Welcome.. to Australia's Cradle of Wine.
The state of New South Wales (NSW) is viewed by many to be both the birthplace of Australian Wine and the beating heart of the modern industry in the country.
The first vines in the colony of Australia were planted in Sydney Cove during the 1790's and while there was little success at first, from 1830 onwards, vines were established in the Hunter Valley North of Sydney and the Hunter is now Australia’s oldest continuous wine region.
New South Wales has also grown significantly over the last 35 years, from 76 producers in 1983, to over 485 as of 2017 (over 330 of these producers have a cellar door/tasting room).
There are 14 wine regions solely in NSW and 2 wine regions shared with neighbouring state Victoria.
These wine regions are organised into 8 larger zones, spread across different geographical areas of the large state.
Before we start speaking on well-known areas like Hunter Valley or learning about unknown regions just beginning to be explored, we first must speak about the Big Rivers Zone. This region is producing the large majority of wine for this state and it's economic importance cannot be overlooked.
The success of this region over the last century has allowed companies and families to plant and explore other areas of NSW with confidence and enthusiasm.
The largest wine region by area in NSW, Riverina is a well-known production powerhouse within Australia and is in fact the single largest producing wine region, with Riverina alone producing around 15% of the country's total wine production.
This means Riverina is producing over half of the grapes of the state of New South Wales (around 20,000 hectares/49,500acres), with much of this wine destined for export markets across the world.
Interesting to note, is that region only sports around 16 wineries, owing to a focus on large-scale, farm-like operations.
This region, like it's neighbours to the South, owes it's success to heavy-use of irrigation, allowing for huge tracts of land to be planted, and high-yield produced by the vines here.
Riverina is centred around the city of Griffith, where most of the crushing takes places, as well as the down of Leeton in the East of the area.
Wine grapes have been grown in Riverina since 1912, when the water first flowed along the irrigation canals and JJ McWilliam planted thousands of vine cuttings at Hanwood (Though McWilliam first carted the water for irrigation to his vines until the canals were finished several months after planting).
Well known large-scale Australian producers like De Bortoli, McWilliams, Casella(Yellow-Tail) this area with massive winery and tank farm facilities present near Griffith especially.
The signature wine of this region currently is the Noble Botrytis Semillon, a dessert wine style based on the famous Sauternes wines of Bordeaux, and this wine was first commercialized by the De Bortoli family in 1982.
Currently there is a push in Riverina to focus on this smaller, more specialized wine production.
This viticultural region is shared with Victoria (covered also in the Victoria section of our Australian Wine Regions Guide) to the South and is a heavily irrigated landscape of flat vineyards, centered on the town of Mildura and the confluence of the Murray and Darling rivers.
Murray-Darling is currently the second largest producing wine region in the country and has a big focus on the Chardonnay grape (over 100,000 metrics tonnes are harvested around Mildura each year!).
High-yielding vineyards, are surviving just fine in this hot, dry, continental landscape, thanks again to irrigation water drawn by canals from the nearby rivers.
There is little difference to vineyards of the NSW side of the rivers, though it should be noted that almost all the townships and production facilities of this region are located on the Victorian side of the rivers (not that this impacts the wine production at all).
In total, including the Victorian side, this desert wine region boasts around 800 growers (200 on the NSW side) and nearly 15,000ha of grapevines.
The Perricoota wine region is the only emerging wine region among the Big Rivers Zone, and is located along the Murray River which forms the natural border between New South Wales and Victoria.
Perricoota is reasonably cool climate compared to most others areas of the state, and really has more in common with the Goulburn Valley wine region which lies just across the Murray River.
Founded in the late 1990's, Perricoota has grown steadily, despite ongoing drought conditions that have increased reliance on irrigation, mostly due to the popular tourist towns of Moama (NSW) and Echuca (Victoria) which mirror each other on each side of the river, with paddlesteamers and riverboats plying the Murray River inbetween.
The river flats here have proven well suited to common varieties such as Chardonnay, Semillon, Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon, as the long hours of regular sunshine allow for full ripeness, and the red clay loam soils are able to hold well the moisture that irrigation brings to the region.
