Australia's cool climate wines

Altitude with attitude

Orange is the new black. Not a reference to the cult prison drama, but the New South Wales wine region of Orange.  Why the new black? Because it is cool, in both senses of the word – as in climatic and on trend given the pendulum swing towards aromatic, fresh, lower alcohol wines.

Orange: The only way is up

Unlike Tasmania, Great Southern, Coonawarra or Mornington Peninsula, neither latitude nor maritime influence account for Orange’s coolness.  Rather, altitude is the moderating factor. In fact, altitude – whether vineyards are above or below the 600 metres above sea level contour line - distinguishes the Orange GI from the Central Ranges GI below. So, when I presented Wine Australia’s ‘Cool Climates Altitude with Attitude’ seminar and tasting, it made sense to set the bar at over 600m. 

According to leading Orange winemaker Philip Shaw, less than 1% of Australian vineyards are above 600m.  Slim pickings. I know of no vineyard in Western Australia which comes close to 600m. In South Australia, the highest reaches of Clare Valley and Adelaide Hills nudge the 600m mark. But head east, especially north, and you will find a clutch of regions with vineyards over 600m, the highest rising to 1200m. They are nestled in or around the Great Dividing Range (a series of plateaus and low mountain ranges), which runs roughly parallel to the Queensland, New South Wales (NSW) and Victoria coastline for some 2,300 miles. 

Wines of quality and distinction

Without altitude, some of these regions would struggle to make quality wine. Take Queensland’s Granite Belt and New South Wales’ New England (the northern-most high-altitude regions in these states), or the Southern Highlands a stone’s throw from New South Wales’ hot and humid sub-tropical coast. Our high quality, distinctive line up of wines from these regions - Orange, Tumbarumba and Canberra District in New South Wales and the Macedon Ranges in Victoria - forcefully demonstrated the impact of elevation. The wines were medium-bodied, fresh and focused rather than fleshy, with refined tannins, impressive flavour intensity and moderate alcohol levels. Even if alcohol levels are at the higher end of the spectrum, high acidity and flavour intensity can challenge perceptions. For example, I’d never have guessed that Tertini’s pretty, red-fruited Pinot Noir 2015 weighed in at 13.5%. It hails from the Yaraandoo vineyard at 715m on the drier, western edge of the Southern Highlands.

Let me count the ways

The downside of high altitude is frost and hail, but there are many benefits. Where the temperature reduces by 0.65°C for every 100 metres climbed, higher natural acid – a function of cool climates - is much-prized, enhancing freshness, structure and lift. Describing it as "probably more important than anything else” because of its “dramatic effect on the wine" Shaw points out “at 400m, which is the lowest point in our area compared to our highest point, which is 1400m - you are moving in climatic terms from northern Africa to northern France." The renowned Chardonnay maker’s decision to acquire the Koomooloo vineyard in 1988 stemmed from it having “pretty well the elevation needed [900m] for a homoclime with Burgundy.” As you might expect, Philip Shaw No.11 Chardonnay 2015 showed great restraint, clarity and persistence to its al dente white orchard fruit palate.  New South Wales’ Tumbarumba region is another Chardonnay ‘hotspot’ whose taut acidity is valued for sparkling and still wines.  From vineyards at between 650-760m, clever use of lees-ageing and batonnage (lees stirring) brought texture, complexity and balance to Eden Road Courabyra Chardonnay 2015 (unoaked and Chablis-esque) and Penfolds’ fuller-bodied Bin 311 Chardonnay 2015.

At altitude, pronounced diurnal temperature variation also moderates temperature. “Hot summer days may reach 35 degrees, but overnights are usually below 20 degrees” explains Lark Hill’s Chris Carpenter, who grows Grüner Veltliner at 880m in New South Wales’ Canberra District. Two vintages (2016 and 2012) displayed true varietal character with exciting ageing potential.

