Australian Shiraz: The Chameleon Grape With a French Pedigree

Australian shiraz bottles hereo
Photo by Katrín Björk / Styling by Fría Kristinsdóttir

Nothing says Australian wine like Shiraz. The luscious fruit, chocolatey oak and powerful tannins of this warming, hug-in-a-glass wine has played a crucial role in cementing Australia’s global wine reputation.

But this full-bodied style, found mainly in warm South Australian regions like Barossa Valley, McLaren Vale and Langhorne Creek, is only one chapter of the Australian Shiraz story. Syrah, as it’s known in the rest of the world, is produced by an estimated four out of five Oz wineries, in nearly all its 65 distinct winemaking regions.

From spicy, medium-weight, cool-climate expressions to gluggable, Pinot-esque bottles, modern Aussie Shiraz comes in a multitude of shapes and sizes.

The Complete Guide to Australian Wine by Style

What’s in a Name?

Australia is home to the oldest producing pre-phylloxera Shiraz/Syrah vines on the planet, with some dating to the 1840s. The Barossa Valley in South Australia may today be synonymous with Shiraz, but the variety has an equally long history in regions across Victoria and New South Wales.

While the origins of both the vines and the term itself are murky, it’s widely accepted that Shiraz cuttings were brought from France’s Northern Rhône to Australian shores in 1832. The variety was thought to have been misspelled in records as “scyras,” which morphed into Shiraz.

Until the mid-1900s, Shiraz was used across Australia for cheap table wines and a uniquely Aussie sparkling red still in production today. It was also a base for fortified wines sold mainly for medicinal purposes.

The Penfold family made the latter at its namesake winery, established in 1844. But it was the world-famous Penfolds Grange, which emerged in the 1950s, that launched Shiraz into an era of powerful, full-bodied, ageworthy dry bottlings. That style still reigns.

Today, however, the number of Shiraz wines that fall outside this category is vast, albeit made mainly by small- to medium-sized independent producers. The French term Syrah has made its way onto an increasing number of bottles to distinguish cool-climate or light-leaning wines from the more traditionally full-figured Aussie Shiraz.

Australian Shiraz bottles
Photo by Katrín Björk / Styling by Fría Kristinsdóttir

Victoria

The state of Victoria boasts more wine regions and wineries than anywhere in Australia. Terroirs and winemaking approaches largely vary, but a cool-climate freshness and linear quality ties the wines together.

In Victoria’s northeast, at the foothills of the Victorian Alps, a small region called Beechworth is proving to be one of Australia’s most exciting Shiraz regions. Here, finessed bottlings are crafted by small, quality-focused producers like Giaconda from volcanic, mineral-rich soils composed of granite or old sandstone and gravel over clay.

“[Beechworth’s] warm days and cool nights make Syrah sing,” says Julian Castagna, a biodynamic winegrower who makes varietal Syrah, as well as a blend with Sangiovese, a sparkler and a rosé. All are ethereally elegant, beautiful examples of this variety, “if what you like is Syrah with the soul of Pinot Noir,” he says.

In Central Victoria, the ancient, iron-oxide-rich red soils of the Heathcote region make for more intensely colored and concentrated Shiraz, but the cool southerly winds mean freshness and a chiseled tannin structure that allows the wines to age for decades. Jasper Hill makes classic single-vineyard examples, while producers like Syrahmi and Bertrand Bespoke craft more contemporary versions.

Shiraz—in sparkling and still form—thrives in the historic and mountainous Grampians region and Great Western subregion, in Victoria’s far west, particularly in the hands of longstanding producers like Seppelt, Best’s and Mount Langi Ghiran. Here, the variety takes on a distinctive black pepper, eucalyptus and clove character.

Everything You Need to Know About Syrah/Shiraz

Just outside Melbourne, the Yarra Valley is a melting pot of a region that includes historic producers like Yarra Yerring and Yeringberg and a gaggle of young, boundary-pushing winemakers. The latter experimented in the early 2000s with carbonic maceration. While the pendulum is swinging back toward the center, the use of whole bunches and whole berries in fermentation gives Shiraz a vibrancy that, combined with crunchy natural acidity, distinguishes it greatly from the bolder, richer styles.