Currently, many of the growers here are selling much of their grapes to producers elsewhere in Australia.
The majority of the Swan Hill wine region is located in the state of Victoria, but as some it's vineyards cross the border into New South Wales, this wine region is technically shared by both states.
Swan Hill is another large production region, that is capable of producing wine thanks to heavy use of irrigation.
This area was named Swan Hill by explorer Major Thomas Mitchell, for the abundance of Swan and other waterfowl found along this portion of the the river.
The soil is red-brown loamy sand, which is very rich and was described by Major Thomas Mitchell, when he surveyed the region in 1836, as "capable of being easily irrigated by the river", a prediction which, by 1900, had already come to pass with Muscat being planted, as well as sultanas for dried fruit.
The principal grape varieties as with other bulk production areas, are Chardonnay, Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon.
The Hunter Valley wine region is easily the most famous wine destination in the entire state of New South Wales, as well as one of the most visited in the country.
The Hunter region has been lauded as the birthplace of the Australian wine industry, and indeed was one of the first places in the country to plant grapevines, during the early years of the 19th Century.
Hunter's proximity to Sydney (158km/98mi) and major regional hub Newcastle (48km/30mi) has lead to a successful flow of visitors and easy access to export routes which bring the wines to all corners of the globe.
The first major plantings in this area came in 1825 when James Busby, a man now heralded as the 'Father of the Australian wine industry' purchased land for a vineyard in the area. Busby went on to travel extensively across Europe and South Africa, collecting vine cuttings to bring back to NSW, visiting over 500 vineyards, including a very important selection of Syrah(Shiraz) cuttings from Hermitage hill in the Rhône valley wine region of France. These cuttings were then planted at his brother-in-law's estate in the Hunter Valley, Kirkton Estate.
In the following three decades, the region expanded rapidly, with the first vineyards of George Wyndham (Wyndham Estate) being planted using some material from Busby's estate plantings. By the 1860's, the vineyards of the Hunter region had expanded and moved away from the Hunter River and instead were planted to the South and West towards Pokolbin where today, many of the most well regarded vineyards are now located.
By 1976 there were over 725ha(1800acres) of vines planted within the Hunter region.
In 1855 during the Paris Exhibition (famous for the revealing of the Bordeaux Wine Official Classification), Hunter Valley wine's won many impressive awards for almost every category, whites, reds, muscat sweet wines and very notably bested the French Champagne's with a Hunter sparkling wine from James King of Irrawang Vineyard, which won the honour of being served at the table of Emperor Napoleon III.
During the early to mid 20th Century, Hunter Valley saw many ups and downs as a region, especially during war-time, prohibition and the Great Depression.
It wasn't until the 1960's-70's that the region began to recover.
It was during this time two distinct wine's began to be produced in this area, and both have far-reaching effects that are still felt in today's international wine industry.
The first of these wines was the distinct Semillon which is produced in a bone-dry, high acid ,complex style, and was first marketed by in the 1960's by Sydney wine merchant Leo Buring under the label "Rhine Gold". Hunter Semillon now has a full reputation of it's own, setting it well apart from those produced in it's classic home of Bordeaux. These wines are well regarded for their longevity with many examples lasting for decades without significant oak treatment or acid addition.
In 1971, Matthew Tyrrell of Tyrrell Wines, released Australia's first commercial Chardonnay, and this changed Australian wine forever, with Chardonnay becoming one of the most planted varieties in the country for decades to come.
Thanks to these wines, despite the total plantings of the Hunter having fallen from previous highs to 466ha(1,150acres) in 1956, by 1976 these had increased to over 4,100ha (10,000acres) and continued to grow slowly through the wine boom of the 1990's.
Although the Riverina region is now a larger volume producer of wine within New South Wales, the history and quality of Hunter Valley Wine has remained strong and true, with this region being one of the most recognisable and awarded wine-growing regions within Australia.
The Central Ranges Zone encompasses three smaller regions located in between the Hunter Valley and Big Rivers-Southern New South Wales Zones.
These regions have been instrumental in the development of the wine industry of New South Wales and have shown potential for both high industrial yields and high quality productions in smaller estates.
