Vines Down Under: World-Class Australian Vineyards

Words by
Nina Caplan

17th April 2024

Often overlooked as a fine wine destination, Australia boasts world-class vineyards that will appeal to even the most discerning oenophile.

The vastness of the grounds wasn’t the big surprise: this, after all, was Australia, where it is far more unusual to find a hotel that has celebrated its 100th birthday than one that’s more than a third the size of Manhattan. In fact, Kingsford The Barossa is old as well as enormous — the 225-acre estate, now a luxury hotel, was built as a homestead in 1856 — but that wasn’t the surprise, either.

I was met by David D’Cruze, who is far more than the sommelier: he seems to run everything. After settling in to an airy wood-panelled room with doors opening onto a shady communal veranda, I was shown through the bar and restaurant, past the mini bowling alley and honesty bar downstairs, and into the private dining room, with its 21-metre table — longer than a cricket pitch — that seats 70. D’Cruze then led me around the vaults stretching the room’s length, all perfectly chilled to suit the bottles that filled the shelves of each one. Fine wines, each in multiple vintages, some of them rare, none of them cheap. And here was the surprising part: all of them were Australian.

Australia Best Vineyards - Barossa Valley
The Barossa Valley wine region

If Australia isn’t widely known as a fine wine destination, it’s certainly not the fault of the wines. This vast country, famous for spectacular beaches and amazing wildlife, also produces some of the world’s best bottles, in some cases from the world’s oldest vines. Why isn’t that common knowledge? Partly because of a laid-back lifestyle that seems, from over here, more beer and beach party than black-tie wine dinner. Partly due to the rivers of well-priced, clearly labelled plonk the country has exported for decades, although it isn’t as if France and Italy don’t make their fair share of alcoholic, forgettable wines. But the real problem with our perception of Australian wine may be that, in wine terms, there is no such place as Australia. From Margaret River on the west coast to the Hunter Valley, north of Sydney, is around 2,400 miles. The former makes great Cabernet Sauvignon while the latter is better known for ageworthy Semillon.

Australian Vineyards - Vasse Felix
Vasse Felix, the first commercial vineyard and winery to be established in the Margaret River region, features a critically acclaimed restaurant

Between the two, you find Clare Valley’s vibrant Rieslings, the gorgeous cool-climate wines of the Adelaide Hills, and some of the world’s finest and most expensive Chardonnays in Beechworth. There are fabulous Pinot Noirs on the Mornington Peninsula; Tasmania makes superb Chardonnays, many of which end up in the state’s sophisticated sparkling wines. The Barossa Valley, where I was, is best known for rich, spicy Shiraz but now produces Grenache, which, in a recent London tasting comparing a few of the best alongside the grape’s greatest European expressions — top Châteauneuf-du-Pape plus Priorats from northern Spain — the Aussies had no difficulty holding their own. Australia has 65 wine regions. It is 14 times the size of France. Granted, half the country isn’t suitable for winemaking, whatever Queenslanders may want you to believe. But that still leaves an awful lot of room for vineyards.

Australian Vineyards - vineyard sunrise
Hill of Grace vineyard

Go there, and it all becomes clear. It helps that these wine regions also have beautiful accommodation and fabulous restaurants, sometimes right next to the vines.  Australians are so good at hospitality that they understood early on the importance of offering visitors more than just a tasting and an opportunity to buy bottles. (France might want to take note.) They are also exceptionally good at learning from others. It is almost impossible to find an Aussie winemaker of any age who hasn’t come over to Europe, worked in wineries, sucked up knowledge as vine roots absorb water, and gone home determined to make great wine and have fun doing it. The fun is important. If we aren’t taking Australian wine as seriously as it deserves, it may be because, while Aussie winemakers are as hardworking and dedicated as their equivalents elsewhere, taking anything too seriously just isn’t what they do.