Lower temperatures are not the only reason why these altitudinal regions enjoy long growing seasons. The Great Dividing Range acts as a barrier to coastal summer rains which are a feature of Queensland and New South Wales’ tropical weather systems. Grapes can ‘walk to ripeness,’ with slow and steady tannin development and flavour accumulation. Higher ultraviolet light at altitude also helps to concentrate flavour compounds and produces higher but softer tannins.   

Although the wines on tasting came from a diverse range of varieties, altitudes (600m to 900m) and latitudes (28°40’S to 37°25’S), their cool climate credentials came across loud and clear. Lucy Shaw, Editor of The Drinks Business, commented, “The common thread running through these wines was their freshness, which is what both the trade and consumers are increasingly seeking from their wines. It was a hugely positive sign of things to come from Australia." Andrew Catchpole, Editor of Harpers, agreed adding, “The wines had crisp focus, precision and were less focused on fruit, more on restrained, cool climate expression.”

Surprise, surprise…a snowy vineyard near Brisbane

Striking images of high altitude vineyards blanketed in snow served to underline that Australia’s viticultural boundaries stretch further afield than is commonly thought. Beth Pearce, Buyer at Majestic Wine said, “Discussions about cool climate Australia often focus on coastal influences and regions like Tasmania and Mornington [Peninsula], so to take a fresh look at cool climates from a high-altitude perspective was really interesting... I don't think anyone would have picked the snowy vineyard scene as being three hours north of Brisbane!” 

I can well understand Pearce’s surprise about Queensland, ‘the Sunshine State’. The difference between balmy Brisbane (where I stayed overnight during a hot, humid, tropical storm) and the Granite Belt’s pure, fresh mountain air beggared belief but, there and again, the vineyards are high – some over 1000m. From vines planted in 2008 at 820m, Ballandean Estate’s Messing About Saperavi 2015 brilliantly articulated the tannin quality resulting from a long growing season and higher ultraviolet light. The Georgian grape’s fearsome tannins were present, but tamed. Sherry Weng, Managing Director of AOW, was impressed “that Saperavi can perform so well in Australia.”

Altitude also played into the hands of Toppers Mountain Gewürztraminer 2015. With not a jot of oiliness, it combined lovely freshness with good palate weight and intensity of Turkish delight, fresh ginger and lychee flavours. It (and Toppers Mountain coolly menthol, medium-bodied and juicy Wild Ferment Shiraz Viognier 2014, also shown) hail from a 900m vineyard in New England, New South Wales right on the border of Queensland. 

Orange: A bright future

From a vineyard at 610m, Nelly and Alan Cooper’s Cobaw Ridge Syrah 2012 only just qualified for the tasting, so you might have thought Macedon Ranges, Victoria, was the warmest region. Not so. By reason of being the seminar’s southernmost region, altitude and latitude conspire to make it the Australian mainland’s coolest region.  With a long growing season (the harvest can stretch into May) this complex, earthy, peppery, mineral Syrah can slowly accumulate layer upon layer of flavour with no loss of freshness. 

Looking ahead, Alan Cooper told me “as things generally change and continue to warm, we really are sitting in the box seat!!” Which begs the question, what percentage of Australia’s land under vine will sit above 600m ten years from now? Without a crystal ball, who knows, but it was crystal clear from the seminar that Australia’s cool climates’ altitude with attitude wines provoked interest and broadened perceptions about Australia.  For Kelvin McCabe (sommelier at Yauatcha, the contemporary dim sum tea house), they “definitely” deserve a place at the table. A comment which chimes with Philip Shaw’s observation about Australian food being “fairly light with an Asian influence,” so better suited to “wines that are vibrant.”  As for the UK, off-trade, Oddbins’ Head Wine Buyer Ana Sapungiu MW reckons, “… it is apparent that the cooler regions and fresher styles are the ones to get behind, they are exactly the kind of 'new' area and type of producer I am after."

Sarah Ahmed

21 June 2017

Sarah Ahmed aka The Wine Detective is a London-based independent wine writer and educator who has a particular interest in the wines of Australia.


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14 Oct 2017 - 10:50 PM
Love this article Sarah. Have just enjoyed orange for a couple of days.

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