One whole-bunch proponent is Gary Mills, who launched the label Jamsheed to focus on single-vineyard Syrah and aromatic white wines from around Victoria.

“Jamsheed launched in 2003 when the vanguard of Aus Shiraz was all about full-on power,” says Mills. “Not only are these wines I have no interest in drinking, I witnessed a lot of vineyards being pushed into overdrive to make these styles of wine when they were not suited to do so, and all they ended up achieving was brown muck.”

New South Wales and Australian Capital Territory (ACT)

The wine regions of New South Wales and the Australian Capital Territory surround the city of Sydney like a horseshoe. In the warm, humid Hunter Valley, the birthplace of Australian wine, Shiraz is usually medium weight with concentrated berry fruit and hefty helpings of spice and tannin. It lacks the acidity and linearity of the cooler-climate bottlings, but can be beautifully gamey and complex with age.

Historic wineries like Tyrrell’s and Mount Pleasant, along with Brokenwood, all make classic styles while Harkham Wine makes playful yet seriously structured Shiraz with zero added sulfites.

The Great Dividing Range is home to a handful of small, high-elevation wine regions. Of these, the Canberra District, just outside Australia’s capital city of the same name, has emerged as an unlikely but important character in the Shiraz narrative. Its success is down to one man: Tim Kirk of Clonakilla.

“In fact, most grape-growing regions would kill for our dry, coastal climate. The secret is restraint and knowing when to pick to keep the wines in balance.”—Brad Hickey, founder Brash Higgins Wine

Inspired by a trip to the Northern Rhône 30 years ago, Kirk returned home to his family winery, started by his father, John Kirk, in 1971, hoping to craft a Shiraz-Viognier blend in the finessed style he’d tried in France.

“By what seemed to me a providence, Dad had planted Viognier in the vineyard five years earlier with a view to making a white wine,” says Kirk. “It was about to crop for the very first time on our return to Australia in early 1992. I suggested to Dad that instead of making a white, we should try throwing it in to the Shiraz ferments just as I had observed in Côte-Rôtie.”

Clonakilla’s Shiraz Viognier was an instant success, proving that the combo of the varieties, along with Canberra’s extreme continental climate and complex soils of clays and decomposed granite, were capable of the elegance and perfume Kirk had hoped for. It inspired other cool climate producers to strive for similar aromatics, tension and elegance in their Shiraz. It remains a benchmark wine.

Australian shiraz bottles
Photo by Katrín Björk / Styling by Fría Kristinsdóttir

Western Australia

Whether in the historic Swan District, Geographe or Margaret River, West Aussie Shiraz can range from medium to full in body, with supple texture, upfront fruit and gentle spice. The warm climate is moderated by cool breezes off the Indian Ocean.

The sprawling and remote Great Southern region in West Australia’s far southwest crafts compelling cool-climate Shiraz. Two of the five distinct subregions, Frankland River and Mount Barker, boast semi-continental climates and make particularly expressive, finely textured versions, laden with savory, earthy spice and florals.

“It was Shiraz that first gave me a glimpse of the Great Southern region’s potential and made us decide to drive from Queensland with all our belongings across the country to settle way out here in the sticks,” says Andrew Hoadley, whose La Violetta wines are some of the most innovative in the country.

Hoadley started his label with one Shiraz in 2008. He now makes over two dozen wines including several Shiraz that differ in style but walk a tightrope of elegance and rusticity, buzzing with energy and a lighter frame that “can be drunk with a chill.”

“Trendy, sure,” says Hoadley. “But also, just what an Aussie summer is screaming out for.” 

South Australia

A gaggle of producers in classic regions like Barossa Valley, Clare Valley and McLaren Vale—Standish Wine Company, Ruggabellus and Poppelvej, to name a few—are rethinking their regions’ most famous grape.

