What is Vintage?
What Makes a Wine Vintage? | Vintage Wine vs Non-Vintage Wine | The History of Australian Wine Vintage | Australian Vintage Climates | Australian Wine Vintage by Varietal | Australian Wine Vintage Timeline |
Vintage refers to the process of harvesting wine grapes from their vines once they’re perfectly ripe. When winemakers consider grape ripeness, all sugar, acid, and tannin levels are measured to determine when the grapes are ready to be picked. Vintage occurs every year, once a year, and in Australia runs for approximately two to four months, depending on the region. The correct temperature leading up to and during vintage is pivotal to how the year’s harvest transpires. Threats of heat, rain, hail and frost can harm the grapes, create disease, and at worst spoil the fruits. Once vintage is complete, winemakers use different techniques to turn the grapes to wine.
What Makes a Wine Vintage?
A vintage wine consists of grapes that were all — or for the most part — grown and harvested in a single year. A wine’s vintage date, found on its label, communicates this time. For instance, grapes that are picked in the 2019 vintage will therefore include 2019 on its label. Although most of its grapes were harvested in this period, small portions can include previous years — the exact amount varying between countries. In Australia, a vintage wine requires 85% same-year grapes.
Vintage Wine vs Non-Vintage Wine
Vintage wines communicate the intricacies of an entire growing season through taste, which can often be completely different from the last. If winemakers wish to produce consistent wine in both taste and quality, blending multiple years together can achieve a desired taste. These wines are labelled non-vintage. Non-vintage wines are usually a blend of two or more wines and of good value. A common example celebrated worldwide for its familiar tastes and aromas would be champagne that is labelled NV to communicate its non-vintage. Another example would be fortified wines which are often non-vintage and popular in Australia.
The History of Australian Wine Vintage
Australia has long been a producer of world-class wines. The first vine cuttings to arrive in Australia were brought over in 1788 by Governor Phillip of the First Fleet from South Africa. Despite what many had hoped, these vines did not produce the first Australian wine vintage. Some time later, in the early 1800s, John MacArthur planted pinot gris, frontignac, gouais, verdelho and cabernet sauvignon vines on his property in Camden Park near Sydney. This marked the first commercial vineyard and winery in Australia, producing stunning examples of Australian wine that were imported around the world. The 1830s marked an important time in Australian wine history when the Hunter Valley wine region was established thanks to James Busby. After returning from France and Spain with an honourable collection of European varieties, he planted the vines which included the famed Australian shiraz.
Australian Vintage Climates
Wine is produced in all parts of Australia, in every state and within several climates. Australian wine thus shows varied complexities, parading different terroirs to one another. James Halliday says that "each terroir, small or large, is unique and hence not duplicated anywhere else in the world."* Although many regions produce wine, majority are situated in the cooler climates of Australia. The hot climate of the Northern Territory proves difficult for viticulture, although there are some small vineyards operating. Below lists the major wine states of Australia and their specific climates.
Arguably the heart of Australian wine, many famed wine regions call South Australia home, including the Barossa Valley, Clare Valley, McLaren Vale, Eden Valley, Adelaide Hills and Coonawarra. Overall, the area enjoys hot dry summers, with winters that are cool, mild and wet. The wine regions see varying climates; the Riverland being very hot, with the Adelaide Hills cooling down. Rainfall is minimal overall.
New Sales Wales is the birthplace of Australian wine with vineyards sprawling far and wide. Its cool climate regions include Orange, the Canberra District and Hilltops, with the famed Hunter Valley enjoying warm weather and high rainfall. Areas such as Mudgee and Cowra are both warm and dry. As a whole, New South Wales shares similarities with the renowned wine region of Languedoc-Roussillon in France.
Victoria has the most wine producers than any other wine-producing state in Australia. It’s known for their exceptional cool climate regions including the Yarra Valley, Mornington Peninsula, Macedon Ranges and the King and Alpine Valleys. They're also home to warmer regions; Bendigo, Glenrowen and Rutherglen to name a few. The Murray Darling is landmarked in Victoria for their warm yet dry climate that produces tasteful grapes.
