Finding the Soul in Australian Shiraz
Look at Shiraz through regional lenses and rediscover the grape variety you used to love.
In recent years, it’s become fashionable to bash Australian wines—especially Shiraz. Too big. Too alcoholic. Too jammy. Too confected. Too manipulated. In my few short years as Wine Enthusiast’s lead reviewer of Australian wines, I’ve heard it all, from beginners bored by the sameness of the big brands to collectors turned off by mammothly extracted Shirazes that require knives and forks instead of wineglasses.
The sad part is that to a large extent, I agree. There are a lot of boring Australian Shirazes and a lot of overripe and overextracted monsters. But these mediocrities are found in any wine-producing country. More importantly, there are a lot of really interesting, unique expressions of Shiraz coming out of Australia. All that is required to find them is a willingness to dig a little deeper. Beyond the million case brands and impossibly broad geographic indications (GIs) like “South Eastern Australia,” which covers 90% or more of the country’s vineyards, there’s a world of fine Shiraz to be rediscovered.
Australia now has upward of 100 GIs approved for use on wine labels. Like their American Viticultural Area (AVA) counterparts, they guarantee that at least 85% of the grapes were grown in that region—nothing more. But in practical terms, they provide a general guide as to what style of wine consumers can expect to find in the bottle. Here’s a stateby-state, region-by-region guide to Shiraz with soul.
STATE: SOUTH AUSTRALIA
South Australia is the world’s epicenter of Shiraz production. Not only does it turn out enormous quantities, it is also home to some of the planet’s oldest Shiraz vines. But as a guide to style, it’s virtually worthless, as it simply encompasses too many disparate regions. It’s a safe bet that a blended South Australian Shiraz will have ripe fruit and some oak aging (possibly at an attractive price), but for a greater sense of place, drill down to the next level of GIs, which includes such well known regions as Barossa and McLaren Vale.
Barossa perhaps best fits the stereotype of Australian Shiraz: big, bold and often jammy. Because of the warm climate, tannins are generally fully ripe at harvest, imparting a seamless, creamy texture when not overextracted. The best wines (too many to list here) avoid extremes and add elegance and spicy, savory complexity to their rosters of positive attributes.
Barossa itself is home to two smaller GIs: Barossa Valley and Eden Valley. Barossa Valley wines epitomize the Barossa style of richness and opulence, although subregions differ and are becoming an increasing topic of conversation among winemakers and connoisseurs. Viticulturist/ winemaker Rob Gibson describes some of Barossa Shiraz’s regional characteristics: “Stockwell, anise; Moppa and Kalimna, nectarine; Greenock, very plummy.”
Yalumba has introduced a series of single-site wines that attempts to illustrate the differences within Barossa, but for those who want to take a virtual trip to the Barossa’s different subregions and varied soils, visiTorbreck’s Web site (torbreck.com) and click on The Vineyards.
Eden Valley produces wines with a more savory character, firmer structure and often less alcohol and higher natural acids than those from other parts of the Barossa. Most are blended into Barossa wines to add complexity and structure, but a few are bottled separately (Henschke’s Mount Edelstone and Hill of Grace, Torbreck’s The Gask, Poonawatta Estate) and are all worth trying if you have a small fortune and come across any.
Further north of Adelaide is the small, rural oasis of Clare Valley. Clare Shirazes are characterized by ripe fruit that can tend toward prune and chocolate blended with savory elements of espresso, black olive and licorice. Cool nights help preserve natural acidity, giving Clare wines a harder edge than their Barossa counterparts, but acid adjustments are still routinely practiced. Recommended producers include Jim Barry, Kilikanoon, Koonowla, Pike’s and Reilly’s.
East and south of Adelaide, the Adelaide Hills provide some fine examples of cool-climate Shiraz from such producers as Petaluma and Shaw & Smith. These are savory, peppery renderings of Shiraz, lighter and more fragrant than other South Australian offerings.
