Australia has no native grape species. European colonists in the First Fleet brought the first rootstocks to the continent. From those vines, first planted at Sydney Cove, has grown a flourishing industry [source: Visit NSW]. Early varieties were largely French (Cabernet, Chardonnay, Shiraz) and German (Riesling), but Italian vines such as Sangiovese are gaining traction [source: O'Donnell].
New South Wales has devoted itself not just to viticulture but also to research. Many of the area's technical schools and colleges train students in oenology and grape production. Some of the world's leading wine research -- particularly in the area of sustainable viticulture -- comes from the National Wine and Grape Industry Centre at Wagga Wagga. The combined focus on sound agriculture and education -- along with an emphasis on small, versatile, independent producers -- means that NSW is poised to become Australia's dominant wine-producing region, perhaps as soon as 2010 [source: NSW Department of State].
Viticulture in New South Wales can be a challenge. Some areas (such as Hunter Valley) are subject to regular droughts and floods. Humidity can also be a problem, creating problems with fungus and mold. Late-autumn rains have the effect of swelling grapes just before harvest, diluting sugars and other flavors. Planting further west, towards the Great Dividing Range, solves some problems of humidity but introduces problems of altitude [source: Corrigan].
Soil conditions differ greatly depending on the area. Australia's proximity to Pacific Rim volcanic activity makes for some interesting geographic variation. In some parts of NSW, the soil is volcanic, with high quartz content, which leads to strongly mineral white wines. In other areas, such as the flood plains, the soil is alluvial -- that is, it contains high quantities of sediment deposited by flowing water [source: NSW Wine].
Climates and temperatures, likewise, vary dramatically depending on altitude. As you might expect, wine production varies, too. NSW is divided into 14 recognized wine regions, each with its own standout wine [source: NSW Wine].
On the next page, we'll take a look at some of these sub-regions and their specialties.