Graphene was prepared using liquid phase exfoliation and dispersed in an alumina matrix using an ultrasonication and powder processing route. Al2O3–graphene composites with up to 5 vol% content were densified (>99%) using SPS. The fracture toughness of the material increased by 40% with the addition of only 0.8 vol% graphene. However for higher graphene contents the improvement in fracture toughness was limited. Graphene changed the mechanism of crack propagation for the alumina matrix from inter-granular to trans-granular. The formation of an inter-connecting graphene network promoted easy fracture for concentration ⩾2 vol%. Elastic modulus remained nearly constant for up to 2 vol% and decreased significantly for 5 vol% due to the formation of the inter-connecting graphene network. Fracture toughness measured with the indentation and chevron notch methods were consistent up to 2 vol% and at 5 vol% the percolating network of graphene resulted in easy crack propagation with significant discrepancy between the results for the two methods.