The Shirazes of McLaren Vale vary markedly in their characteristics and it is clear that further subregions are warranted, although most do not appear regularly on labels. For those interested in more details, Gemtree Vineyards’ Web site (gemtreevineyards.com.au) hosts a remarkable sixpage pdf on the subject. In general, McLaren Vale Shiraz seems to have brighter berry fruit when compared to Barossa Shiraz, with a certain tartness often apparent on the finish. Of the many wineries in the region, top performers in recent tastings include Clarendon Hills, d’Arenberg, Hugh Hamilton, Mitolo, Oliverhill, Tapestry and more.
Progressing south along the coast of South Australia, the next major Shiraz-growing region is Langhorne Creek. Shiraz from “The Creek” is characterized by its sometimes elevated levels of eucalyptol, which can impart a minty or camphor-like note, and its smooth, silky texture. “Langhorne Creek has quite approachable wines,” says Brothers-in Arms proprietor Guy Adams. While much of the Shiraz produced in Langhorne Creek finds its way into blends labeled South Australia or even South Eastern Australia, what remains to be bottled by family wineries such as Bleasdale, Bremerton, Brothers-in Arms, Lake Breeze and Temple Bruer is often worth the fairly modest investment.
Continuing south, temperatures become steadily cooler and the weather at the beginning and end of the season becomes more variable. Coonawarra is prone to late frosts in the spring and early rains in the fall, but in the years when the weather is right it can make compelling Shiraz, laced with overtones of pepper and anise. Given the success of Cabernet Sauvignon in Coonawarra, Shiraz is likely to remain a second-choice variety. Yet in the hands of such conscientious producers as Penley Estate, Wynns and Majella, it’s a second choice that needn’t be second fiddle.
The neighboring state of Victoria is home to numerous small GIs, many of which produce highly individualistic Shirazes.
The Yarra Valley, less than an hour outside of Melbourne, is better known for its Pinot Noir, but Shiraz—and especially Shiraz-Viognier—is growing in impact. The cool climate yields perfumed, spicy and sometimes herbal Shiraz that can be a little skinny on its own, so for many producers, Viognier is seen as an important adjunct in adding texture to the midpalate rather than adding aromatics. As Yarra Yering’s late Dr. Bailey Carrodus said, “I don’t want you to smell the Viognier; I want you to ask why the Shiraz is so good.” Top producers include De Bortoli, Yarra Yering and Yering Station.
The Interior Victoria GIs
The biggest problem in writing about Victoria’s far-flung interior GIs is that there are so few producers in each one, making it difficult to describe regional character as much as individual wineries’ styles. That said, many of these Victorian regions seem to produce wines that tend toward the spicy-savory side of the Shiraz spectrum. Although some can approach or even surpass 15% alcohol, they rarely turn jammy, retaining peppery, meaty nuances and sometimes floral aromas. This is particularly true in some of the cooler subregions, epitomized by Mount Langi Ghiran (Grampians), Terlato & Chapoutier (Pyrenees) and Giaconda and Castagna (Beechworth).
Bendigo, Heathcote and Nagambie Lakes are generally warmer than the other Victorian regions, offering full-bodied Shiraz still in a spicy, savory vein. Recommended Bendigo producers include Balgownie Estate, Passing Clouds and Water Wheel. These wines often have creamy-ripe tannin textures, making them immediately approachable.
From Heathcote, producers to look for include the iconic Jasper Hill, run along biodynamic lines by the Laughton family, and their joint venture with Michel Chapoutier, now called Cluster M45. These are big, bold Shirazes, but the best of them retain a sense of elegance and nuance. A number of other wineries from outside the region take fruit grown in Heathcote and turn it into noteworthy wines as well. This is a region to watch, but the availability of water is a significant limiting factor.
Wines from the Nagambie Lakes are rarely seen in the U.S., but are noteworthy for the output of two fine producers: Mitchelton and Chateau Tahbilk. At Tahbilk, sandy soils have kept the vineyards phylloxera-free and allowed Shiraz vines planted in 1864 to persist well past 100 years. With heat summation numbers not that different from the Barossa, these are warm-climate Shirazes that combine size with that hallmark Victorian savory streak.