These regions run North-South along the Western slops of the Great Dividing Range, and the warmer inland climate is offset by most of the vineyards being planted at significant altitude.
The wine region of Mudgee is the most Northerly of the 3 regions within the Central Ranges Zone. It lies on the other side of the Great Dividing Range from the Hunter Valley wine region, but is cooler and more frost prone than it's famous neighbour.
In fact, despite it's proximity to the Hunter Valley, the harvest in Mudgee often takes place up to four weeks later due to the cooler climate and higher elevation.
The vines in Mudgee are grown at elevations between 450-1180m (1475ft-3870ft) above sea level, making them some of the highest vineyards in Australia.
'Mudgee' is the Aboriginal word for 'Nest in the Hills' and it's easy to see why this name was given to the area, with dozens of small valleys and hillscapes, protecting each vineyard site within their warm embrace.
The downside with these nests, is that during certain parts of the season, they can become shadow-filled hollows that do nothing to alleviate the risk of frost.
Several varieties thrive in Mudgee, including excellent cool-climate styles of Shiraz (often blended with Viognier), Chardonnay in recent years, high quality examples of off-dry Riesling.
Cabernet Sauvignon produces a lushly fruity and powerful tannic style here while Semillon is similar in style to it's wines in the Hunter, picked at low sugar levels and ageing beautifully for up to 20 years in the bottle.
Orange is the middle child of the Central Ranges Zone Siblings, with Mudgee to the North and Cowra to the South.
Situated around the town of the same name, the wine region of Orange is defined as the contiguous area above 600m(2,000ft) and the vineyard plantings continue up to around 900m(2,950ft).
This is one of the few regions where the boundaries are dictated solely by elevation, a decision that seems very wise as the higher elevation sites have warm days and cool/cold nights which allow for extended ripening, often leading to higher quality, well-balanced wines.
The Orange region is towered over by the ancient basalt volcano Mount Canobolas which gives the region volcanic soils of considerable fertility.
Close to the mountain we find well drained, friable, deep red-brown clays derived from basalt, while scattered around the area come deeper red-yellow-brown clays, which are of mixed origin but include volcanic ash.
In some parts of Orange you can also spot medium vigour clays, with shale bases, and gravel spread throughout, which assists in drainage.
The Orange area mainly focuses on Shiraz as with many regions of Australia, however of note recently have been many fantastic blends of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, a process which speak to the temperate climate found here despite it's 33° 15'S Latitude.
Blending is the favoured style, as the sensitive Merlot can have difficulty with it's fruit set due to the chilly winds that can blow through the region.
Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc do well at the higher elevations too, with the latter developing intense tropical fruit flavours develop when grown at high elevation above 750 metres (2460ft).
The most Southerly of the 3 regions, Cowra is by far the warmest and lowest in elevation. Cowra is also the smallest of the wine regions, and covers 1,250sqkm(482sqmi) of the Lachlan Valley of NSW, including Cowra, Billimari and Canowindra.
Located just 4.5 hours (330km/205mi) due West of Sydney and 2.5 hours (200km/125mi) due North of Canberra, the Cowra region is accessible by several serious wine purchasing markets.
Due to it's inland location, the Cowra wine region experiences warm days, that turn to cool evenings, and a dry, late Summer season, which makes for a longer growing season for the vines.
Although wine grapes have been produced in the region since before 1865, it wasn't until the 1980's that Cowra became locally well-known. This turn around happened when Brian Crosier (of Pentaluma fame) produced award winning Chardonnay wine from grapes at the Charles Sturt University Winery. Today Chardonnay is the major grape variety in Cowra and the region has become well regarded recently for the increasing commitment to both sustainable and organic grape growing.
Produced by Wines of Cowra
The Northern Rivers Zone itself covers a decent area of land along the coast to the North-East of Hunter Valley. However, at this point, it has only one recognised region for vineyards, centred in the small inland valleys of the Hastings River in the South of the zone, near the seaside town of Port Macquarie.
While vineyards in Hastings River were first planted in 1837, this coastal collection of wineries is one of the smallest production areas in New South Wales to receive an official designation as a wine region.
