Decanter Magazine, May 2011 issue – Cool Australian Shiraz

 THE MANY FACES OF AUSTRALIAN SHIRAZ

Has Australian Shiraz lost its cool?  If so, where does it find it?  Speaking from a UK perspective, is the perceived fashion for peppery, ‘cool climate’ Shiraz the vogue?  Do we really know what’s going on Down Under with their most important of red grapes? It is true that Australian Shiraz, certainly in the mass-market end of the spectrum, has suffered a body blow with regard to the porty, high alcohol style on which it made its name.  That’s not to say that this hot climate, rich style doesn’t still appeal to vast quantities of palates.  Some of the cult, collector wines are mightily proportioned beasts, but I sense a move to more honed, carefully built wines.  To see what was really happening I canvassed opinion from a wide range of Shiraz gurus and was impressed and enlightened with what I heard.  Remember that Australia is a very large place and climatic conditions vary widely.  Shiraz responds accurately to weather conditions and it acts as a true barometer of its surroundings so variety is inherent in Australia.  Michael Hill-Smith MW (Shaw & Smith) divides Shiraz into a few simple categories – Modern, Traditional, Warmer Climate, Cooler Climate.  Not all warmer climate wines are traditional and vice versa.  Being based in the Adelaide Hills he favours the modern, cooler climate style with bright fruit and discernible spice.  This style seemingly works well with sommeliers and it reflects the shape and size of its counterpart wines from the Northern Rhône.  Tom Carson (Yabby Lake, Mornington Peninsula) agrees pointing out that with the judicious addition of Viognier, these food friendly, precocious wines are a hit in restaurants.  He stated that the so-called blockbuster styles seem to appeal to American palates – a cliché, but it’s true.  He also reminded me that cool climate Shiraz is not a new phenomenon – the Yarra Valley has been making wines like this for years.  Andrew Margan (Margan Wines, Hunter Valley) is very cheered by the news that elegance is back and lower alcohol, savoury Shiraz is where ‘everyone is heading’.  Clearly this is great news for the winemakers in the Hunter Valley whose vines achieve full physiological ripeness around the 12.5-13% mark.  He favours picking his grapes while the flavours are ‘al dente’ and letting the natural tannins structure and savouriness shine and keeping the oak levels down to a ‘best supporting’ role.  Marty Edwards (The Lane, Adelaide Hills) agrees that oak is not the driving force behind his wines.  ‘As vines mature they bring structure to the wine so we use large format barrels to increase the wine to oak ratio’.  It is clear that these cooler climate based gurus have their style parameters given to them by the heavens.  Rob Mann (Cape Mentelle, WA) nails today’s Shiraz conundrum succinctly, ‘The modern Shiraz producer is looking to impress with regionality and not volume.  We do not produce a single Australian style, but a multitude of regional styles that retain clarity of fruit and express regional nuances’.  And this is the rub – Australian Shiraz is to be celebrated and promoted for its quality and diversity – horses for courses indeed, and in the same way that the villages of the Northern Rhône can and indeed do reflect their own specific terroir so should the states and microclimates of the individual region of Australia.  Perhaps the fashion for interstate or cross regional blending might lose its lustre, because of the lack of clarity of the message.  This style of winemaking usually happens at the lower end of the spectrum and it is done for a reason – consistency, reliability and price. This intentional blurring of the edges makes juicy, mass-appeal wine (a Côtes-du-Rhône).  They are also not getting hung up on alcohol levels, sheer mass or oak regimes, preferring to accurately reflecting their postcode at the same time as retaining balance, freshness and crisp tannins.  You only have to look to the 2009 Southern Rhônes to see that higher than normal alcohol levels and true balance can exist in harmony.  Alister Purbrick (Tahbilk, Victoria) is well situated to make a valid comment, ‘Old fashioned is not how we see our style. We have certainly maintained a traditional, ‘old world’ approach to our Shiraz by using open vats for the primary ferment and aging post ferment, but the reason we do this is to allow the fruit, as distinct from the oak, to make a serious statement.  The end result is an elegant, fruit-driven, multi-layered, sophisticated style with good middle palate structure and a long fine tannin finish.’  This is the aim of all winemakers and if you can blind taste where it comes from then surely you have done the best job you can for its raw materials.  Peter Gago (Penfolds) makes a vast array of ultra-high spec Shirazes and every single wine is tailored to the fruit source.  There are innumerable viticultural and winemaking tweaks concerning these wines all with the singular aim of achieving balance.  Ben Glaetzer (Barossa Valley, SA) elaborates, ‘I find that Shiraz has enough inherent body and potential extract that the winemaker is afforded spectrums of opportunity in order to display the fruit’s character.  So rather than maximising extraction, as has historically been the intention, many winemakers have become or are becoming aware that cooler fermentation, less cap management, extended skin contact post ferment all contribute to a more savoury style of Shiraz.’   The movement away from American oak to French and the use of whole bunches are two trends that are certainly attracting a lot of supporters.  Dan Buckle (Mount Langi Ghiran, Victoria) is a supporter of both.  ‘I drink Shiraz from the Hunter Valley to Tasmania, and from East to West.  And there’s so much range of flavour, style, nuance, weight and character that it’s hard to get bored. Australian Shiraz is no longer ‘generic’, and instead there is more personality than ever before.  We are now talking more about intuitive winemaking, rather than processes and additives – soils and sites rather than trellises and clones.’  These feelings were echoed by every winemaker that I interviewed and I wish that I had enough space on this page to quote them all.  Perhaps it is also useful to canvas opinion from someone at the coalface.  Stuart Knox is the owner of one of the coolest wine bars in Sydney, Fix St James.  ‘The new hot/cool regions that are really showing some interesting styles are places such as Yarra Valley, Canberra, Hilltops and Great Southern. These wines are showing more oak restraint with still classic bright Shiraz fruit and soft tannins but lifted aromatics with layers of sweet & savoury spices.  Having said that, the new guard of winemakers from the classic regions, such as Barossa, are really turning their hand to single site wines with a lot more control over the fruit in the vineyard and they are really working to keep the ripeness, jamminess and alcohol under control. I’ve seen great, textural and controlled wines from the 2008 vintage which was a hot, dry vintage.’ The one resounding thought that every single winemaker trumpeted was that you make a wine that the vineyard gives you.  With Australia the mantra is loud and clear – they want to make wines from somewhere rather than wines from anywhere and there will always bea diverse and educated market for a diverse and delicious portfolio of wines.

