The fact that it is Australia Day tomorrow would normally be an excuse to celebrate the many joys of Australian wine. But the horrendous bushfires that have devastated swathes of southeastern Australia over the past few months have given the occasion particular poignancy.
Many vineyards, already hit by drought, have suffered terribly in the fires. Although no one is minimising the individual tragedies, and while the full extent of the damage has still to be assessed and the bushfire season has not finished, it is estimated that, overall, around one per cent of the entire Australian wine production has been hit so far.
However, in the Adelaide Hills area of South Australia, almost a third of production has been wiped out and even where there has been no actual fire damage, grapes can be seriously affected by smoke. Some of the tragic individual stories can be found here. If you want to donate, there are various appeals for help here via Wine Australia, under the donations section, or through the Australian Red Cross disaster relief and recovery site and the Adelaide Hills Wine Region Fire Appeal.
But obviously an equally important way of helping is to drink Australian wine, so here are some classic Australian wines, starting with a fine chardonnay from the Adelaide Hills area: the award-winning Petaluma Piccadilly Valley chardonnay 2016 (£28.99 or £24.99 in six-bottle purchase, majestic.co.uk) is absolutely benchmark Aussie chardonnay – big, mouthfilling, creamy, nutty, oaky flavours and the perfect winter dinner party white, particularly if you are serving fish pie or smoked haddock.
If you prefer a less full-on chardonnay, try the more subtle, cleaner and crisper style of the Kirriemuir Reserve Adelaide Hills chardonnay 2016 (£11.39, virginwines.co.uk) or the terrific Hollick Bond Road chardonnay 2015 (£15.95, gerrardseel.co.uk; various independents) with lots of citrus but with ripe buttery flavours and a rich, layered texture and which lies somewhere between the two styles.
But it’s not all about chardonnay – the Clare Valley produces fantastic dry riesling and one of the best bargains around is the Exquisite Clare Valley riesling (£6.99, aldi.com) which has very clean, mineral, almost steely lemon and lime flavours, ideal with Oriental foods. Similarly crisp and citrus flavours but coupled with some creamier passionfruit notes are found in The Bard Coonawara sauvignon blanc 2018 (£12.50, standrewswinecompany.com; various independents) a final example of a grape more associated with their Kiwi neighbours, but in a much more restrained style.
Now for some reds: if your dinner party has a roast or casserole as its central feature, then try the brilliant Petaluma White Label Coonawarra cabernet sauvignon 2016 (£25.95, mwinestore.co.uk). Not from an area so far affected by fire, a bold, minty, velvety bottle, packed with black, brambly fruits, with hints of vanilla and violets, Petaluma is, among the proliferation of brands and labels, one of the reliable names of Australian wine, as is, of course, Penfolds, probably the most well known of all, producing serious wines of great quality.
At its more budget-friendly end is the Penfolds Max’s cabernet sauvignon 2016 (£19.75, sainsburys.co.uk), named after a former chief winemaker, blended from fruit from various vineyards and aged a little in oak, it has all the varietal characteristics one would expect – rich, ripe and minty, with almost sweet blackberry and blackcurrant flavours.
Of course the other dominant Aussie grape is shiraz, but other red grapes are increasingly being grown with great results. And although the increasing hot climate that has led to the bushfires might restrict production of pinot noir in the future, there are still some pockets, such as the Mornington Peninsula of Victoria, where it thrives. You can try the result in the Mr Noir Pinot Noir 2018 (£11.99, virginwines.co.uk) a fragrant, silky, cherry and red fruit-flavoured intervention among all the heavyweight reds.
Speaking of which… the Barossa Valley is home to some of Australia’s finest shiraz and the Yalumba Galway Barossa Shiraz (£12.49, waitrosecellar.com) is typically packed with mulberry and mocha flavours, with just a hint of spice and great wine for a midweek treat with any robust winter dishes.
But for a real special occasion treat and to support the Adelaide Hills again, seek out the Sidewood Mappinga shiraz 2015 (£36, davywine.co.uk), which needs decanting some hours in advance to reward you with subtle red and black fruit flavours, some notes of spice, dried fruits and liquorice, a whiff of leather and tobacco and a silky texture on the palate, which lingers long in the mouth. And a great reminder of what fabulous wines this country produces – and will produce again.