South Australia is arguably the biggest player in the Australian wine industry, with large production, high quality production, icon wines and ancient vines all sharing this huge region. The state capital, Adelaide sits at the centre of wine culture in this area, but vines spread out in all other directions from there.
The local wine industry started in this state over 175 years ago with the first recorded vines being planted in 1838, in North Adelaide.
South Australian wine was also the first Australian wine to reach the reigning Queen (Queen Victoria) back in England, in 1843.
Following this Dr Christopher Rawson Penfold established his medical practice " The Grange" at Magill in 1844, using vines brought over from Southern France.
Penfold's Grange wine is now the most recognised wine to be produced from Australia, and has long held icon status.
The greater South Australia wine region is broken up in several zones, and sub-zones which will be briefly outlined below.
Altogether, there are 18 recognised wine regions in South Australia, though not all will be covered in detail.
The Barossa region contains two main wine-growing areas, the Barossa and Eden Valleys which are very distinct from each other and separated by the Barossa Ranges.
This valley could be considered the most well known region of South Australia.
Located about an hour North-East of Adelaide, it makes for the perfect playground for the city's wine lovers.
The main grape here, as with many regions of Australia, is Shiraz which ripens very full and tannic in this hot and dry area. Rhone varieties like Grenache and Mourvèdre (often known as Mataro in Australia) have also found success in the area recently.
Barossa Valley also produces Chardonnay and Semillon on the higher altitude hillsides of the valley which catch cooling ocean breezes.
This valley is at average, more than double the altitude of the Barossa Valley area, with plantings taking place between 400-600m (1,300-2,000ft)
The altitude brings with it a cooler, wetter growing region, which specializes in a very different style of Shiraz, with the Australian icon wine, Henschke Hill of Grace being produced in this area from 140+ year old vines.
Interestingly, Eden Valley was the first region in Australia to plant Riesling, at the Pewsey Vale Vineyard which was also the founding vineyard of the region.
In modern times, Eden Valley and nearby Clare Valley have both gained international reputations for their high quality examples of Riesling.
Mount Lofty Ranges Zone:
This zone is a big one, encompassing the areas immediately North and East of Adelaide city, and is broken down into 3 sub-zones.
The Clare Valley is located 2 hours due North of Adelaide and along with Eden Valley is well known for it's quality Rieslings. A hot, dry area that rarely irrigates it's vines, the Rieslings here tend to be large and luscious, some of the fullest examples of the variety.
Altitudes of plantings here are typically between 400-500m (approx 1300-1600ft).
This area is typically broken into two sub-regions: Polish Hill River and Watervale with Polish Hill Rieslings being slightly more delicate than the Watervale Rieslings which are usually richer.
Located immediately to the East of Adelaide, these hills, border the city and expand to it's outskirts in a band, North and South. This proximity to the city, makes this a popular new destination for wine lovers looking to escape the city for a day trip.
The border of the Adelaide hills is located just 14km (9mi) from the coast at the Gulf of St. Vincent, making it one of the coolest wine growing regions in South Australia.
As a result, the most popular varieties are Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris.
This region is further broken down into the Lenswood and Piccadilly Valley sub-regions.
The plains that stretch to the immediate North of Adelaide City are hotter, drier and flatter than almost any other wine-growing area in South Australia.
Though small in size compared to it's neighbours (646ha/1,600acres), this area is home to the Magill vineyards which gave rise to the aforementioned icon wine : Penfold's Grange.
Bordering and in some places overlapping with the city's sprawl, the remaining vineyard, number few, but have excellent proximity to the consumers of Adelaide, as well as simple distribution access to the city's well-known restaurant and bar scene.
This region is mostly planted with Shiraz, Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon.
The Fleurieu Zone is massive and diverse, encompassing the entire Fleurieu Peninsula (located to the immediate South of Adelaide City), Kangaroo Island as well as the areas between the mouth of the Murray River and the Gulf of St. Vincent.
McLaren Vale, located to the South of Adelaide, is in my opinion one of the most exciting places to grow wine in Australia.
A Mediterranean climate with four distinct seasons (including very high Winter rainfall levels), low-altitude vineyards (approx 100m/328ft) with undulating hills and clear access to sea breezes, as well as complex, varied and well mapped soil systems all give rise to a wine region capable of producing scores of different varieties at a high quality level.
A large Cellar Door/Tasting Room scene is also present in this region, leading to plenty of interaction between producer and consumer.
The main variety is by far Shiraz which accounts for nearly 50% of vines planted in the region.
Other prominent grapes include: Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Grenache.
This region also produces a dynamic range of grapes that are less common in Australia including: Tempranillo, Sangiovese, Petit Verdot, Viognier, Cinsaut and Verdelho, among others.
Currency Creek is an area positioned on the West side of Lake Alexandrina around the township of the same name. Located roughly 80km(50mi) South-East of Adelaide, this growing coastal-river region is now home to nearly 1000ha (over 2400acres) which specialize in Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon with red grapes accounting for 75% of all plantings in the region.