 

Chapel Hill Shiraz, McLaren Vale, South Australia 2008 17.5/20 4 star  14.5

There is control and focus to this new release which demonstrates the clear understanding by winemaker Michael Fragos that compact, well knit fruit is far more alluring than overblown, sweet berry flavours.  This will unravel slowly and perfectly given time. Drink 2012 – 2020 £18 Berkmann

 

St Hallett, Garden of Eden Shiraz, Eden Valley, South Australia 2008 17.5/20 4 star 13.0

With more prescience than Nostradamus, Toby Barlow set out on his own single vineyard, ‘cool’ series three years ago in order to counterpoint, but not replace, his masterful Barossan cuvées.  With fragrance and poise this is a mesmerising wine, reflecting site and soul. Drink now – 2017 £10 Bibendum

 

Mitchelton, Print Shiraz, Nagambie, Victoria 2009 18.5/20 5 star 14.5

The colour of this extraordinary wine is as dark as it gets and the menacing nose will frighten off any lily-livered drinkers because it harnesses all of the energy and elemental force in the incredible, ancient vineyards at Mitchelton.  But, once again, this is not a ‘heavy’ wine – it is just very, very dark. Drink 2013 – 2025 £21 Bibendum

 

Petaluma Shiraz, Adelaide Hills, South Australia 2007 18.5/20 5 star 14.2

Made in a Northern Rhône manner and from a cooler site than many in this great state, there is even a minute dribble of Viognier in this wine to keep it on the same page as Côte-Rôties and the like.  This is a head on assault on the Rhône’s finest and it manages to fulfil its brief at a very competitive price point.  Chapeau!  Drink now – 2018 £19 Waitrose

 

