Practically synonymous with Australia, Shiraz is the most well-known variety Down Under. Most people, however, know it as coming from one region and made in one style. But just as Australia is a far more diverse winemaking country than it’s given credit, so is Aussie Shiraz.
Christina Pickard, Wine Enthusiast contributing editor for Australia and New Zealand, talks with native Aussie Tim Harris, the owner of New York City’s Burke & Wills and the Manhattan Cricket Club all about Shiraz.
Christina Pickard: Hi and welcome to the Wine Enthusiast podcast, your serving of wine trends and passionate people beyond the bottle. I’m Christina Pickard, Wine Enthusiast contributing editor for Australia and New Zealand. And in this episode, I’ll be talking with native Aussie Tim Harris, the owner of New York City’s Burke & Wills and the Manhattan Cricket Club—the former of which boasts one of America’s greatest Australian wine lists.
Tim and I will be talking Aussie Shiraz, from its spiritual home in the Barossa to the renegade Victorian winemakers bringing it to life outside Melbourne, to the spicy savory cool climate expressions being crafted in Australia’s most remote winemaking region. Let’s explore Australia’s most famous grape variety in its many guises and let it open the door to more adventures in the incredibly diverse and exciting winemaking country that is Australia. Tim Harris, thank you so much for talking to me today.
TH: Thanks, Christina, it’s a pleasure.
CP: We’re going to talk all about Australian Shiraz and as we record this it’s morning time and Shiraz is probably the last thing both of us feel like having in our glass right now!
So, you have a lot of experience obviously with Australian Shiraz in America. So, I want to talk to you more about how it’s perceived here. But first of all, just going right back to the beginning about what Australian Shiraz is. For those people who don’t know, Shiraz is the same grape variety as Syrah. And it’s still a bit of a mystery as to why Australians have termed it Shiraz. It was actually a wine making region in Iran back in the ninth century. It was considered a very fine wine making region at that time. But there’s not really a whole lot of reason that we can understand as to why the Aussies adopted the term Shiraz, because actually that style was more like a sherry.
Now more and more producers are starting to call Shiraz Syrah to delineate style differences. And so that’s kind of what we’re going to talk about today, is this idea of distinctive styles that have emerged in Australia, because I think a lot of American drinkers would associate Shiraz as being from South Australia, more specifically from Barossa.
What are the perceptions that you’ve come across, being on the restaurant and bar side of things? Do people ask a lot for specifically Barossa Shiraz or just for an Australian Shiraz?
TH: Australia is, to put it in perspective, the fifth largest exporter of wine in the world. There are over 60 designated regions that encompass a huge amount of microclimate and terroir and all this kind of stuff. So, there is diversity there and getting to that conversation is a challenge sometimes. But being able to do that through the lens of Shiraz is a really great entry point.
CP: Some people you know definitely want that classic Australian style— bold wines that are a little bit fruit forward.
TH: So, I guess for me and also, I think it’s showing the kind of American palate for the most part that’s coming to a restaurant like mine, often these people are drinking California Cabernets and big Italian reds and stuff like that that. So, Shiraz is a natural progression from that. They’re going to understand it’s going to be what they’re looking for and there’s plenty of options in that category but I really like it as a jumping off point to say, “Okay, well, if you like that style here are all these other styles coming out of Australia that you know you might like to try.”
CP: Absolutely, and we’re going to dive into those other styles soon. I want to just stick with Barossa for a little bit because I think it’s the most well-known style for Americans, and as you say, a very good jumping off point to explore other styles.
It’s also the most planted grape variety in South Australia. It is very much their calling card and it has a really rich history in Barossa. So I think it is still something that we should be celebrating, and I’m the first person to always say, “Oh, well, what’s the next new thing?” But I think it’s still a very important part of Australian culture. Even if some of these bigger bolder wines are maybe not quite as fashionable as more lower-alcohol fresher styles, there are still styles that a lot of people drink and love and we can still be celebrating them particularly for the history that they have in a place like Barossa.
Australia plays home to some of the oldest vines on the planet. Are there any other producers in that more classic style that that you like to recommend or that you find that people are asking for
TH: You touched on a great point that I was going to bring up: These amazing old vines that are in the Barossa and the wines that are coming from them. And I think Robert Hill Smith who is the owner of Yalumba said to me at a tasting once that old vines are old because they’re good not good because they’re old. And I thought it was a really good quote. If these vines are producing great quality then they’re getting pulled out and replanted. But you know you’ve got these really gnarly old vines with roots going way down and they produce just these really deep wines that age beautifully.
