The many faces of Australian Shiraz

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  • Wednesday 20 April 2011

The modern Shiraz producer is looking to impress with regionality, not volume

Has Australian Shiraz lost its cool? If so, where can it find it? In the UK, the perceived fashion is for peppery, cool-climate Shiraz, but is this the vogue worldwide? Do we even really know what’s going on Down Under with its most important red grape?

Lots of questions, yes, but they really boil down to this: has Australian Shiraz – particularly the mass-market wines – suffered from the Porty, high-alcohol style on which it made its name?

Firstly, it’s not true to say that this hot-climate, rich style doesn’t still appeal to many palates. That said, while some of Australia’s cult Shirazes are massive beasts, I sense a move to more honed, carefully built wines. To see what’s really happening, I canvassed opinion from a range of Shiraz gurus. I was impressed and enlightened by what I heard.

It’s worth remembering that Australia is a very large place and climatic conditions vary widely. Shiraz responds accurately to weather conditions and it acts as a true barometer of its surroundings.

Michael Hill Smith MW, of Shaw & Smith in the Adelaide Hills, divides Shiraz into four simple categories: modern, traditional, warmer climate and cooler climate.

Not all warmer-climate wines are traditional, however (or vice versa), and those in cool-climate sites are blessed with style parameters that hot sites can’t hope to emulate.

Being based in a cool region of South Australia, Hill Smith favours a modern, cooler-climate style, with bright, spicy fruit. Sommeliers and restaurateurs love this food-friendly version, which reflects counterpart wines from the Northern Rhône.

Tom Carson, of Yabby Lake in Victoria’s Mornington Peninsula, agrees these approachable styles are a hit in restaurants, particularly with the judicious addition of Viognier to emulate Côte-Rôtie. But cool-climate styles aren’t a new phenomenon, he reminds me – the Yarra Valley has been making wines like this for years.

Another trueism, Carson says, is that the blockbuster styles of Shiraz really do appeal to US palates. Yet savoury Shiraz is where ‘everyone is heading’, says Andrew Margan of Margan Wines, cheered by the trend (outside of the US) toward elegance and low alcohol.

Clearly this is great news for him and his fellow Hunter Valley winemakers, whose vines achieve full physiological ripeness at 12.5% or 13% alcohol.

He picks his grapes while the flavours are ‘al dente’, lets the natural tannin structure and savouriness shine and keeps oak levels down to a ‘best-supporting role’.

Marty Edwards, of The Lane in the Adelaide Hills, also insists that oak should not be the driving force in Shiraz. ‘As vines mature they bring structure to the wine,’ he says, ‘so we use large-format barrels to increase the wine to oak ratio’.

Rob Mann, of Cape Mentelle in Western Australia, nails today’s Shiraz conundrum succinctly: ‘The modern Shiraz producer is looking to impress with regionality and not volume. We don’t produce a single “Australian” style, but a multitude of regional styles that retain clarity of fruit and express regional nuances.’ Australian Shiraz should be celebrated and promoted for its quality and diversity, he says.

In the same way that the villages of the Northern Rhône reflect their own specific terroir, so should the states and microclimates of the individual regions of Australia.

This message seems at cross purposes with the fashion for interstate or interregional blending, but then this style of winemaking usually happens at the lower end of the spectrum and is done for a reason – consistency, reliability and price.

Intentional blurring of the edges makes juicy wines of mass appeal (think Côtes du Rhône). And the winemakers are also not getting hung up on alcohol levels, blockbuster styles or oak regimes, preferring to retain balance, freshness and crisp tannins, as well as reflect their sense of place.

You only have to look to the 2009 southern Rhônes (see our vintage report in the March issue) to see that higher than normal alcohol levels and true balance can exist in harmony.

‘Old fashioned is not how we see our style,’ says Alister Purbrick, of Tahbilk in Victoria. ‘We have certainly maintained a traditional, “old world” approach to our Shiraz by using open vats for the fermentation and ageing, but the reason we do this is to allow the fruit, as distinct from the oak, to make a serious statement.

The end result is an elegant, fruit-driven, multi-layered, sophisticated style with good middle palate structure and a long, fine tannin finish.’ This is the aim of all winemakers and, if the terroir shines through, then you’ve done the best job you can for the raw materials.

Peter Gago of Penfolds makes a vast array of high-end Shirazes – from single-vineyard wines to multi-regional icons like Grange – and every wine is tailored to the fruit source.

He says there are innumerable viticultural and winemaking tweaks with each of them, but all with the singular aim of achieving balance.
Ben Glaetzer, of Glaetzer in South Australia’s Barossa Valley, elaborates: ‘Shiraz has enough body and potential extract that the winemaker is afforded spectrums of opportunity to display the fruit’s character.

So rather than maximising extraction, as has historically been the intention, many winemakers have become – or are becoming – aware that cooler fermentation, less cap management [punching down the skins that float to the top of the wine], and extended skin contact after fermentation all contribute to a more savoury style of Shiraz.’

The movement away from American to French oak and the use of whole bunches of grapes are two trends attracting a lot of supporters.

Dan Buckle, of Mount Langi Ghiran in Victoria, advocates both. ‘I drink Shiraz from the Hunter Valley to Tasmania, and from East to West. And there’s so much range of flavour, style, nuance, weight and character that it’s hard to get bored. Australian Shiraz is no longer ‘generic’, and instead there is more personality than ever before. We are now talking more about intuitive winemaking, rather than processes and additives – soils and sites rather than trellises and clones.’

These feelings were echoed by every winemaker I interviewed. Perhaps it is also useful to canvas opinion from someone at the coalface.

Stuart Knox owns one of the coolest wine bars in Sydney, Fix St James. ‘Regions that are really showing interesting styles include Yarra Valley, Canberra, Hilltops and Great Southern. These wines are showing more oak restraint but still with classic, bright Shiraz fruit and soft tannins as well as lifted aromatics with layers of sweet and savoury spice. Having said that, the new guard of winemakers from classic regions, such as the Barossa, are really turning their hand to single-site wines with a lot more control over the fruit in the vineyard, and they are really working to keep the ripeness, jamminess and alcohol under control.’

As every good producer will say, you make a wine that the vineyard gives you. With Australia, the mantra is loud and clear – they want to make wines from ‘somewhere’ rather than wines from ‘anywhere’, and there will always be a market for such a diverse and delicious portfolio of wines.

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