Growing grapes in Hastings River has been a tough job for over 150 years, as while there were 33 vineyards in 1860, in the late 1800's these vineyards declined and eventually disappeared. This is a trend we see repeated in most wine regions of Australia.
Between the 1920's and late 1970's there was no production of wine in Hastings River, with the first of the new vineyards being planted in 1980 by the Cassegrain family.
With high humidity, and high precipitation, this area does not require supplemental irrigation, almost unique amongst Australian wine regions, however with the rain comes disease and other crop pests.
There are currently 6 wineries operating in the Hastings River, with 200ha (495 acres) under vine and Chardonnay as the main variety grown. Semillon, Merlot, Chambourcin and a few other varieties also show promise here.
The soils in Hastings River are a mixed bag with free draining alluvial and red volcanic soils found in some areas, water-resistant yellow clay in others and small pockets of overlie gravel and limestone are dotted around too.
The Northern Slopes Zone (also known as the Northern Tablelands), is located to the far north of New South Wales, stretching from the Hunter Valley and Central Ranges, up to the state border with Queensland.
As the name suggests, the area is primarily a plateau, with the vineyards often located on smaller hillscapes within this vast region.
The only recognised region within Northern Slopes is the 'New England Australia' wine region which takes up the majority of the zone itself.
New England Australia:
New England, while being only recently officially recognised as a wine region, was actually well known for producing quality wine back in the colonial era, with the famous George Wyndham (founder of Wyndham Estate) establishing a small parcel of vineyards, near Inverell called 'Bukkulla', which by 1870 had grown to 10 hectares (25 acres).
After the arrival of the railway to the region, several vineyards had cropped up around Inverell, together with around 45ha (111acres) under vine.
In between 1870 and 1920, the New England region saw several international accolades, including competitions in London, San Francisco, Amsterdam, Chicago as well as within Australia at Sydney.
An interesting quote comes from a English wine judge at the time
"(They) have a character and quality above the average of most wine-producing countries. The lowest quality is better than a large proportion of the ordinary wines of Europe, while the best would not suffer in comparison to the finest known growths".
This praise, while high, did not stop the difficulties of operating an isolated wine region during war time, and economic turmoil.
Today, the number of small producers in this area are increasing slowly, due to renewed interest in fridge wine production.
There is a large amount of diversity within New England, owing to the high altitude of the plateau, with many of the vineyards lying 1000m (3280ft) above sea level.
Cold climate sites lie on the sloping spine of the Great Dividing Range (Australia's longest mountain range) while the warmer sites and more fertile soils are to be found to the Western edges of the New England Tablelands at lower altitudes.
Principal varieties growing in New England include, Chardonnay, Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, and Shiraz, with the warm days and cool nights being ideal for slow ripening.
The soils here are diverse , including granite, black earth, alluvial , sandy loams and New England is the only place in Australia where terra rossa soils occur at such high altitude.
Challenges here include, thunderstorms and hail, late frosts and even snow are possible all the way until November, disrupting flowering.
Although still small, if nurtured properly, New England Australia has a lot of potential for cooler climate wine growing within Australia.
The South Coast Zone, consists of two wine regions currently, both located around 130-170km South of Sydney, near the town of Nowra.
The area is defined by it's coastal influence, with cool sea breezes and higher rainfall levels.
The two regions of Shoalhaven Coast and Southern Highlands were both established as wine regions only beginning in the 1970's and 80's, well after most other areas attempted viticulture, but in line with the timeline of re-emerging wine growing regions.
Shoalhaven Coast is an area long known for it's beautiful beaches and warm temperatures, a popular seaside getaway from Sydney for decades.
With a significant local tourism industry, there is plenty of potential for visitors to also enjoy a locally produced wine.
In Shoalhaven, the best results so far have been from north-facing slopes, especially in the sunny Southern areas, and to limit vigour, ideally alluvial soils with good drainage should be present.
The wines that seem to be produced best in these conditions are Chardonnay, Chambourcin , Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon (with the latter two often blended together to produce earthy, soft styles of wine).