Western Australia receives a temperate climate thanks to the cool breeze of the Indian Ocean. The Great Southern is the largest wine region of Australia (39,007 square kilometres) and includes five subregions: the Porongurup, Mount Barker, Albany, Denmark, and Frankland River. These areas differ across various climates and are overall the coolest in the state. It also experiences less rainfall than the Margaret River whose climate is similar to Bordeaux in France during a dry vintage. A warmer wine area of Western Australia is the Swan District — the warmest wine region in the Australia.
Tasmania is the coolest wine region in the country and Australia’s southern-most state. Many parts are cold, and perfect for the production of dry whites and sparkling wines. There are warmer regions within Tasmania too, such as the Coal River Valley and the Freycinet Peninsula. Red wines from these regions are becoming more recognised.
Although a predominately hot state, Queensland is home to both cool and warm wine regions. The Granite Belt is on the cooler side at times seeing snowfall, where as the South Burnett is warmer and where majority of Queensland’s fruit is grown. Both regions represent different climates and produce contrasting wines that are of equal quality.
EXPLORE AUSTRALIA'S VINTAGE WINES BY REGION
After a more in depth analysis on vintage wines? The Halliday Australian Vintage Chart is your full resource, compiling the ratings of Australian vintages across every wine region in Australia. Browse the finest vintage wines and explore their unique tasting notes.
Australian Wine Vintage by Varietal
There are many different ways to make wine, some more common than others. The red winemaking process is similar to the white, with rosé and sparkling production using techniques of their own.
- Red and White Wine Production
The white winemaking process differs slightly to the red. The main difference is that white wine production commonly uses grapes without their skins during fermentation. Another is that white wine is fermented at a cooler temperature, capturing the fruit's flavour profiles. After picking and destemming, the next step is to remove the skins from the grapes by crushing them. The grapes are pressed and the juice is collected before fermentation occurs. Depending on the wine style being made, it will then be aged, which can add depth and complexity. Most white wines are commonly filtered before they are bottled to clear any cloudy qualities and stabilise the wine.
- Rosé and Sparkling Wine Production
There are many ways to produce rosé wine, the most common being the maceration method. This method refers to red wine grapes being grown and harvested for the specific purpose of making rosé wine. They’re also picked at a lower brix compared to other grapes, which is purposeful to keep acidity levels up and sugar levels down. The grapes are left to sit for a considerately shorter amount of time than usual, with the end result being a soft pink coloured wine (rather than a deeper red). Another method is the saignée method (translating to 'bleeding' in French), which is a by-product of red wine. In this method, a small amount of juice is bled off after a few hours of fermenting. The remaining juice will increase in concentration levels and create deep red wine, while the separated juice can be enjoyed as rosé. A less popular method is blending, which is when a small amount of red wine is added to white wine during production.
Sparkling wine production can seem technical. There are six methods most often used that each result in a different style of sparkling wine. You’ll most often hear of the traditional method (used for Champagne), and the tank method (used for prosecco). Other methods include the transfer, ancestral, continuous and carbonation methods. These involve many intricate steps, and can be discovered on our sparkling page.
Although the above outline describes the most common winemaking processes, there are alternative methods that winemakers follow that best suit their vineyard and style of wines. Many alternative winemaking paths are taken during the production of minimal intervention wines, for instance.
Australian Wine Vintage Timeline
The timeline below shows the expected months that each Australian state will begin vintage. As climate can change unexpectedly each year, this timeline is also subject to change. Winemakers are constantly aware of the weather and continue to reshape their processes to produce the finest wine possible. James Halliday says that "for Australia (exceptions such as Coonawarra to one side) climate is the most significant factor (outside vignerons' control) impinging on grape quality and wine style."
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*All wine styles and James Halliday quotes included within this article are taken from James Halliday's Wine Atlas of Australia. This title is available nationally and a list of stockists can be found here. If a digital copy is preferred, the ebook version can be found here.