STATE: NEW SOUTH WALES
The state of New South Wales encompasses some of Australia’s oldest wine regions (Hunter Valley) as well as some of its newest (dotted along the Great Dividing Range). Hunter Valley Shiraz is a distinctly different style of Shiraz from any other in Australia, and one that takes some getting accustomed to, if you are used to the bigger, riper styles so prevalent in South Australia.
Given that the Hunter is one of the country’s warmest viticultural regions, it may be surprising to find that Hunter Valley Shirazes rarely exceed 14% alcohol. In fact, 13% still remains more common. Christine Tulloch, of Tulloch Wines, describes them as “more European in style, lighter in alcohol, lower in tannins.” For years, Sydney residents purchased Hunter Valley Burgundy, which aptly describes the weight and feel of the wines, if not the grape variety involved. Brokenwood General Manager Geoff Krieger explains that “during ripening, we get 70–90% cloud cover, so we get ripe flavors at lower alcohol levels.” The risk of rain and rot means that not every year in the Hunter is successful, but top years, such as 2007, provide exciting drinking.
Descriptions of past vintages of these wines often referenced “sweaty saddles,” but as awareness of brettanomyces has grown and winery hygiene has improved, there is much less of that apparent in today’s wines. Instead what stands out is the lightness on the palate unaccompanied by any lack of flavor intensity. A whole range of Shiraz flavors can be present, often including cherries and plums, but also hints of herbs and spice.
Besides Brokenwood and Tulloch, other Hunter Valley producers to look out for include Hope Estate, Keith Tulloch, Margan and Tyrrell’s, whose Stevens Single Vineyard Shiraz includes fruit from vines planted in 1867.
Mudgee, Orange, Hilltops and Canberra
Along the Great Dividing Range in New South Wales lies a series of isolated growing regions that owe their existence primarily to the great wine boom of the 1990s. Mudgee, Orange, Hilltops and Canberra District are all situated at elevations of 300–800 meters above sea level, providing cool nights that retard grape ripening well into the fall months. The results are Shirazes that exhibit crisply acidic structures, cherry-berry fruit and hints of peppery spice.
They are decidedly not big bruising styles and make for attractive early drinking, but one obvious exception is Clonakilla, whose Shiraz (it includes a touch of Viognier) combines fruity allure with depth, richness and an ability to age. More immediately approachable wines include those from Robert Oatley, Philip Shaw and the Nine Stones brand.
STATE: WESTERN AUSTRALIA
A half-continent away, Western Australia would be the world’s tenth largest country in land area if it were its own country and not a state of Australia. The most established GI is Margaret River, better known for its Cabernets and Chardonnays.
The maritime climate of Margaret River imparts a cool-climate tinge of pepper and herbaceousness into the region’s Shiraz, but the best examples integrate those elements into layers of fruit and silky tannins. Recommended producers include Cape Mentelle, Leeuwin Estate and Vasse Felix, among others.
Elsewhere amidst the vast expanses of Western Australia, intrepid Shiraz hounds will find a few offerings from the GIs of Frankland River, Great Southern, Mount Barker and Pemberton, many of which combine distinctly spicy licorice overtones with plummy fruit. Look for offerings from Alkoomi, Frankland Estate, Howard Park, Plantagenet and West Cape Howe.
Once you’ve tried some of the exciting wines coming out of Australia’s manifold Shiraz-producing regions, you’ll understand that Australian Shiraz is not a very useful wine description—that more precision is required. With that precision, wine lovers can find individuality in the wines, perhaps even an elusive sense of place. And then we can talk more meaningfully about the intriguing Shiraz coming from different parts of Australia.
For complete ratings and tasting notes for nearly 300 Australian Shirazes reviewed during the past year, please visit our online Buying Guide.