Chambourcin in particular here, and in Hastings River far to the North is resistant to the mildew cause by high humidity this close to the ocean and performs well in even the wettest of winters.
Verdelho has also been planted with some success for many of the same reasons, and offers an interesting alternative to Chardonnay here as it does in Swan River, Western Australia.
Shoalhaven Coast currently has around 16 cellar doors, with most of these being small family owned operations. The major tourist attraction of Coolangatta Estate, whose founder first trialled grapes in the 1800's, also makes wine today with Greg Bishop planting vines there and producing the first vintage in 1990.
Thanks to a 20-year partnership with Tyrell's Wines of the Hunter Valley, Coolangatta Estate has become the largest winery in Shoalhaven as well as being highly acclaimed by the likes of James Halliday, who awards the winery 5 stars.
50 minutes West of Wollongong and 1.5 hours from both Sydney and Canberra lies the Southern Highlands region, which in the last decade has seen renewed interest and growth in it's wine industry.
Situated near the towns of Mittagong and Bowral, this cool-climate region has chosen to focus on Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris, and has now grown to more than 60 vineyards with around 350ha (865acres) of plantings.
Local documents record a modest wine industry present in the Southern Highlands during the late 1880's, however little viticulture survived into the 20th century.
In the early 1980's the region saw a resurgence with the establishment of Joadja Vineyards and Winery.
The Southern Highlands vineyards are mostly planted at higher altitudes which ranges from 550-850m(1800-2800ft) above sea level and feature cool nights, mild days and dry ripening conditions well suited to a wide variety of grapes.
Southern New South Wales:
Southern New South Wales wine Zone comprises of some of the coolest areas for winemaking in the state, with the vineyards marching off into the mountains, through the Australian Capital of Canberra and towards the border with Victoria.
The Canberra District is a curious one as it's territory comprises not just the Northern half of the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) but also stretches far to the North into New South Wales.
Now comprising over 250ha(615acres) and continuing to grow, the Canberra District wine region has become increasingly known for it's high-quality, cool climate wines.
The areas vineyards are at elevations of 500-800m(1640-2625ft) above sea level and often feature an extreme continental climate, which very warm, dry days and cold nights even in Summer, which extends the time needed to ripen the grapes.
Elegant and crisp styles of Riesling, styled dry and built to age, and excellent medium-bodied, savoury and spicy Shiraz, with producer Clonakilla's Shiraz Viognier constantly setting a benchmark for the style.
The Gundagai wine region of NSW is a region on the edge. Portions of the area include lower elevation, warm plains , more similar to it's hot-climate, heavily irrigated neighbour Riverina, while South-Eastern areas are cool and steep, with higher elevation vineyards abutting into the Snowy Mountains, also bordering the Tumbarumba wine region to the south.
This region works as the connecting force between these two different sides of New South Wales wine, and as such is capable of growing a great variety of grapes and producing them in all manner of styles.
Gundagai fruit is able to combine wonderfully the perfumed aromas you find in Canberra, with the fruit intensity found in Hilltops.
Historical winemaking started with German immigrants bringing grapevines into the area, with some of the cool-climate styles taking hold in the area near Tamut in the South-East corner of Gundagai, due to it's proximity to the cold Snowy Mountains.
In the northern plains of Gundagai, Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon & Chardonnay continue to dominate.
The region is small with only 30 producers, however many sell premium grapes to bigger wineries around NSW.
The Hilltops region's name is rather on the nose. Vineyards are located all along the rolling South-Western slopes of the Great Dividing Range.
These vines are growing at significant elevations around 450-600m (1475-1970ft)
Hilltops is growing slowly with 13 wine producers, & 5 cellar doors, producing quite the range of different varieties.
While Shiraz & Cabernet Sauvignon with true fruit intensity are the super stars here, they have a subtle elegance and finesse that isn't usually seen in the warmer regions of Australia.
Hilltops is also capable of many other varieties, with Pinot Noir, Barbera, Chardonnay & Riesling being planted, just to name a few.