Australian Vineyards - Peter Gago
Peter Gago, Penfold's chief winemaker

But what wines they make. I visited Penfolds, probably Australia’s most famous winery, which turns 180 this year. The company still owns part of the original property where Christopher and Mary Penfold planted their vines back in 1844, although most of the vineyards were sold off and became Adelaide, with the result that what is now Magill Estate — which has vines that make a terrific Shiraz and sometimes end up in the company’s legendary red blend, Penfolds Grange, plus an excellent restaurant — stands startlingly close to the metropolis.

Australian Vineyards - Yalumba wine room
The Yalumba wine room

At Yalumba, founded by Samuel Smith in 1849, I tried The Octavius, a Shiraz with a delicacy and elegance very different from the bold flavours this area is famous for, and The Caley, a blend of local Shiraz with Cabernet Sauvignon from Coonawarra 240 miles south. The Caley, headily perfumed, juicy and complex, is made only in the best years (and then just 300 dozen bottles). Like Grange, or my personal Penfolds favourite, Bin 111A Shiraz, these are wines as serious as top Bordeaux — just, in many cases, made from far older vines.

Australian Vineyards - Hill of Grace grapes
Yalumba's Hill of Grace grapes

That is because the dreaded phylloxera louse, which killed off most of Europe’s vines in the late 19th century, never reached this part of South Australia. To help ensure it never does, at Henschke, before driving out to a vineyard overlooked by a pretty Lutheran church, I dipped my soles in a chemical bath. The vines, as thick as my forearm, were planted in the 1860s. With them, Stephen and Prue Henschke, head of another family that has been in this spot for generations, produce an exceptional Shiraz: Hill of Grace.

Australian Vineyards - Yalumba cooperage
The cooperage at Yalumba

Charlie Melton was a great admirer of Châteauneuf-du-Pape so, back in the 1980s, he planted Grenache. Charles Melton Wines’ Nine Popes is one of the Barossa Valley’s finest wines, and four decades on, others are waking up to how well the grape does here. In Barossa and nearby McLaren Vale, from venerable vines (Cirillo’s oldest were planted in 1850) to upstarts like those planted at exciting newcomer Alkina, winemakers are producing fabulous Grenaches with elegant tannins, a fine balance of fruit and spice, and that great indicator of quality: ageing potential.

Australian Vineyards - Melton wines
Charlie and Sophie Melton of Charles Melton Wines

Others are branching out into more obscure varieties. At The Louise, another boutique Barossa hotel, young sommelier Tess Mathai served me glass after glass of delicious oddities from small producers. Levrier’s honeyed sparkling rosé made from the rare Champagne variety Petit Meslier; Rieslingfreak Riesling from Eden Valley, vibrating with lime; and aged Roussanne from Yelland & Papps were all made less than 20 miles from where I was drinking.

There are still empty shelves in those Kingsford fine-wine vaults… but on this evidence, not for long.

Australian Vineyards - Port Phillip
A stunning creation from Sam Borley, head chef of the Dining Room at Port Phillip Estate


Kingsford The Barossa, Barossa Valley 

This former homestead on a sprawling property is now a luxury hotel with a mini bowling alley, a restaurant offering a gastronomic history of the region, and a “bush bath” next to a creek — ideal for a romantic soak with a glass of something special. 

The Louise, Barossa Valley  

Newly reopened after a serious renovation, this beautiful hotel has 15 villa-style suites, a bistro and an excellent fine dining restaurant. Sit out and watch the sunset or pop across the road for a tasting at Tscharke Wines.


Australian Vineyards - Port Phillip dining room
The gourmet venue at Port Phillip Estate has been described as among Australia's top dining experiences

Port Phillip Estate, Mornington Peninsula 

Port Phillip Estate only has six suites but they are perfect. Located beneath the tasting room and restaurant in this architectural marvel of limestone rammed earth walls and vast windows onto the vineyards, each one has a bath and a king-size bed facing the vines. Freshly baked goods are brought to your door in the morning, and PPE and Kooyong wines are made on-site and served upstairs.

Australian Vineyards - Port Phillip architecture
The architecture of Port Phillip Estate is designed to embody sustainability, quality and expression of place