Top Bottles Broken Down by Region
95 Kaesler 2006 Old Vines Shiraz (Barossa Valley); $60. The Kaesler family started farming the Barossa in 1891, planting their vineyards in 1893. Some of those vines still contribute to the winery’s intense Old Bastard Shiraz , but a more typical, affordable and readily available (1,200 cases produced; 350 imported) expression of Barossa Shiraz is the Old Vines Shiraz, which in the 2006 vintage derived from four blocks of 45-year-old vines. Winemaker Reid Bosward uses French oak for aging this wine in place of the traditional American oak; the subtler oak character allows the quality of the Barossa fruit to really shine.
This wine’s concentrated dark fruit shows in the color—a vibrant dark garnet—and in the aromas of blueberry, vanilla and dried spices. The 16% alcohol is well concealed, manifesting only as wonderfully full, creamy density on the palate, magnifying the intense cola, earth and spice complexity. A pronounced peppery, black licorice note adds extra length to the finely textured finish. Drink now–2020. Imported by Epicurean Wines.
90 Reilly’s 2007 Dry Land Shiraz (Clare Valley); $25. In many ways, Reilly’s encapsulates the history of the Australian wine industry. And, perhaps, represents a pathway to future success. There’s history in the name—an Irishman named Hugh Reilly settled in the Clare more than 150 years ago—but the winemaking efforts are recent, dating back to only 1993. This family-run wine business includes all of the tourism accoutrements aimed at fostering customer loyalty in the 21st century: a friendly cellar door, a lunch-only restaurant focused on local produce and four bed and breakfast cottages.
Most importantly, the wines are consistently well made and well priced, including the entry-level wines in the Barking Mad line. More impressive is the 2007 Dry Land Shiraz, which is full bodied and velvety textured without being overbearing—trademark attributes of Clare Valley Shiraz. It delivers superripe cherries but wraps them in a cocoon of spicy, savory complexity and soft tannins. The vines are dry grown, which given the water shortages on the world’s driest continent, may be the only option in the future. Imported by Southern Starz, Inc.
90 Tapestry 2007 MV Shiraz (McLaren Vale); $27. This winery is presently owned by businessman Robert Gerard AO, a former member of the Reserve Bank of Australia. Now under its fourth owner in 40 years, Tapestry as a brand only dates back to the mid-1990s, but the wines are based on vineyards going back to its inception and the quality of the fruit coming from the company-owned vineyards near the winery and Bakers Gully is very high. The style of veteran winemaker Jonathan Ketley is decidedly oaky, yet the crisp, almost tangy character of McLaren Vale Shiraz still comes through clearly, especially in the basic MV Shiraz.
Like most Tapestry offerings, the 2007 edition of this wine shows plenty of cedary and cinnamon-like oak, but the soft plum and blackberry fruit serves to provide balance. It’s full and creamy-textured in the mouth, then finishes with some warmth and a burst of tart acidity for balance. Drink now–2017. Consumers should find this wine to be readily available, with 5,000 cases imported to the U.S. Imported by Avanti Fine Wine Selections.
93 Wynns Coonawarra Estate 2005 Michael Shiraz (Coonawarra); $70 (est). Wynns, with a history going back to Scottish pioneer John Riddoch and the end of the 19th century, is the hallmark property in Coonawarra. The iconic three-gabled winery that appears on the label and now houses the cellar door was completed in 1896. Wynns Michael Shiraz is generally one of the region’s top wines when it is released. Chief Winemaker Sue Hodder says Michael is only made two years out of five; the 2005 is the current release in Australia, although it has not yet made its way to America. U.S. readers will have to content themselves for now with the excellent 2003.
The 2005 is a bit peppery upfront, its bold blueberry and blackberry fruit marked by anise shadings. Medium to full in body, the texture is rich and velvety, with some dusty tannins on the finish that suggest ageability. Although it is approachable now, this long-distance runner will probably be at its best from 2015–2025. Imported by Fosters Wine Estates Americas.