So, we definitely should still be celebrating the style and there are so many producers making amazing wines. One that I really love and recommend and support a lot is Tim Smith who’s making some amazing Shiraz but also an amazing sort of Mataro a forward Rhône-blend and some really great Grenache as well out of the Barossa.
And obviously the Yalumba family winery.
CP: It’s a big winery and it’s the oldest family owned in Australia and they have a huge range of wines and they always blow me away, but I think they’ve got a brand-new range out: The Samuel’s Collection. So, there’s a specific wine that I thought that we should chat a little bit about and that is Yalumba Octavius Old Vine, the 2013, which is not a cheap wine. It’s $135 so let’s be honest, this is a special occasion wine. But there’s another one: Yalumba’s Samuel’s Collection. This is a new range that they have recently launched that’s only $20. So, for those of us who cannot afford $135 every day, which is probably most of us, the $20 one is also really just balanced, drinkable, a really beautiful example of France’s most famous wine style.
But the Octavius, I think this is a really great place to start. Are you familiar with this with this wine or this style?
TH: Yeah, absolutely, I’ve actually had a chance to do a vertical of Octavius a few years ago and I think the great thing about Shiraz in general is that because they are these full of body wines, a lot of them are amazing to drink young and you don’t need years and years of age on these wines to make them approachable.
You can grab that $20 bottle of wine off the shelf and it’s going to be great. You can have it with all sorts of food and you know you’re going to smash that bottle easily, but the Octavius is, as you said, one of those iconic wines I think it was definitely the style was born out of out of a time.
When I talk to guests about what defines Australian cuisine and Australian dining and this sort of stuff, I always tell people that I think it follows various waves of immigration to Australia.
Australia is a relatively young country and was settled by the British. Around the First and Second World War there was a huge influx of people from the Mediterranean that have really defined Australia from a culinary and a wine point of view.
And these styles of wines, these big bold red wines, were what was popular, especially with the British. And then people from the Mediterranean, Greeks and Italians, they bought all their amazing food which pairs well with the Australian climate and also these sort of these bolder style wines.
CP: Because let’s be honest, I think a lot of us are going towards maybe fresher cooler climate styles of wine, and Barossa is not a cool climate. It’s not as hot as it often gets stereotyped as.
They do say that you know that has a pretty broad diurnal temperatures and of course it depends on where, because there’s a whole other podcast we’ll have to save for Barossa subregions and its diversity of soils, and of course you have much warmer climates in some pockets of Barossa than you do in others.
So that is sort of a whole other discussion. But you know we’re not expecting Barossa to suddenly start making these 12% super fresh wines. They are always going to be fairly medium to full-bodied fuller styles. So, for people who like that style, this is a region that has a very long history and hundreds of years of experience with making wines of this style.
But of course, the drinking culture in Australia is very much associated with the British culture. For a long time, the Australians were exporting fortified wines to Britain and Shiraz is of course playing a big part in that.
But Australia had sort of a big learning curve. There was one point where the British said, “Okay, thank you for all those fortified wines but we no longer need them anymore. The wars are over, we will continue to import from Europe.”
And Australia had to take a good hard look at itself and go, “Well, there goes most of our market.” And of course, dry table wine sort of slowly came out of that amongst other things.
Let’s move on. Let’s go outside the box here and move on to a different style of Shiraz and a different climate. Where should we go next? Should we go to Victoria?
TH: That’s where I’m from.
CP: Yeah, because of course you have the accent to go along with this podcast far better than I do. So where are you from actually? I want to hear your story and you ended up in the States too.
TH: So I’m from a little town called Queenscliff in southern Victoria and I grew up in the restaurant business. One of my regulars was the owner of a producer called Scotchmans Hill and he asked me what I was doing on the weekends. One day and I said nothing. And he said to come and work in his vineyard. So, then I went on to work in the vineyard and my love affair with wine started there.
Then I decided to leave a great job I had with a restaurant group in Melbourne and jump on a plane and come to America. I planned on coming for three months and that was 12 years ago.
CP: How did Americans react to Australian wine? How have you seen it change in the last decade or last 12 years and is it changing still?