Knappstein Shiraz, Clare Valley, South Australia 2008 17/20 4 star 14.5

Offering a completely different flavour spectrum to the other South Australian wines in this piece, the mulberry and blueberry notes in Knappstein offer a more immediate hit of juiciness and some fresh leafy notes, too.  Not as profound perhaps, but joyful and frivolous and more of an everyday proposition. Drink now – 2017 £12 Majestic

 

Hart & Hunter, Single Vineyard Ablington Shiraz, Hunter Valley, New South Wales 2009 17/20 4 star 13.1

A remarkable wine and one that seems rich and flavoursome at only 13.1%, which just goes to show that this variety can today resemble the great ‘Hunter Burgundies’ of the previous millennia.  With juicy stem and briar notes H&H might seem like a new wave, ‘cool’ wine, but it is assembled with an age old recipe.  Drink now – 2016 £15 Great Western Wine, SWIG

 

Château Reynella, Basket Pressed Shiraz, McLaren Vale, South Australia 2008 17.5/20 4 star 14.0

It is becoming increasingly hard to find wines like this which is a shame because there is such a sense of history and nostalgia on the nose and palate which reminds us that they got this wine right over one hundred and fifty years ago.  Nothing has changed – the vineyards are the same, the techniques identical, too. Fashions come and go, but class remains.  Drink 2012 – 2018 £15 Waitrose

 

Tahbilk, Eric Stevens Purbrick Shiraz, Nagambie, Victoria 2005 18.5/20 5 star 14.5

I am a huge fan of the estate Shiraz from Tahbilk, which is admittedly a third of the price of this wine, but this ESP label is a revelation.  With leviathan dimensions you might expect it to be too brooding and immense on the palate, but it is as fresh and lifted as a young buck.  It is the perfect reflection of site.  Drink 2012 – 2030 £35 Slurp

 

Glaetzer, Bishop Shiraz, Barossa Valley, South Australia 2009 18/20 4 star 15.0

The sheen encountered when you pour this wine into your glass carries to the aroma and flavour, such is the mercurial polish and skill of its eponymous winemaker.  Modern, vital, but not posturing or bullish, this is a style of Shiraz which amazes palates new to Aussie wine.  Drink now – 2018 £20 Wine Direct, Great Western Wine, Noel Young, SWIG, Tanners

 

Peter Lehmann, Stonewell Shiraz, Barossa Valley, South Australia 2006 19/20 5 star 14.5

Stonewell directly sings of the season and it clearly resonates with the intricacies of the harvest and its own source material.  One of the larger wines on this page this is still a sensationally well-balanced wine with clarity of message and freshness on its not inconsiderable finish.  Drink 2015 – 2030 £32 Noel Young, Secret Cellar, SWIG

 

Mount Langi Ghiran Shiraz, Grampians, Victoria 2005 19/20 5 star 15.0

One of the leading lights in Australia, Mount Langi is a superstar estate with visionary winemaking in the form of Dan Buckle and considerable pedigree of late.  This is one wine to serve blind when pouring the ultimate Shirazes and I can guarantee amazement when the label is revealed.  Drink 2012 – 2025 £35 Noel Young, Vino

 

Elderton Shiraz, Barossa Valley, South Australia 2007 17.5/20 4 star 14.5

There is no doubt that Elderton has finessed its wines of late, but the vineyards are the same and so the seamless, mid-weight, spice and butcher’s apron notes remain as true as ever.  The fruit is tender and lush and the tannins seem more genial and flexible than ever.  Drink now – 2018 £19 William Mason, WoodWinters, Berry Bros & Rudd

 

Clonakilla, Hilltops Shiraz, Canberra District 2009 19/20 5 star 14.0

The siren song of Tim Kirk’s iodine, cracked pepper and blackberry juice Hilltops Shiraz is impossible to resist.  This overtly aromatic delivery has excited everyone who collides with it and the brightness of fruit makes it possible to enjoy these wines in their extreme youth.  Drink now – 2015 £17 Australian Wines Online, Carruthers & Kent, Corks Out, Fortnum & Mason, Harper Wells, Harvey Nichols, Liberty, Martinez, Noel Young, Philglas & Swiggot, Secret Cellar

