Durif, Mourvedre and Petit Verdot, a variety which thrives in the warmth to produce wines of exceptional colour and purity of flavour. Owing to the region's post-war Italian settlers, wines such as Vermentino, Montepulciano and Sangiovese have also been successfully produced from wineries such as Oak Works and Salena Estate.
Riverland: wine diversity, change & challenge
As a wine region Riverland built its fortunes on supplying grapes to large wineries. Recently, however, in keeping with Australian wines move to the premium and the individualistic, a raft of new boutique wineries have begun to emerge. These wineries, one thinks of the organic and biodynamic 919 Wines or O’Donnohue’s Find, have looked to challenge the traditional view of the region's wines and exploit the individual terroirs that lie within it. To do so they are deploying innovative varieties and blends as well as making the most of modern winemaking technology to craft something new, exciting and unique.
This breed of innovators, like the rest of the vine growers here, have faced severe challenges in recent years. The strength of the Australian dollar has made the traditional export markets more challenging and the well-reported South Australia drought has made life difficult. South Australia’s Environment Department recently announced that this year’s water entitlements could be up to 64% lower than last year, severely restricting the region’s lifeblood. In-keeping with the indomitable Australian winemaking spirit, the growers of Riverland are continuing to ply their craft and continue to contribute to both the established and the emerging Australian wine scene.
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