TH: I really don’t want to highlight this point because I think we’ve got so far past it. But it’s always in the conversation when you talk to people who’ve been around wine. And Australian wine for a fair amount of time that there was this influx in the’80s and ’90s to the states of what I call the critter wines. You know, the wines with some, some little Aussie critter on the label. They were cheap. They were mass produced and they sort of set the table I guess for Aussie wine for a long time and it’s taken a while to get out of that.
There’s also issues with trade and foreign exchange rates and things like that, which is a whole other conversation, that affected imports and so on. But you know over the last 10 years that I’ve been heavily involved with Aussie wine here, it’s definitely changed.
The pure amount of producers that are coming from Australia now, the amount of Aussie wine that suppliers have and then you know people are slowly adopting it onto wine lists in wine stores.
It’s still got a long way to go to be as recognizable as some other international wines. But it’s definitely evolving. When I get to touch tables and talk to people in detail about it, they love exploring it. They love the opportunity to say, “Okay, well, Australia isn’t just this, it’s all of these as well, so let’s have a conversation,” which is awesome.
CP: Well, that leads nicely into exploring other regions in Australia. Speaking of all these regions, one of the biggest regions in Victoria is the Yarra Valley. It’s just a 30-minute drive outside of Melbourne and you could almost call it an urban wine region. But when you’re out there, you feel like you’ve been transported to a completely different world, it definitely feels rural. I think there are some problems with urban development there with the city creeping in, but for now it still feels like a pretty rural part of Victoria.
And it is cool climate. It may not be as maritime and as cool as a place like Mornington Peninsula where Pinot Noir would be their specialty there. So, because of that, the Yarra has never really hung its hat on one grape variety. It’s excelled at lots of different grape varieties. it makes a wonderful Pinot Noir and wonderful Chardonnay, it makes some Sauvignon Blanc and it makes some really great Cabernet Sauvignon. And of course, it also makes really good Shiraz.
And here I think probably more than any other region, I’m seeing it called Syrah. Can you talk a little bit about why winemakers in Australia, with something like Shiraz which is so synonymous with Australia, why they would choose to throw that name out and call it Syrah?
TH: Yeah, I think the main reason is to differentiate a different style. I’m trying to get out of the conversation of comparing Australian wine to something else, you know. But I think in this case it’s using the French term to differentiate a style that is sort of more savory, maybe lighter alcohol, less oak influence, and letting the wine speak a little bit more about terroir, would be why these producers are calling it Syrah as opposed to Shiraz.
CP: And I completely understand that temptation of not wanting to just automatically go, “They’re calling it because it’s like Northern Rhône,” but probably an easy way to initially understand is this style is maybe a little bit less like that richer more sort of muscular structured style that we were talking about that’s coming out of places like Barossa, but it is sort of an easy way to think is if I see Syrah on a bottle of Australian red versus Shiraz, I can think it’s going to be maybe a little closer to a Northern Rhône style, maybe a little bit spicier or a little bit lower alcohol.
So, and then you’re right to touch upon also a lot of the producers that are using it are producers who are maybe working with a little bit less intervention, a little bit more natural wine and being a little bit more terroir expressive. So, the Yarra also has so many exciting producers that are just really shaking things up in Australia in general. The list is so long I don’t even really know where to start. But I guess let’s talk first about Luke Lambert, about a specific wine that’s Luke Lambert’s Syrah.
It’s a 2017, it’s about $65 so that’s another conversation to have. Some of these smaller producers are not cheap so that is definitely something that’s difficult. And I don’t know if you find this as well, but often I’m recommending wines and by the time they get over here and everybody takes their cut along the way, these wines can be quite expensive. Is that something that you find is little bit of an uphill battle?
TH: Yes, I agree with you. I think Shiraz is probably the easiest way to try to convince someone to pay $150 at a table for Tasmanian Pinot Noir that they’ve never heard of before is a bit of a challenge. But you know having someone pay the same price for an Australian Shiraz, especially something from the Barossa, in those other stores is an easier conversation.
CP: But as you say if it’s also from a region that people haven’t heard of then that’s a lot harder. That’s just something that we have to accept with these smaller producers more is actually going directly into their pockets. Yes, there are a lot of people along the way who are taking cuts. Somebody like Luke Lambert would not have a marketing team behind him. This is a guy who’s growing his own grapes and making his own wine and selling his own wine and doing his own promotion. He’s definitely small batch artisan producer.
