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When it comes to Australian wine, no other grape is more synonymous than Shiraz.

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Shiraz – an Australian love affair

Grown in nearly every wine region in Australia and producing styles from affordable, quaffable reds to magnificent, age-worthy classics, this variety has it all. But the Aussies aren’t resting on their laurels, they’re still perfecting old concepts and playing with new ideas to continue the renaissance of Shiraz.

Distinctively Australian

Shiraz first made its way to Australia two hundred years ago: John MacArthur is widely credited with importing the first cuttings in 1817 from Europe. The first wines from these cuttings were labelled ‘Hermitage’, or rather more curiously ‘Claret’ or ‘Burgundy’, or by bin numbers. As with most red wines in the nineteenth century, Shiraz was historically used for blending, often with Grenache, Cabernet Sauvignon or Mourvèdre, and later for fortified rather than table wines.
Australia’s Shiraz story is linked to the efforts of a visionary winemaker, Max Schubert. In 1951, inspired by a visit to Bordeaux, Schubert set out to make the ‘great Australian red’. Despite challenges from sceptics, including the Penfolds’ board itself, Grange – still predominantly Shiraz – has become one of the world’s most iconic, collected and revered wines.

With old vines, ancient geology and very complex soils, it’s tricky to describe Australia as the ‘New World’. Australia is in fact home to some of the world’s oldest Shiraz vines, with vineyards dating back to 1843 (Langmeil), 1847 (Turkey Flat) and 1860 (Tahbilk). These ungrafted, pre-phylloxera vines produce tiny crops of intensely concentrated grapes.

Credit: Andre Castelluci/Wine Australia

As diverse as the country that made it

Grown widely across Australia, Shiraz produces varying styles from cool climate, medium-bodied and spicy styles through to more full-bodied, richly flavored and textured warmer climate versions. The many varied locations allow Australia to produce a far greater diversity of styles than could possibly be contemplated within the straitjacket of some other countries. The discovery of cooler climate sites has resulted in fresher, more elegant, less oaky styles of Shiraz, sometimes labelled Syrah. There are many varied, modern styles of Shiraz, particularly coming out of Western Australia’s Great Southern; South Australia’s Adelaide Hills, Coonawarra, Clare Valley; Yarra Valley and the Grampians in Victoria; Orange in New South Wales; and Canberra. Examples include Luke Lambert’s wild ferment Syrah from the Yarra Valley, Ochota Barrels’ delicately spicy Syrah from McLaren Vale, Clonakilla’s Shiraz – co-fermented with Viognier – from Canberra, and also in the Mornington Peninsula with Dromana Estate’s peppery Syrah.

Credit: Andre Castelluci/Wine Australia

Masterfully experimental

The country’s unique climate and landscape have fostered a fiercely independent wine scene. Not beholden by tradition, Australian winemakers are curious by nature and continue to experiment and innovate in order to enhance quality and, put simply, make deliciously drinkable styles. Closer vine spacing, spreading the buds out, green harvesting, and exposing bunches in cooler climates leading to a reduction in vigour are linked to picking for flavour ripeness and fresher, more vivid characters in the wines. Grape sorting both in the vineyard and at the winery are important, while selective machine harvesting technology is proving to be revolutionary. Meticulous cellar work is also crucial for bringing out the inherent perfume in Shiraz and maintaining that terroir expression.

A growing number of producers are crafting characterful Shiraz in small batches, making the most of varietal and terroir expression by using small, open fermenters, hand-plunging and blending with varieties such as Grenache and Mourvèdre. Whole bunch and whole berry fermentations, even longer maceration times, are bringing excellent results.

Gone are the old cliché days of jammy blockbuster Aussie Shiraz. Renewed understanding of origin and adapting techniques in the vineyard and in the winery have resulted in nothing short of a Shiraz renaissance, if not revolution. The appeal and value of the variety that put Australia on the world wine map remains. But the broadening of varietal definition and aromatic restraint, quest for freshness and finesse, and overall improvements in quality based on respect for terroir have changed the game for Shiraz. If these trends are bringing greater diversity of style and quality, without sacrificing the reputation for value, our global love affair with Aussie Shiraz is set to grow.

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