It’s an exciting time for Australian Shiraz. No longer is it simply the muscular, richly fruited bomb we’ve come to know, love and slowly tire of. It’s coming of age. It’s becoming complex, diverse and articulate — ready to express its regionality with clarity. And those in the know are taking notice. It’s almost certainly a style to watch and rediscover.
Today, an ocean of Australian Shiraz is being produced. Think in the tune of almost a half a million tons of fruit crushed each year and more than 42,000 hectares under vine. But those Shiraz vines don’t cluster in one particular area; they’re spread throughout 22 designated growing areas. And each area has been working hard to develop its own unique expression of Shiraz in an increasingly crowded marketplace.
Australia now offers more than just one style — from the ubiquitous big Barossa blockbusters to lighter, more elegant, Syrah-like bottles from the Great Southern region. The country is responding to the growing demand for wines that not just thrill but also refresh. And the onus sits squarely on wine drinkers to understand the stylistic differences between the regions. To set you off in the right direction, I’ve sketched a top-line road map highlighting several of the most noteworthy spots.
There is still, and always will be, Barossa blockbusters teeming with ripe, choco-berry fruit. This region accounts for about 12 per cent of the Shiraz produced in Australia and was the go-to region for many enthusiasts for the past few decades. But the style is falling out of fashion as people turn to more drinkable styles. Barossa’s wines are indeed a plush crush of velvety richness, but they’re also high in alcohol — blame it on the terroir — making them tough to enjoy beyond a glass or two. That said, if this style of wine is your thing, Barossa Shiraz will always be there to turn to, even if it’s starting to bore the critics. Hallmark flavours include mocha, cocoa, black plum and oak.
This region is the one to watch. Much like Barossa Shiraz, these wines are richly fruited and almost black in colour. And a decade ago, they struggled with balance. But now, the wines express power and finesse in a single glass, with the texture and complexity to attract a more discriminating drinker. Hallmark flavours include plum, liquorice, and a lifted note of violet.
This small region only accounts for about 1.5 per cent of Shiraz plantings but produces stunning Shiraz that is delicate and very judiciously oaked. Great Southern is a relatively cooler climate that tends to ripen the berries slower, preserving the aromatics. The result is a Shiraz that’s more appropriately called Syrah. In fact, some Australian producers choosing to make lighter, spicier styles are calling the wines Syrah (rather than Shiraz) to suggest this difference. Great Southern Shiraz typically shows red and black plum flavours laced with liquorice, spice and cherry, but with an elegant perfume, silky mouthfeel and lighter body.
This region’s Shiraz is recognized for its purity of fruit. Although the wines certainly offer power and tannic structure, there’s freshness and elegance too due largely to the elevation of the region (400 to 500 metres). Higher elevation preserves acidity, prevents cooked flavours and in many ways simply makes it easier to produce more interesting Shiraz. The chocolate, dark berry and spice notes are typically there, but so is the delightful thrill of fresh red berries. And considerable complexity can develop with time in bottle — not all Shiraz is capable of long-term aging.
Like Clare Valley, Adelaide Hills’ elevation lifts the fruit of Shiraz grown here. So the wines from this region are fresh and lively with bright fruit and medium body — supremely drinkable and affable. This regional variation offsets the naturally dark, rich character of the grape variety itself.
As Australia’s oldest wine-producing region with vines there since the 1820s, the Hunter Valley has a well-established reputation for producing decent Shiraz but also Shiraz that often shows that telltale sweaty saddle note of Brettanomyces. “Brett” is a form of contamination that tends to flow from poor sanitation in the winery, and can, at high levels, make wine taste terrible. Well, dear reader, seems the region has cleaned up its act. Pretty notes of sour cherry complement the dark berry and spice of these medium-bodied Shirazes. And the wines are intense and charming.
There are of course other regions and sub-regions to delve into, but the places noted above are good jumping-off points. Enough theory; let’s get on with the fun stuff.
Below are eight undervalued bottles to get you reacquainted with Australian Shiraz. They all demonstrate the sheer hedonistic appeal Australia is now offering at the $18 to $99 levels. If you haven’t reached for Aussie Shiraz lately, I would encourage you to do so. I think you’ll be surprised.
Grant Burge Miamba Shiraz 2008, Barossa Valley ($18)
Nicely toned little number with a ripe, tight core of blackberry and plum, underpinned by notes of anise, white pepper and warm vanilla. Medium- to full-bodied with 13.5 per cent alcohol.
Wakefield Estate Shiraz 2009, Clare Valley ($18)
Juicy. Black Forest fruit and spice are here but so is a firm seam of acidity running through this Shiraz, lifting the fruit and refreshing the palate. Topcoat of vanilla.
Plunkett Fowles Stone Dwellers Shiraz 2008, Strathbogie Ranges ($20)
Aromatic and concentrated yet far from a single-note fruit bomb. Lots going on here, from classic liquorice and pepper flavours to savoury smoked meat and herbaceousness. Mint and minerals on the finish.
Mitolo Jester Shiraz 2009, McLaren Vale ($22)
For the money, this classic Shiraz is tough to beat. You’ve got all the generosity you’ve come to expect from the variety balanced by the elegance and finesse that’s got critics talking. Intense blackcurrant, plum, Black Forest cake, and a crank of pepper. The 15% alcohol is well hidden beneath tons of fleshy, beguiling fruit.
Two Hands Gnarly Dudes Shiraz 2010, Barossa Valley ($30)
If you like Barossa Shiraz, you’ll love this wine. From an excellent vintage, this wine showcases everything this area is about, classically speaking. Think blockbuster red brimming with puréed plum, chocolate-covered black cherries, milky coffee, liquorice and pepper. Full bodied with 14.5% alcohol.
Mitolo G.A.M. Shiraz 2008, McLaren Vale ($44)
Made from 25-year-old vines that yield complex, concentrated berries, this medium-to-full-bodied wine offers an initial attack of macerated Black Forest fruits, then unfurls flavours of coffee bean, violet, dark chocolate, black liquorice and black earth. The tannins are firm but ripe and the length resonant.
Mitchell McNicol Shiraz 2003, Clare Valley ($46)
Quite Syrah-like in its elegance and complexity and showing its age beautifully with significant depth of character. Powerful, almost savoury, fruit underpinned by aromas and flavours of cigar box, leather, liquorice and thyme. This wine drinks beautifully now but will continue to develop in proper cellaring for another five years or so.
Yalumba Octavius Shiraz 2006, Barossa Valley ($99)
This traditional Barossa Shiraz from Australia’s oldest family-owned winery — Yalumba — is an incredible force. Cascading flavours of black fruit, mocha, liquorice, fig, chocolate, white pepper and on and on. The structure is firm with well-integrated tannins and balanced acidity and alcohol. Long and lush. A top-notch Barossa Shiraz by any yardstick.