Forget the big-name wines of the Barossa or Hunter Valley – JAMES LAWTHER MW believes that Australia's best Shiraz comes from the smaller estates in Victoria.
Shiraz isn’t just a wine, it’s a statement that reads ‘big, bold and Australian’. So far the ripe, full-on flavours of the Barossa, Eden and Clare Valleys, and McLaren Vale in South Australia have been the pundits’ and people’s choice, but another state has the measure in terms of quality and the ability to offer a more refined style. Apologies to New South Wales and the Hunter Valley but Victoria is the place in mind.
It’s difficult to say precisely when the first cuttings of Syrah or Shiraz arrived in Victoria, but there are several pieces of factual information that provide a reliable indicator. On the show circuit, wines made from ‘Hermitage’ (Shiraz), emanating from Bendigo, were praised by European judges at the 1873 Vienna Exhibition. While at Best’s Great Western in the Grampians there is a vineyard known as the Nursery Block that was planted in the latter part of the 1860s with 40 different grape varieties including Shiraz. Likewise, at Château Tahbilk in the Goulburn Valley, the limited edition 1860 Vines Shiraz is made from plantings of that epoch.
Apart from these genuinely old vines and a few centenarian parcels in the northeast, Victoria’s modern viticultural scene dates from the 1960s, phylloxera having put paid to much of the state’s wine industry in the 1880s. At that time vineyard development owed more to the discovery of gold than any intense research programme, but today it’s the range of climate that holds the key. As far as Shiraz is concerned, the very hot but irrigated Murray Darling and Swan Hill regions in the northwest corner of the state provide good commercial fodder. As a generalisation, the hot Goulburn Valley and northeast Victoria offer the same big, sweet, powerful style found in the Barossa Valley, while in the cooler areas of the Yarra Valley and Mornington Peninsula the wines are leaner and fresher, but the sites are better adapted to other varieties.
The real interest, finally, lies to the west and centre in the Grampians, Pyrenees and Heathcote, formerly a sub-region of Bendigo. In terms of heat degree days (HDD) and rainfall these are warm, relatively dry regions (500–600mm annually), ideal for ripening Shiraz. But what is of most significance is the difference in day and nighttime temperatures where there can be a swing of as much as 20°C during the growing season.
The night coolness allows for a better retention of acidity (low pH) leading to improved balance and structure in the wines and a greater complexity of flavour. This means there is little or no need for acidification or the addition of tannin, and the potential for wines of character and ageability that also go well with food.
Making the best
There are, of course, other factors linked to the top wines in these regions and most of these are viticultural. Yields are kept low (35 hectolitres per hectare), attention is given to good canopy management, and variations in site and clone provide other subtle differences.
Back at Best’s in the Grampians, the limited release Thomson Family Shiraz is produced from a block of 100-year-old Shiraz from a clone introduced into Great Western by Swiss colonials in the 1860s. Best’s Bin 0 is also made from cuttings of the Swiss clone from vineyards planted in 1966 and 1976.
The same clone is used at another of the Grampians’ top Shiraz estates, Mount Langi Ghiran, where it constitutes the main Shiraz block, planted in 1969. The soils here are granite sands over red clay loams and the climate is cooler than at Best’s Great Western vineyard due to the cooling effect of gully winds produced by the surrounding forested mountains. A portion of the vineyard is even protected from the icy southwesterly blasts by a giant wind net. Otherwise the benefits of this cooler meso-climate are an extended ripening season, which again helps with acid retention and flavour, allowing more pepper and spice character into the wine.
Trevor Mast is the guiding light behind Mount Langi Ghiran and the blue label Langi Shiraz. ‘Our main focus is the vineyard,’ he explains. ‘An open canopy is essential for the development of fruit flavours and tannins, and to help reduce the occurrence of fungal disease.’ As for the winemaking, the grapes are given a cold soak then fermented in open-top fermentors with regular punching down of the cap. There is no post-fermentation maceration – the wine is run off warm into a mix of French and American oak barrels (35% new), where it spends a year maturing.
In 2001 the Mount Langi facilities were also used to process grapes from Dalwhinnie, the reference estate in the Pyrenees region, to the northeast of the Grampians. Previously the wines had been made at Mitchelton in the Goulbourn Valley.
Dalwhinnie was established by architect Ewan Jones in the 1970s and is now owned and managed by his son David. The particularity of Dalwhinnie is that the vineyards are planted along the contours of the hills at an altitude of 360–460 metres, giving cool evenings and a long dormant period in winter, but are protected by the surrounding ranges which rise to 600 metres, creating a heat trap. The grapes are harvested two to three weeks earlier than in the Grampians and the fruit character is a little more accentuated. The soils are quartz clay, which David Jones believes imparts a dryness to the wines. Dalwhinnie Victoria Shiraz is the classic cuvée from this estate with the limited edition Eagle Series produced only in exceptional years and made at the domaine.
Further east in Heathcote the climate is warmer than in the Pyrenees and Grampians (but cooler than Bendigo) and the nights are cool, allowing for a fuller style of wine but again with balancing acidity. The other important factor is the swathe of deep, red Cambrian soil that is propitious to producing intensely coloured, firmly structured red wines.
It was this that struck food scientist Ron Laughton and his wife Elva when they purchased a 3ha (hectare) parcel of Shiraz and Cabernet Franc in 1979 and another parcel of 8ha of Shiraz in 1982. On launching the Jasper Hill label, the wines from each plot were named after their daughters, so Emily’s Paddock and Georgia’s Paddock.
The power, density and concentration of these wines may be linked to the terroir but it also has much to do with viticultural and winemaking practices. The vineyards are dry farmed in a biodynamic manner and yields cut to a bare 2.5 tonnes per hectare. The grapes are fermented in stainless steel and, contrary to Australian practice, given an extended six weeks’ maceration to soften the tannins. The press wine is then added to the free-run and the wines aged in a mix of French and American oak casks (25% new oak) for 15 months with limited racking.
A taste of history
In another vein and not to be omitted from a line-up of Victoria’s best Shiraz are the wines from Sunbury, and more precisely those of Craiglee. Wines were made at this estate back in the late 19th century when it was owned by the Hon James S Johnston, but the vines were pulled out in the 1940s and the present vineyard dates from 1976. Sunbury is a cooler region just north of Melbourne, with a maritime rather than continental influence. ‘We’re on the limit for ripening Shiraz,’ says Craiglee’s owner and winemaker Pat Carmody, who takes the wines of the Northern Rhône as his point of reference. The region is drier than the Yarra Valley with an annual rainfall of 600mm, and the sandy-stony river-flat soils are low in fertility. The wines are leaner and more restrained with a delicacy and freshness on the palate and an ageing potential of at least 10 to 15 years.
Victoria has a wonderful range of sites for producing outstanding Shiraz and this could just be the beginning. Brown Brothers has already succeeded with vineyards at altitude in the King Valley in the northeast, while at Castagna Vineyards at Beechworth, in the foothills of the Australian Alps, Julian Castagna is cultivating six clones of Shiraz at 500m altitude and producing exciting fruit from young four-year-old vines. What’s even more encouraging is that in Australia’s highly structured, corporate industry it’s individual enterprise that is placing Victorian Shiraz on the map.
James Lawther MW is a contributing editor to Decanter.