89 De Bortoli 2007 Estate Grown Shiraz-Viognier (Yarra Valley); $36. Much like Yalumba, Wine Enthusiast’s 2009 New World Winery of the Year, De Bortoli is a family-owned wine company that is gaining ground even in tough economic times. Aside from the legendary Noble One dessert wine, the top wines from De Bortoli stem from the family’s estate vineyards in the Yarra, where Chief Winemaker Stephen Webber makes wines that accurately reflect their cool Victorian roots. His 91-point 2007 Reserve Release Shiraz ($55) shows a lot of earthy, savory characters at moderate alcohol levels, but with only 150 cases imported it will be hard to find.
The 2007 Estate Grown Shiraz-Viognier (500 cases imported) is not—like so many Shiraz-Viogniers—a soft cuddly blend loaded with apricot notes. Instead, it features savory, meaty aromas lifted by peppery elements and black olive, espresso and tart plum flavors characteristic of the region and Webber’s somewhat contrarian winemaking. It’s medium-bodied, firmly structured, and should age through at least 2020. Imported by De Bortoli Wines USA Inc.
89 Mount Langhi Ghiran 2004 Langi Shiraz (Victoria); $60. Among all the examples of cool-climate Shiraz in Australia, Langi stands apart for its consistency and longevity. The 1996 remains vibrantly alive, even if it can show some feral elements. Situated between two inland mountain ranges, shaded from the hottest of the afternoon sun, cooled by elevation, the Langi Shiraz always boasts plenty of peppery, meaty complexity. These characters exemplify the elements on display in many of Victoria’s inland Shiraz regions, which rely on elevation, aspect and airflow to provide cooling influences.
Under the winemaking direction of Trevor Mast and now Dan Buckle, Mount Langhi Ghiran always seems to offer a more European style of Shiraz, combining slightly earthy, dusty notes with savory hints of spiced meat and fresh dark-berried fruit. The 2004 shows a fair amount of complexity allied to firm tannins and crisp acids, and will probably require another 4–5 years to show its best. Imported by Rathbone Wine Group.
Hunter Valley 90 Brokenwood 2007 Shiraz (Hunter Valley); $36. Brokenwood reflects another era in Australian wine, when groups of Sydney gourmands, lawyers and bankers thought it would be cool to have their own winery. It was founded by a trio of investors including James Halliday back in 1970, and although the number of partners in the business has grown to 26, much of that hobby-winemaker ethos persists. The only two partners actively involved in the winery are General Manager Geoff Krieger and Winemaker Iain Riggs. While today the winery’s scope extends to other regions of Australia, the winery’s Graveyard Vineyard Shiraz is recognized as the Hunter Valley’s most collectible Shiraz.
Truth be told, the difference in quality between this wine and the $125 Graveyard Vineyard bottling doesn’t appear that great in 2007, so savvy consumers should jump on this Shiraz, which offers leather, coffee and roasted meat complexity allied to medium body, a creamy texture and a long, firmly structured finish. Drink 2015–2025. Imported by Old Bridge Cellars.
90 Vasse Felix 2005 Shiraz (Margaret River); $30. Established in 1967 as Margaret River’s first vineyard and winery, Vasse Felix—like so many of its neighbors—isn’t known nearly as much for its Shiraz as for its Cabernet Sauvignons and Chardonnays. Justifiably so. Yet charismatic winemaker Virginia Willcox shows her deft touch with Shiraz vintage after vintage, combining the region’s trademark complexity with a powerfully robust, ageworthy style. Most other Margaret River Shirazes lack this wine’s intensity and staying power, settling instead for early drinkability. It’s an inevitable consequence of being Margaret River’s “second” red, behind the Cabernet Sauvignon-based wines that made the region’s reputation.
Willcox’s 2005 Shiraz offers up a powerful, pungent blend of stewed fruit, cedar and dried spices, resulting in a wine that impresses more for its power and intensity than its elegance. It’s the right match now with a grilled steak, but should mellow and become more civilized by 2012. Imported by Negociants USA.