Just like most other areas of Australia, grapes were grown in Hilltops around the township of Young during the late 1800s, but again as with the rest of Australia, this soon declined and didn't see true revival until the 1980s.
One of the flagship producers, Moppity Vineyards has helped skyrocket Hilltops into the eye of the wine world by winning over 90 trophies & medals in just the last 8 years alone. Their vineyards are primarily planted across dark red volcanic granite clay soils with basalt is scattered through-out the hillsides.
With Tumbarumba we have almost reached the end of our rather lengthy overview of the wine regions of New South Wales.
In fact we have also reached the Southern extreme of the state of New South Wales, with some of the vineyards in Tumbarumba being less than 30 minutes from the border with Victoria.
The 300ha(740acres) vineyards here are known for being some of the coolest in NSW if not mainland Australia, being planted at elevations between 300m(980ft) in the West to 800m (2,600ft).
Two varieties of grapes dominate this region, Chardonnay for white, and Pinot Noir for red.
Soil types vary through the region from red & white granite soils to shale and deep red basalt.
Two vineyard productions almost simultaneously helped to kickstart the serious wine industry in Tumbarumba in 1981.
One was planted by Ian Cowell, a senior winemaker for Australian wine industry legend Lindemans, who had been searching the Western side of the Great Dividing Range for a cool growing area similar to Burgundy and Champagne and that could succeed in producing wine from their signature varieties.
The other was planted independently the same year by Frank and Christine Minutello who had left the family tobacco farm in Victoria to pursue suitable land for cattle grazing and wine growing.
An curious thing happened in 1992, when the Department of Agriculture, in association with Southcorp Wines, seeing potential in the region for grapegrowing, decided to hold an information evening for potential growers & new suppliers.
While there were only 8 attendees on that night, it was deemed a rousing success as all eight of them went on to plant vineyards of their own.
This lead to the main focus of Tumbarumba being grape production for wine companies in adjacent regions in NSW & Victoria, and slowly becoming recognised for the quality and unique characteristics of their grapes.
Recently the number of small wine producers has increased which has meant for the consumer they are now more likely than ever to find a great bottle of Tumbarumba wine.
A small moment here before we finish our overview to mention the final area covered by the New South Wales wine regions.
This last part of the map is called the Western Plains Zone, fills in the only remaining empty space within NSW state borders, not covered by the other zones. This is found in the North-East corner of the state bordered by Queensland to the North and South Australia to the West, and in that case the region is large in scope and much of the zone has very little in the way of vineyards.
What vineyards there are are sheltered in a small area in the South-East corner of the zone, centred primarily around the city of Dubbo, which lies close to the border of the Central Ranges Zone.
Western Plains has little issue with frost, but excess heat and issues with water access prohibit growth in the West, and excess humidity severely limits growth to the North.
From its south-eastern corner, to its North-Western corner (the state border between Queensland, South Australia and New South Wales) Western Plains wine Zone measures around 500 miles (805km).
Even one of the standout producers of the area Canonbah Bridge Wines, grows their vineyard as another asset of their sprawling sheep farming and pastoral estate.
Canonbah's vines however were astutely planted on the dried up remains of what was once, 2000 years ago, a river bed.
There you have it!
We've now learned a lot about New South Wales, the beating heart of Australia's wine industry!
Home to a massive variety of climates, production styles and levels, including both young innovators & stoic traditionalists.
New South Wales is the place where wine grapes were first properly introduced to Australia, and while now slightly out-paced production-wise by South Australia, the region has grown tremendously in the last decade, moving from 15,000ha(37,000acres) under vine to over 40,000ha (99,000acres).
Growth in such numbers is a sure sign of a healthy and competitive industry, with more folks than ever willing it give wine making and viticulture a go, and discovering whole new styles of wine along the way.
NSW wine is becoming more and more popular world-wide and if you find yourself interested in the wine regions we have discovered here today, go out and see if your local wine store has any wine from there.
Failing that, check with distributors or go out of your way, to visit these incredible producers during your next trip to Australia!
Thanks for learning about New South Wales Wine with me, if you have any regions you would like to learn about, please feel free to contact me or check out my overviews of other wine regions!
Other Wine Regions