This area has the interesting combination of being both adjacent to the ocean to the South and South West and Lake Alexandrina to the East and North East. This Lake is fed mainly by the mammmoth Murray River and keeps this area more temperate than most others.
This region is located directly North-East of the Currency Creek region, along the shoreline of Lake Alexandrina. Langhorne Creek growing area extends from the town of Strathalbyn along the course of the Bremer River through the Lake Plains to where it flows into Lake Alexandrina.
Currently there are 5,880ha (14,500acres) of vineyards planting in this region with a history of wine going back to approx.1860.
Another area that focuses on Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon, with the two varieties accounting for nearly 70% of plantings.
Something to note is that 'Orlando Wines' sources many of it's grapes for it's well known 'Jacob's Creek' wines from this region.
Southern Fleurieu Peninsula
The Southern end of the Fleurieu Peninsula (from the border of McLaren Vale to the North-West to Cape Jervis at Peninsulas end) is currently home to a great array of small, family-owned grape growers.
The vineyards towards the Cape are experiencing a more oceanic influence, though shelter is provided by nearby Kangaroo Island.
About 500ha (1,200acres) has been planted so far, along the coastline and foothills, mostly comprising of nearly 50 growers which supply to the less than 20 wineries in the region as well, as companies further afield.
Similar to other South Australian wine regions, Shiraz, Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon are the most planted varieties.
Also grown in the region are less common varieties such as Malbec, Riesling, Viognier and Primitivo.
Kangaroo Island is a wine region located only 13km(8mi) off the coast of the Southern Fleurieu Peninsula and is connected to it by ferry. This island has become well-known in recent years for Bordeaux-style wines grown in ironstone and sandy loam soils near the town of Kingscote.
As of 2015 the region's planting size is still small at only 140ha (350acres) divided amongst around 30 growers and 12 wineries, making this a very boutique wine growing region.
A temperate climate, allows for a long, slow ripening of the grapes here, which include, Shiraz, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Cabernet Franc among others, all in small amounts.
However, with 4405 square kilometres (1700 square miles) of land, there is plenty of room for this wine region to grow.
Limestone Coast Zone:
Tucked away in the South-Eastern Corner of South Australia, the Limestone Coast zone has recently risen to international prominence with the quality and unique characters of it's wines especially those from Coonawarra made from Cabernet Sauvignon.
This region is squeezed in between the coast, and the state border with Victoria, and is located over 300km away from the state capital of Adelaide.
This region draws it's name from it's soils, which are mostly comprised of Limestone ridges, formed after Australia separated from Antarctica and these shallow basins filled with sediment, bringing about a complex assortment of soils, many of which are now important to viticulture within the region.
The crown jewel of the Limestone Coast, Coonawarra has lead the region to international acclaim with large producers from elsewhere in Australia investing in small high quality growers and vineyards to produce a style of Cabernet Sauvignon that is distinct from all others.
Founded by a visionary Scottish migrant, John Riddoch, in 1861, Coonawarra started as a wool industry region until, in the 1890's, Riddoch took his vast amount of land, sub-divided it, and founded the Penola Fruit Company. He soon started planting new vineyards and supporting small growers, and in 1896 built his landmark triple gabled winery, which survives today as Wynn's Coonawarra Estate.
Coonawarra is a region defined by it's special 'Terra Rossa' soils which are a type of red clay produced by the weathering of limestone, with iron oxide (rust) forming in the clay, giving it the distinctive colour.
This soil is has surprisingly good drainage compared to other clays, which makes it favourable for the wine production here.
Terra Rossa soil in Coonawarra is only found in a 'cigar' -shaped strip that is roughly 10km(6.2mi) long and 2km(1.2mi) wide.
Cabernet Sauvignon is king in this small region, however some producers also grow Shiraz, Chardonnay, Merlot and Riesling.
Padthaway (Aboriginal for 'Good Water', though once known to settlers as 'Mosquito Plains') is the warmer, Northern neighbour to Coonawarra and Wrattonbully, which features gently undulating hills, dotted with native bushlands.
This region consists of an 8km(5mi) strip either side of the Riddoch highway heading North-East for about 62km(39mi), covering a total of 345square kilometres (133sq miles). Plantings have steadily increased since the 1960's when industry giant Seppelt Wines established vineyards in the area. Total plantings now consist of just over 4,000ha (10,000 acres).
The region has become well-known for it's white wines (especially Chardonnay, which is known for it's balance of natural acidity and fruit), though in terms of production, red wine still dominates with over 60% of plantings, focusing mainly on Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon.
The Wrattonbully wine region is a younger area of plantings, located directly between Padthaway and Coonawarra, which more similarities, climate-wise, to the latter.
