In Defense of Australian Shiraz
Not long ago, someone asked me on Twitter whether it was possible for a wine to make your mouth taste like Robitussin in the morning.
I replied that it wasn’t a side effect I’d ever encountered myself—though that didn’t mean it couldn’t happen—at which point an acquaintance from the wine business took the opportunity to jump in and quip, “Was it Aussie Shiraz? Those are 65 percent cough syrup.”
Speaking for the Australians, ouch. But unfortunately, that comment is representative of what a lot of wine lovers in the US think, which is that Australian Shiraz is big, bold, even massive; high in alcohol; and full of superripe, lip-smackingly sweet fruit.
Now, admittedly, my tweeting friend had a point. There is a lot of fruity, anonymous Shiraz out there (Shiraz, by the way, is the same grape as Syrah; the Australians simply call it by another name, and they have since they first planted it in the early 1800s). But there’s a lot of simple, anonymous California Cabernet, Argentinean Malbec and, yes, French Syrah on store shelves, too. Wines like these are the frozen pizzas of the wine world. They’re supermarket commodities, made at industrial wineries, whose character varies minimally from vintage to vintage, if at all. And they express terroir—the specific place they’re from, the nuances of region and vineyard—about as much as a Miller Lite does. But that’s fine. I don’t expect terroir from Miller Lite, and I don’t expect it from million-case-production wines (or frozen pizzas) either.
The real problem is this: Why does everyone accept the idea that there are Napa Valley Cabernets, for example, that bear no resemblance to Two-Buck Chuck, but also assume that all Australian Shiraz, even the country’s top wines, must taste like blackberry jam?
“I really don’t know,” said Peter Fraser, the winemaker for Australia’s Yangarra Estate Vineyard, when I asked him that question. He was in the US on a sales trip, and he had definitely run into the Shiraz-is-jam attitude. At several places around the country, buyers had made it clear to Fraser that they had no interest whatsoever in any Australian Shiraz, from anyone. (Imagine a sommelier saying the same thing about Rhône Valley Syrah—pretty near unthinkable.)
I felt sympathy for Fraser, especially after tasting his wines. The 2009 Yangarra Estate McLaren Vale Shiraz ($25), for example, has an alluring aroma of dried wild herbs, and while the wine does suggest blackberries, its fruit is spicy and tangy, not sweet and enveloping. The wine is subtle; it doesn’t hit you over the head with a club. And that’s exactly what Fraser is after. “I make bright, vibrant wines,” he told me. “I stick to what I think our vineyard does well, which is more finesse than power.”
That said, there are reasons people associate Shiraz with ripeness and power. For much of the past decade, the Australian wines that received the most acclaim and highest point scores from American critics were predominantly supercharged, high-alcohol, powerhouse wines. On top of that, Yellow Tail Shiraz—which represents almost 50 percent of the Shiraz sold here—is very much made in a plush, fruity, no-sharp-edges style. Finally, the warm-to-hot climate of the country’s most famous region (and still the region that exports the most wine to the United States), the Barossa Valley, naturally makes for substantial, ripe Shiraz.
But Australia is enormous—you can fit France into the place 14 times over and still have room for most of Belgium. The Barossa is heavily identified with Shiraz, but the truth is that Shiraz is grown all over Australia, and there are dozens of other wine regions, each with distinctive soils and climates, producing superb versions of this wine. Not that this should come as a surprise: Shiraz, or Syrah, is one of the world’s greatest grapes. Originally from France, it produces wines as vaunted as the great Hermitages of the northern Rhône, as well as eminently drinkable, more affordable reds in wine regions around the world.
More than that, Shiraz also has the capacity to vividly express the character of where it’s grown. Consider the Yarra Valley, where winemaker Luke Lambert’s eponymous winery is based. The Yarra has temperatures more like Bordeaux than Barossa. By nature, the Shiraz produced here tends to be taut and savory, driven more by spice, smoke and earthy depth than by fruit (because the climate is cool, it tends to have moderate alcohol levels, too). Lambert’s ambition is to highlight that character rather than obscure it, and he has succeeded with wines like the impressive 2010 Luke Lambert Yarra Valley Syrah ($70), a Shiraz that to me tastes like Australia filtered through France’s Côte-Rôtie—possibly why Lambert chooses to use the grape’s European name.
“When I first got into wine and fell in love with rustic Syrah and Nebbiolo,” Lambert says, “it was a real eye-opener to find this ‘other’ world that wasn’t based around fruit sweetness and oak.” Seven years ago, when he released his first vintage, “There were plenty of people who thought concentration, power and oak were what Shiraz should be, and they hated my wines.” That’s much less the case now, “and there’s a push toward exploring single vineyards and letting the site sing—which is very important if Australia is going to show the breadth of its terroirs.”
My advice to anyone who wants to experience the range of Australian Shiraz is simple: Skip the frozen-pizza aisle. You will have to spend slightly more money—affordable, regionally designated Shirazes sell for around $15 to $20 a bottle, rather than $8 to $10—but there’s a payoff in terms of pleasure, just as there is when you have a really great pizza, made by an actual human, using top-quality ingredients. To make things easy, you can separate Australia’s wine regions into roughly three categories: cool, warmer and warmest. Generally speaking, the wines from cool regions (the Yarra Valley, Coonawarra, the Great Southern) will have more red fruit, higher acidity, lower alcohol, and herbal or white pepper notes. Those from the middle range (Eden Valley, Margaret River, Clare Valley) will have both red and black fruit, more substance and often notes of licorice or black pepper. Finally, the warmest regions (Barossa Valley, Heathcote, most of McLaren Vale) will be the wines most along familiar lines: big, rich reds with lots of ripe blackberry and black-cherry fruit.
Of course, whenever you make generalizations about wine, there’s going to be some bottle out there in the world waiting to prove you wrong. Not long ago, I had the good fortune to attend a six-decade retrospective tasting of Penfolds Grange. Grange is unquestionably Australia’s most famous Shiraz (and one of its most expensive, at $500 a bottle). It’s also arguably Australia’s greatest Shiraz, a claim fully justified by this tasting, where even the 1952 Grange—the first official vintage—was amazingly alive, full of gorgeous dried-currant fruit, complex, creamy and seductive. At 60 years of age, there are only a handful of wines in the world that could not only survive, but continue to unfold so effortlessly as you tasted them. Yet, contrary to my belief that the best Australian Shirazes truly express a specific region or vineyard, Grange is a blend. And not just a blend of different regions (mostly the Barossa Valley and McLaren Vale), but of different grapes, too (there’s often a little Cabernet in it). What can you do? At least I can be consistent about one thing: Australia’s greatest Shiraz does not taste even remotely like a big pot of blackberry jam.
Top 5 Shiraz Picks
2010 Elderton Estate Shiraz ($25)
A benchmark Barossa producer, Elderton’s wines are powerful but also balanced.
2009 D’Arenberg The Laughing Magpie ($29)
A small amount of Viognier lifts the aromas of this plush McLaren Vale Shiraz.
2009 Plantagenet Mount Barker Shiraz ($29)
White pepper notes mark this great Shiraz from Western Australia.
2008 Clonakilla Hilltops Shiraz ($33)
The breezy Hilltops region near Canberra produces this savory red.
2010 Glaetzer Bishop Shiraz ($36)
Though made in a superrich style, this Barossa wine also has nuance and depth.