Australia's Hunter Valley, a very warm region north of Sydney that's often rather humid in summer and early fall, has long been the source of outstanding, long-lived Semillon and juicy, earlier-maturing Chardonnay made in a modern and more oak-influenced style, typically with notes of tobacco and honeydew melon. The emphatically dry nature of these wines as well as a general lack of sweetening oak has meant that these offbeat Semillons were an acquired taste. Medium-weight, spicy, and meaty Shiraz, often slow to mature in bottle, is also a specialty of this region.
Two keys to Australian wine quality are the continent's mostly hot and dry climate and its great number of technically proficient winemakers. Australia's wine regions are spread across the southern rim of the country, generally close to the sea, from the Hunter Valley, just above Sydney on the east coast, across to the Margaret River, south of Perth on the west coast-a distance of roughly 2,000 miles. (The generic appellation South Eastern Australia is used to describe blended wines from virtually anywhere but Western Australia.) Making blanket statements about Australia's weather in a given growing season would be almost like saying that Southern California and North Carolina experienced the same climatic conditions.
Even within fairly small areas conditions can vary dramatically according to ocean influence, altitude and type of soil. The often scorching hot Barossa Valley in South Australia, for example, can produce red Australian wines that approach vintage port in their dried-fruit flavors and alcoholic heft. But parts of the Clare Valley, less than 50 miles away, are significantly cooler. At the same time, though, Barossa benefits from a high percentage of old vines with deep root systems, which are more likely to be able to get water than younger vines in other regions, which rely heavily on irrigation and scarce water resources.