Planting was first started in the late 1960's, but only boomed in the 1990's, led by larger Australian wine companies (including Yalumba and Hardys), interested in large patches of 'terra rossa' soil located around the area. The reasoning behind this, was the belief that these soils had the possibility of producing wines similar to those of Coonawarra, which had begun attracting international attention for it's terrior.
This area also hosts several generational pastoralists, who have now turned their attention to viticultural products, produced from their unique land.
Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz, Merlot and Chardonnay, account for 95% of planting in Wrattonbully, however lesser known varieties (such as Tempranillo and Sangiovese) are also being experimented with.
The Mount Benson wine region is located 300km (185mi) along the coast from Adelaide, and is a unique coastal wine region, situated between the historic fishing towns of Kingston SE and Robe (which has it's own wine region).
A lower elevation than others in South Australia, most of the vineyards of Mount Benson, are planted between 5 and 50m above sea level (16-160ft), and only several kilometres from the shoreline.
This maritime environment has recently attracted viticulturalists, due to it's moderating effects, including : Cold, wet Winters, cool and dry growing seasons and strong winds coming from the South. These effects, help curb Winter frosts and also keep Summer temperature extremes in check.
This small and young region, currently has around 20 producers, with just over 500ha (1,250acres) of vineyards, most of which have been planted in the last decade and a half, with the oldest vineyard in Mount Benson only dating to 1989.
This area includes considerable deposits of the 'Terra Rossa' soil, made famous by nearby Coonawarra, so many call the region 'Terra Rossa by the sea'.
As with other regions of the Limestone Coast, Cabernet Sauvignon is the main commodity, followed by Shiraz, Chardonnay, Merlot. Interestingly Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc are also represented in this cooler region.
The wines of Mount Benson are known for their delicacy and elegance, owing to their colder-maritime climate, which allows for excellent balance.
Another 30km(18mi) down the highway from Mount Benson, is the wine region of Robe, a historical fishing town and port (once the 3rd largest in South Australia).
The wine industry here is very young, with Penfolds beginning commercial plantings in 1994, with 90% of today's vineyards being planted between 1995 and 2000. This rugged coastal area, includes low mountain ranges and hills, nestled between small lakes and the Southern Ocean.
A long, gentle growing season, with a semi-Mediterranean climate, allows for unique expressions of Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. Pinot Gris has also recently been planted since 2001 with great success.
Wines from Robe are described as "Powerful, yet elegant, full of character and rich with colour".
The Mount Gambier wine region is located to the extreme South-East of South Australia, about 430km(270mi) from Adelaide and borders the state of Victoria. The border crossing into Victoria is less than 20km (12mi) from the city of Mount Gambier.
This region is slightly different to the rest of the Limestone Coast in that, in addition to the limestone-based soils, there is also significant amounts of volcanic soil, deposited by the young volcano of Mount Gambier, which last erupted about 6,000 years ago.
Mount Gambier is the only wine region on the Limestone Coast to focus predominantly on white wines, which consist of over 65% of plantings.
Vines were first planted in 1982, and all vineyards in Mount Gambier are family-owned. Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Gris are the most common varieties grown, owing to the cool coastal position, and significant rainfall.
Most growth has been seen in the last 5 years, with 245ha (600acres) of vineyards currently planted to compliment the local orchards and animal husbandry of the area.
The Riverland region lies within the Lower Murray Zone, and is an expansive region which follows the course of the Murray River West from the Victorian border and terminates at Blanchetown (located 130km/80mi North-East of Adelaide) after the Murray turns South and flows towards the ocean.
The Riverland region is home to about half of South Australia's grapes and produces up to 25-30% of all of Australia's wine each year. As such, the Riverland is the domain of large production growers and wineries, with small producers only just starting to stand out in the last decade or so.
This region consists of highly irrigated plains, which spread out from the Murray River and has a mild temperature range, which allows for high yields from each vineyard and consistent vintages, making it a popular area for overseas distributors.
Most often known for it's Chardonnay, the Riverland produces large amounts of Shiraz, Merlot and Cabernet varieties as well, with work going into expanding this portfolio in years to come.
Southern Flinders Ranges:
A special mention here goes to the Far North zone wine region of the Southern Flinders Ranges , located more than 220km North of Adelaide, beyond the other major wine regions and right along the Northern limit for crop production in South Australia.
Ample rainfall is common, so an earlier harvest is usually undertaken compared to the Barossa and Clare Valley regions.
Elevated vineyards are often found between 350-500m (1150ft-1650ft).
The main varieties here are Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz, which have all started to gain domestic and international attention.
And there you have it!
It was a long way to travel, out along the Limestone Coast to the border of Victoria, over to Kangaroo Island and through McLaren Vale, following the Murray River to the Riverland , winding our way through Barossa, Eden and Clare Valleys.. but now we know exactly why South Australia is one of Australia's most important wine regions.
From bulk export productions that keep the world's markets stocked with Aussie wine, to icon wines that have put Australia on the map for generations, Adelaide and it's surrounding state has become a true wine capital of the world!