Can you talk a little bit about Luke Lambert specifically?
TH: Yeah, I’ve met Luke a couple of times and I love what he’s doing. He’s very unashamedly doing what he’s doing and he’s finding these cool little, what good producers would consider a lesser quality pockets of the Yarra Valley. Areas that are challenging, the rocky little outcrops and really cool areas and, and growing. It’s really amazing. Like, throwing out all the history and all the tradition of wine and just doing it DIY and I love that.
CP: We’re only going to have time really to talk about three different styles of Shiraz, from different regions in Australia that are doing it but keep in mind that this is a great variety that is planted all over the country and there are so many producers doing really cool stuff with it. But let’s just move west and just talk really briefly about, all the way across the country, this is like a five hour flight, all the way over to Western Australia, to the most remote wine region in Australia.
The Great Southern which is this vast swath of land. It’s five different subregions down there. It’s, it’s massive. You don’t really quite know if you’ve entered it or left it. Have you been there before?
TH: I have been. Yeah, I’ve been to the region and after your five hour flight from Sydney you’ve got a five hour drive south to get to these places. If you ever get the opportunity to go there it’s one of the most pristine places that I’ve ever been to on the planet.
CP: And they make incredible wines. That’s the even more amazing part is that they’ve been a little bit of an underdog region and because of their remoteness it’s hard to get people down there. But I think when they do, they really fall in love with the region and the wines and so this is truly cool climate wine making in Australia.
So of course, cool climate, they do amazing Riesling, an amazing Pinot Noir but Shiraz particularly in the most inland region in Frankland River is really beautiful and a really excellent example of a sort of a style that couldn’t be any more opposite really from South Australia, but that Australia as a whole is also doing really well. So, in Frankland River I would say the most famous winery there and definitely the most lauded would be Frankland Estate who are working organically and just have a really beautiful philosophy about winemaking. Always very terroir expressive. A lot of the times I’ll taste Frankland Estate’s wines and think they’re beautiful, but they would be even more beautiful if we gave them more time. I mean sometimes they just need a few years, but I think their Shiraz 2015 is the one we’re going to talk about today. It’s $40, which when you think about some of these Shiraz that take decades to age, it’s definitely a more restrained medium bodied style. I’ll let you talk more about Frankland Estate and about Shiraz from Great Southern.
TH: I love this style and earlier I was talking about how the Australian palate and culinary world has evolved over time. We saw it big wave of immigration from Southeast Asia after the Vietnam War and the influence of Asian cuisine on Australia has been huge and I think wines like the Frankland Estate are really fitting to this fresher, spicy food and they go really well with that with that type of cuisine. Some of the Frankland Estate wines might need a minute but not that long.
CP: It always amazes me how I’ll taste them young and go, “wow, these are going to need so much time.” And then I might taste the previous vintage or only two vintages before and suddenly they just blossomed, so often it’s just a case of even leaving them a year or two.
Anyway, Tim we are going to have to wrap this up, but this has been such a nice conversation about a great variety that is well-known but not so well-known.
In a lot of ways there’s still so much to be explored and to be uncovered. So, I think everybody should go out and try lots of different kinds of Aussie Shiraz or Syrah and hopefully it’ll just open the door to the diversity that Australia has to offer in general.
TH: Absolutely, yes. It’s a fun way to dive into Australian wine and explore it and it really has defined Australian wine for so long and will continue to do so. So, you know there are so many wine makers out there that are taking it really seriously and exploring with it.
CP: Absolutely. Thanks, so much Tim.
TH: Thanks, so much Christina.
CP: Thanks for listening to this episode of The Wine Enthusiast podcast. We hope you learned a little something about Aussie Shiraz and that we’ve got you thirsty enough to pour yourself a glass.
Three of the recently reviewed Shiraz that we mentioned in this podcast that are worth picking up are you lumber. The Octavius Old Vine 2013, 94 points, from the Barossa Valley and $135. Or for a more everyday drinking Shiraz, try Yalumba Samuel’s Collection Shiraz a new range out from them this year for $20. Luke Lambert Syrah 2017, 92 points, from the Yarra Valley for $65 and Frankland Estate Shiraz 2015, 92 points, from the Great Southern for $40 and watch for the 2016 review coming soon head to winemag.com for full reviews.
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