Australia's Riverina Shines with Mediterranean Grape Varieties

A vineyard at Courabyra, one of the leading wineries in Riverina

© Shutterstock

Riverina's Courabyra vineyard

A vineyard at Courabyra, one of the leading wineries in Riverina

© Shutterstock Australia's Riverina Shines with Mediterranean Grape Varieties The largest wine producing region in New South Wales is known for its volumes of Shiraz and Chardonnay but with its Italian heritage and climate, lesser known wine styles are thriving.

Riverina isn’t a region that trips off the tongue of many wine lovers. This flat, warm, fertile plain in New South Wales, six hours’ drive west of Sydney, invariably finds its identity overshadowed by the big brands that rely on Riverina fruit. Six of Australia’s largest wine producers are based here, including names like McWilliam’s, De Bortoli and Casella, home of that notorious Yellow Tail kangaroo.

Yet behind those oceans of Chardonnay, Shiraz and Pinot Grigio, there’s another, more intriguing side to Riverina. This is a region shaped by family-run businesses, a strong Italian immigrant influence and over 60 grape varieties. Together, they create a recipe that’s well worth following.

On the subject of recipes, food is a very important preoccupation in Riverina. You’d expect nothing less from a region with such a strong Italian heritage. Not only are many of the most interesting wines made here today based on Italian grape varieties such as Montepulciano, Nero d’Avola or Vermentino; they also tend to combine that trademark juicy Australian fruit with an Italian-style savoury grip that just cries out for a plate of pasta.

“Everyone’s proud of their heritage and proud of varieties that fit their cuisine,” observes Emma Norbiato of Calabria Family Wines. Drawing a comparison between her own Riverina Montepulciano and typical examples from the variety’s native Abruzzo region, she suggests: “The tannin structure of Monte[pulciano] from Italy will grab you a little more on the sides of the mouth. Ours is more gentle, with softer fruit.

One non-Italian variety that has acquired something close to flagship status in Riverina is Durif. A cross between Shiraz and the considerably more obscure French grape Peloursin, Durif also goes by the name of Petite Sirah, especially in its other stronghold of California. The grape was introduced to Riverina in the 1980s by modernising visionary Deen De Bortoli, and today forms part of just about every local winery’s portfolio.

Although still hardly a household name even in its domestic market, late-ripening Durif has proved well-adapted to the warm, dry, Mediterranean-style climate of Riverina. As climate change accelerates a move by Australian producers to embrace grapes that can not only survive but thrive in hot, dry conditions, the country’s Durif harvest more than doubled between 2015 and 2020 alone. Today Riverina accounts for about three quarters of Australia’s total Durif plantings.

“Durif just suits this area,” says James Ceccato of Berton Vineyard. “It handles the heat very well” in the vineyard, while in the glass “it’s probably not as juicy as Shiraz but it certainly has the tannin.” Ceccato also draws a distinction with the Durif expression typically produced in Rutherglen, another major hub for this variety. “It’s not as big as Rutherglen,” Ceccato suggests, describing Riverina Durif as “more subdued, a little more elegant.”

Durif may be on the rise, but if Riverina does already spark recognition among wine lovers for a particular style, then it’s likely to be the region’s deliciously sweet botrytis Semillon. Once again, the De Bortoli family was a pioneering force, with Deen’s son Darren inspired to experiment after tasting a Sauternes during his oenology studies.

De Bortoli’s first vintage of Noble One was 1982, and since then the wine has acquired near celebrity status, a position confirmed when then-prime minister Kevin Rudd gave a case to Pope Benedict to commemorate his 2009 visit to Australia. If you were seeking divine inspiration for your next wine adventure, then this could just be it.