Grape varieties and famous wines of Australia and New Zealand

'Great value and genuine greatness' in our wines

By Robyn Lewis
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Noble Rot on Riesling grapes, Geelong, Victoria

Noble Rot on Riesling grapes, Geelong, Victoria [©Ian Hickinbotham]

Leura Park Estate - Chardonnay Grapes
Penfolds Grange vintages
Tahbilk Underground Cellars
Seppeltsfield 100 year old barrel storage cellar


Australia and New Zealand are now home to hundreds of grape varieties, from the mainstream to the obscure. The predominant reds are cabernet sauvignon and shiraz (syrah), the latter especially in South Australia and Victoria, with grenache and merlot in smaller quantities, and also in New Zealand.

Food-friendly pinot noir finds favour in New Zealand and cooler regions of Australia, including Tasmania. Zinfandel, a popular grape in America, has curiously never taken great hold, but other ‘alternative’ varieties are emerging, including sangiovese and tempranillo.

Amongst whites, chardonnay reigns supreme in Australia. Often described as the ‘queen of grapes’, the volume of chardonnay is increasing, as is its quality. For a decade or more over-oaked styles predominated, but as styles became more elegant and refined, Australian chardonnays now rank amongst the best in the world. Chardonnay can be paired with a wide range of dishes, of many cuisines.

New Zealand is synonymous with sauvignon blanc; both countries also produce excellent rieslings.

Semillon is a variety that has been made famous by the Hunter Valley; matched with seafood and cheeses it can be wonderful, and aged Hunter semillons are sublime. Margaret River in Western Australia produces semillon-sauvignon blanc blends (SSB), excellent with seafood and Asian dishes.

Traminer and gewürtztraminer are low yielding whites that are expensive to produce, but do well in the cooler regions, particularly in Tasmania and New Zealand.

Recently the Austrian grape grüner veltliner has become fashionable, but little is grown. Marsanne, most commonly found in the Northern Rhône region, is made famous by Tahbilk Estate in Victoria, and can be enjoyed for decades.

Some of the best dessert and fortified wines in Australia come from North East Victoria, and are aged ‘ports’, ‘tokays’ (no longer sold under those names; the latter being marketed as topaque), and muscat.

Their ancestry dates back over a century, and recently one was the first Australian wine to be awarded 100 points by New York’s Wine Spectator magazine: Campbell’s Merchant Prince Rutherglen Muscat, a magnificent wine. They are truly national treasures. Botrytis-affected wines similar to sauternes and barsac are produced, the standout being de Bortoli’s Noble One, made from semillon grapes, and one of the most awarded wines in the world.

Penfolds Grange is the best known of Australia’s iconic reds, produced at Magill Estate in Adelaide, from grapes sourced mainly in the Barossa Valley. Unlike many Australian wines, which favour regional distinction, it is a shiraz-cabernet blend, whose proportions and sources vary according to the vintage. Henschke’s Hill of Grace Shiraz from South Australia is of similar calibre, and Jim Barry’s The Armagh is magnificent, although some of these wines could be overpowering for European palates accustomed to French subtlety.

Some of the best cabernet sauvignon comes from Western Australia and the Coonawarra region of South Australia. It is also grown in New Zealand’s north island.  Tasmania is increasingly renowned for its sparkling wines, and a unique sparking shiraz is made in Western Victoria and several other regions.

Wine critic Robert Parker states that “Australia produces something for everyone, at every price range”. There is great value, and also genuine greatness – and I consider myself fortunate to live here and to be able to enjoy its richness and variety, and that of neighbouring New Zealand.


This article was first published in The New Renaissance of Italian Fusion Cuisine 2.0, by Chef Gianfranco Chiarini (Blurb, USA, 2012).

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August 31st, 2012
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