 

Paringa Estate, Estate Shiraz, Mornington Peninsula, Victoria 2007 19/20 5 star 14.5

The combination of mesmeric aroma and then Pinot-esque palate has meant that winemaker Lindsay McCall has notched up no less than five Trophies for this awe-inspiring wine.  The Holy Grail seems to be leading the wine judges in Australia to texture and aroma without brawn and overt alcohol and if this is the case cooler sites will have their day in the sun.  Drink 2012 – 2022 £50 SWIG

 

Charles Melton, Grains of Paradise Shiraz, Barossa Valley, South Australia 2008 18/20 4 star 14.5

Sensational, leather and berry notes are welded onto a chassis of considerable horsepower, but this is not overdone, nor is it ‘hot’ and so the palate salivates in anticipation of the next sip. Charlie’s new cuvées are pushing us all further than we ever thought into super-stylish Barossa Valley Shiraz desires. Drink 2012 – 2025 £30 Australian Wines Online, Corks of Cotham, Halifax, Liberty Wines, Noel Young, Wood Winters

 

A regional style guie to Aussie Shiraz –

Western Australia

Margaret River doesn’t really specialise in Shiraz even though a few wineries try their hand at it, because Cabernet hogs the limelight, but in the Great Southern regions of Pemberton, Frankland River and Denmark Shiraz is showing promise.  Styles tend to be fragrant, medium-weight and lighter in colour than those in SA, with shorter ageing potential.

South Australia

The Shiraz powerhouse – all regions grow this variety and have huge success.  Clare Valley regards Shiraz as its main red grape with savoury, spicy, wild herb-scented styles emerging.  McLaren Vale’s wines have more amplitude and often are some of the glossiest and most luxurious in SA.  Keeping a check on alcohol levels is the watchword here, but plenty of old vines mean that there is no limit to the class that these wines have.  Barossa Valley is the most famous nerve centre for this grape, and the latest fashion is to bottle sub-regional and single vineyard wines which show off the amazing variation in mood and flavour which occurs all over this region.  Watch out for named parishes like Marananga, Greenock, Ebenezer, Kalimna, Seppeltsfield and Gomersal appearing with more frequency on bottles, each with their own distinct characters of fruit density, tar, exotic spice and fragrance.  Eden Valley and Adelaide Hills benefit from altitude and it is here that the peppery, lithe, medium-weight, food friendly styles have caught the restaurateurs’ eye.  Langhorne Creek is a vital source for this majestic grape and this is where some of the more intense, ripe, rich, velvety wines come from.  Coonawarra’s Shirazes are tangy, leathery and have less plump fruit and more herb and earth notes – suitable for ageing and blending.

Victoria & Tasmania

The diversity of Victoria’s wine regions is echoed directly in the diversity of Shirazes flavours and aromas within this great state.  Generally cooler, whether it is because of proximity to the Ocean or altitude, Victorian Shiraz seems more tender and pliable than the meatier SA wines.  Mornington Peninsula, Geelong, Gippsland and Yarra Valley all seem to fashion Shiraz in a Pinot Noir mould – textural, silky, creamy and often using Viognier to add allure.  Goulburn, Heathcote, Grampians, Bendigo, Pyrenees and the high country area like Beechworth tend to make wines with more backbone and spice, but not necessarily more alcohol.  Tasmania hasn’t really joined the Shiraz mob yet, but it will and no doubt with fine, medium-weight styles soon.

New  South Wales & ACT

The Hunter Valley is enjoying a purple patch right now.  With naturally lower alcohol Shiraz and, weather pattern permitting, some pretty modern wines already in the market the renaissance of the old ‘Hunter Burgundy’ (Shiraz, but shaped like a ‘Burgundy’) is flavour of the month.  Approachable early and with a nice gamey twist, these wines are very attractive indeed.  Mudgee, Orange, Hilltops and Canberra District all make Shiraz with a bright, black fruit and pepper character, which seems more European-shaped and this is certainly shining a spotlight on these off the beaten track areas like never before.