Thursday, January 4, 2024

Oz Shiraz

In a Cabernet-centric wine world, it may come as a surprise to hear that Australia's premier red wine is Shiraz, aka Syrah. 

Aussies do make Cabernet Sauvignon, but since 1951, Shiraz has captured the attention of Australian wine drinkers, as well as  fans of red wine with personality, everywhere.

There are six states in Australia (Western Australia, Queensland, South Australia, New South Wales, Victoria, Tasmania), plus Northern Territory and the Australian Capital Territory. The huge landmass that is the Australian continent/country is about the same size as continental United States. 

Old vine Shiraz

Shiraz is produced in every state and territory and all of them are different, reflecting local terroir. Anyone with a fondness for Oz Shiraz would never mistake a Barossa Shiraz for one made in Margaret River, or the Hunter Valley. They all carry the same varietal name, but they don't taste the same.

The modern story of Shiraz begins with a man named Max Schubert. In the 1950s, Schubert was head winemaker for Penfolds, in the Barossa Valley of South Australia. Following a trip to France where he tasted a number of Bordeaux, Schubert wanted to make a wine at Penfolds like what he tasted in France.

But there was no Cabernet Sauvignon then in the Barossa, although there was plenty of Shiraz, used then to make sweet Australian Port. So, Schubert's boss directed him not to make a dry red from Shiraz.  

Fortunately for wine lovers, Schubert ignored the order and made a Shiraz, aged in American oak, that he named Grange Hermitage.  The French objected to the use of the Hermitage name, since there was already a Hermitage wine in the Rhone Valley.  Penfolds relented and today the famous wine is called simply, Grange.

Numerous Shiraz/Syrahs, made outside the northern Rhone Valley, consider Hermitage and Cote Rotie, as the baseline. Rhone Syrah is deeply colored, with complex aromas of blackberry/raspberry, hints of rosemary and wood smoke.  With age, Syrah becomes more leathery with tobacco leaf notes. Australian Shiraz is riper, more concentrated and fruit-driven.

With that background as a general reference, here are a few characteristics of regional Australian Shiraz. 

Barossa, South Australia: deep ruby color, chocolate-covered cherries, faint herbal note, soft tannins, good acidity. Many Barossa Shiraz have what the Aussies describe as eucalypt, which to me is more menthol than mint.

Hunter Valley, New South Wales: Shiraz does well in the southern part of the Hunter, mainly between the city of Cessnock and the Rothbury area. Young Hunter Shiraz is lean and closed, but like Hunter Semillon, aging in the bottle brings out big berry flavors and smooth tannins.

Yarra Valley

Victoria sub regions: Yarra Valley: very deep inky color, ripe black cherry, peppery back note, crisp acidity, fine tannins.  Geelong: dense color, spicy/peppery aroma, black cherry flavors, good structure and length. Grampians: deep ruby color, richly textured flavors, ripe plums, spice and black pepper, good length. Pyrenees: chocolate cherry and black plum, spicy/peppery, length and structure; Taltarni is the most often seen Pyrenees Shiraz in the U.S. market.  

Tasmania: dense, ripe blackberry, bing cherry, subtle leafy notes. Because of the Tasmania cool climate, similar in some places to Champagne, Tassie is better known for Pinot Noir than Shiraz.

Margaret River, Western Australia: complex bright red fruits, brisk acidity, firm tannins. Structure is more Bordeaux/Cabernet-like than Rhone/Syrah. 

Shiraz also shows up in G-S-M, a blend of Shiraz, Grenache and Mourvedre, with the up-front fruit of Grenache, the structure of Shiraz and the color of Mourvedre.  Aussies also blend Shiraz with Cabernet Sauvignon.

Other noteworthy Shiraz, by state/region: Rothbury Estate, Rosemount Estate (New South Wales); Clonakilla (Canberra); De Bartoli, Yarra Ridge Vineyard (Yarra Valley); Taltarni, Mount Avoca Vineyard (Pyrenees); Chateau Tahbilk (Goulburn Valley); Grant Burge, St. Hallett, Peter Lehman, Yalumba, Wolf Blass, Rockford  (Barossa Valley); Henschke, Hill-Smith Estate (Eden Valley); Jim Barry (Clare Valley); Wynns Coonawarra Estate, Katnook Estate (Coonawarra); d'Arenberg Wines, Normans, Clarendon Hills (McLaren Vale); Vasse Felix, Cape Mentelle (Margaret River).

The name Shiraz comes from the capital of ancient Persia and is the fifth most populous city in present-day Iran. Shiraz is also the name of Australia's most popular red wine, a worthy addition to a wine drinker's collection.

Next blog: Loving Lodi

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