The Riverina wine region is one of the most successful grape growing regions in Australia. The wine region grows 15% of the total wine grape production within Australia; with over 50% of the Riverina's wine production currently being exported. As a producer of specialist wine grapes, a wine style of international importance is Botrytis Semillon and the outstanding expression made from these grapes is a sauternes-style dessert wine.
In June 1912 John James McWilliam arrived in the area with his eldest son Jack and they planted 35,000 vine cuttings at Hanwood (some remain today and still bear fruit). In the spring of 1913 and were kept alive by carting water, until the irrigation channels arrived in October. The first grapes were picked in 1916 and sent to Junee for processing.
The varietals Doradillo, Shiraz and Malbec were planted from cuttings brought from the small town of Junee. Penfolds followed McWilliam’s in 1919. In 1922 Penfolds offered eight-year grower contracts which were not renewed after their expiry which coincided with the Depression. Penfolds was followed by De Bortoli in 1928, Rossetto in 1930, Miranda in 1938 and West End in 1945.
Italian migrants were attracted to the region after the first and second world wars and brought viticultural expertise along with other important agricultural interests. Winery establishment has tended to occur in the irrigated areas, with only the Charles Sturt University winery at Wagga Wagga located outside.
The major varietals then were Pedro, Semillon, Trebbiano, Doradillo, Grenache and Shiraz. These varieties were grown predominantly for the production of fortified wines. As a result of the Depression and the collapse of prices, growers petitioned the NSW Government for the creation of a marketing board. Following a poll in 1932, the Wine Grapes Marketing Board was established in February 1933 with the role of representing grower interests with wineries. The Board continues to play this role today. Most vineyards are still on small family farms of about 20ha where other horticultural crops are also produced.
Rapid expansion of premium varietal plantings began in the late 1960’s as the market moved away from fortified wine styles, acquiring a taste for red and white wines. The advent of botrytis affected sweet white wine styles for which the region is famous, began in 1958 at McWilliam’s Hanwood winery. These particular wine styles have since gained extensive national and international recognition, with De Bortoli wine company at the fore. The region is also well renowned for Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon wines.
The growth of the wine industry in the 1990s on the back of the export boom has seen grape production increase from around 100,000 tonnes to almost 300,00 tonnes. There are 16 major wineries in this area varying is size from 10 tonnes to 160,000 tonne capacity. With the region having such a low natural rainfall and the vines needing water at very specific times during their growing season, grapes can only grow economically with irrigation.
With an annual wine grape production of 300,000 tonnes in 2013, Riverina (centred on Griffith and Leeton - stretching 350k east-west and 270k north-south) is the largest grape producer in New South Wales with vineyards covering an area of over 20,000 hectares.
The region has an average annual rainfall of 406mm, spread evenly throughout the year. High evaporation and low relative humidity and high sunshine hours are features of the summer season. Autumn conditions favour the onset and spread of Botrytis cinerea, with April to May temperature of 14.3°C and humidity of 77%. Showers usually accompany this change of season, misty mornings and fog arise which govern the degree of the Botrytis infection. The higher humidity late in the season, allows the Botrytis development to occur after the picking of most of the white and red varietals.