“We can’t turn off the sun here,” says Brad Hickey, an American expat who makes wines in McLaren Vale under the label Brash Higgins. “In fact, most grape-growing regions would kill for our dry, coastal climate. The secret is restraint and knowing when to pick to keep the wines in balance.”

Hickey’s hands-off approach to his boldly labeled Shiraz results in a wine that doesn’t hide the power inherent to the region but also highlights the variety’s complex, sweet and sour elements in these parts.

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In Barossa, Fraser McKinley’s Sami-Odi label is a love letter to the region’s most special Shiraz sites. McKinley makes a vintage wine from vines as old as 133 years, along with a multi-vintage blend. He’s also planted more than 6,000 Shiraz vines from cuttings off vineyards of local prestige and heritage, and he’ll soon release his first wines under the label Our Hill.

McKinley’s approach is minimal yet exacting. He farms organically, picks early and utilizes whole clusters. He also makes no acid adjustments, which is uncommon in warmer regions like Barossa, and bottles with minimal sulfur additions.

“I’m looking for vitality and fragrance in the final wines,” he says. The Sami Odi Shiraz are full of character, stable, perfumed and drinkable-yet-ageworthy expressions that demonstrate Barossa’s potential to produce elegant wines.

South Australia is also home to the elevated, cool-climate Adelaide Hills region, a hotbed of natural winemaking and experimentation, where producers like Murdoch Hill and Charlotte Dalton, to name a few, craft refreshing Shiraz with moderate alcohol levels and umami nuances like iodine and seaweed atop fresh berry fruit. 

Ten Australian Shiraz Wines to try:

Frankland Estate 2018 Isolation Ridge Single Vineyard Shiraz (Frankland River); $38. This wine comes from the most isolated single-vineyards in the world, and from a fantastic Shiraz vineyard. SEE SCORE AND FULL REVIEW

Luke Lambert 2019 Syrah (Yarra Valley); $65. From one of the coolest climates in the Yarra and grown on unusually volcanic soil to boot… SEE SCORE AND FULL REVIEW

Mayer 2019 Syrah (Yarra Valley); $90. German expat Timo Mayer is one of the natural wine kings of the Yarra Valley, known for his prodigious yet skillful use of whole-bunch fermentation. SEE SCORE AND FULL REVIEW

Oliver’s Taranga Vineyards 2018 Shiraz (McLaren Vale); $35. Corrina Wright and team once again deliver a medium-weight Shiraz that’s both approachable and nuanced. SCORE AND FULL REVIEW

Walsh & Sons 2020 Felix Syrah (Margaret River); $35. This pint-size Margaret River winery, known for characterful yet clean minimal-intervention wines with downright adorable labels… SEE SCORE AND FULL REVIEW

Charlotte Dalton 2019 Love Me Love You Shiraz (Adelaide Hills); $33. Wildly popular in Australia, this modern Shiraz puts deliciousness first without compromising quality. SEE SCORE AND FULL REVIEW

Poppelvej 2019 Somewhere Syrah (McLaren Vale); $39. This is a relatively new small-batch label from Danish sommelier-turned-winemaker Uffe Deichmann. Fermented in concrete egg, this Syrah echoes… SEE SCORE AND FULL REVIEW 

Pacha Mama 2019 Shiraz (Heathcote); $30. This is a lovely example of cool-climate Shiraz from the Heathcote region of Victoria. It’s open and lucid, with notes of sun-ripened wild blueberries and strawberries, tree sap, scrubby Aussie herbs and flowers, and a wet-stone nuance.  SEE SCORE AND FULL REVIEW

Best’s 2017 Sparkling Shiraz (Great Western); $35. Best’s makes one of the strongest examples of this uniquely Aussie style, which has been a part of Aussie wine since 1881.  SEE SCORE AND FULL REVIEW

See Saw 2018 Shiraz (Orange); $20. From the high-elevation region of Orange in New South Wales, this organic Shiraz shows the coolness of the climate and the power of the variety.  SEE SCORE AND FULL REVIEW

This article originally appeared in the December 31, 2021 issue of Wine Enthusiast magazine. Click here to subscribe today!

Published on December 13, 2021
Topics: Grape Varieties