&noscript=1"/>
Wines Of Now

Deep Dive:
Australia’s Best Pinot Noir & Shiraz Blends

While pinot noir and shiraz are not quite polar opposites, the thought of blending the two varieties together may seem shocking to many. However, in the 40s and 50s, one of Australia’s legendary winemakers made arguably some of our greatest and most enduring wines pairing just those two grapes. Today, there is a renewed interest in the blend, and makers from the staunchly traditional to the restlessly creative are getting on board. Enough in fact that a Deep Dive was called for.

With six of the finest palates in attendance, we gathered every example we could find in Australia and set our expert panel the tasks of finding the wines that compelled the most. All wines were tasted blind, and each panellist named their top six wines. Below are the top wines from the tasting.

Our panel: Sarah Crowe, Winemaker/General Manager Yarra Yering; Mirko Pastorelli, Sommelier; Natasha Johns DipWSET, Owner/Director Primavera Selections; Tom Kline, Victorian State Sales Manager Bibendum Wine Co.; Ellie Ash, Head Sommelier The Recreation; Jeremy Shiell, Sommelier Winespeake. All wines were tasted blind.

The Top Pinot and Shiraz blends in Australia

2019 Medhurst YRB Yarra Valley Pinot Noir Shiraz2019 Medhurst ‘YRB’ Pinot Noir Shiraz, Yarra Valley $44

Crowe picked this as her top wine on the day, and Johns also rated it towards the top of her list. “Punchy and loads of juicy fruit flavour, hint of stalk, liquorice spice. Palate more serious than the nose indicates. Delicious drink with balanced fruit, spice, tannin and great carry,” wrote Crowe. “Super-evocative nose, concentrated and heady with nice spice notes and a well-defined blend of red and darker fruits, red currant, red sour cherry, dark plum,” noted Johns. “…lighter on its feet, this wine is elegant and pretty but with some real oomph. A well-made, well-balanced example with some intrigue and energy. Yum.”

2018 Usher Tinkler Shiraz Pinot Noir2019 Usher Tinkler ‘Nose to Tail’ Shiraz Pinot, Hunter Valley $30

Ash, Pastorelli and Crowe all included this in their top-six lists. “I kept coming back to this wine. Initially there were lots of herbaceous characters on the nose with pine needles and alpine strawberries,” wrote Ash. “Over time the nose unfolded perfumed flowers. It had a lovely concentration of fruit on the palate, again with a cool alpine undertone and bitter amaro. The tannins were powdery and the palate long and elegant,” she concluded. “The nose is rather intense and complex with hints of dark fruit surrounded by light spicy notes,” wrote Pastorelli. “The entry into the mouth is rather intense; the salivation is stimulated by acidity which has a good balance with alcohol and tannins. It is a wine with excellent potential,” he noted. “Pretty nose, very perfumed, mixed berry fruits in all the colours,” commented Crowe. “Slinky fruit, pleasant texture grip, long flavour. Bright acid makes it very refreshing. Light footed but not light on flavour.”

2019 Tokar Estate 'Carafe & Tumbler' Pinot Shiraz2019 Tokar Estate ‘Carafe & Tumbler’ Pinot Shiraz, Yarra Valley $30

This was rated towards the top of both Pastorelli and Crowe’s lists. “On the nose it is surprisingly intense and wide,” wrote Pastorelli. “Here the toasted and spicy notes are predominant: chocolate, vanilla, liquorice and notes of spicy wood blend elegantly with hints of black fruit in the background. The entry into the mouth is quite intense, with a remarkable sapidity and with a well-present but not impetuous tannin… It is a wine with good potential, certainly more intense on the nose than in the mouth with a medium persistence … rather balanced,” he concluded. “Cool climate lift, red and blue fruits,” noted Crowe. “Slate-graphite reduction. Hint of bubble-gum, lovely fruit weight and persistence, cloves, brown spices. Tannins give a nice stalk grip playing around in the background.”

2019 La Violetta 'Ye-Ye' Rouge Pinot Syrah2019 La Violetta ‘YÉ- YÉ’ Rouge Pinot Syrah, Great Southern $35

This was Johns’ top wine of the tasting, with it also finding favour with Shiell. “Bath salt, lavender, potpourri soapy floral notes, some smoke and earth as well. Fresh, juicy medium texture. The fruit sings in this one. Tannin builds nicely too,” he wrote. “A beautifully balanced palate with high quality fruit – fruit-pure but with some whole bunch savoury notes, some undergrowth and high-tone spice,” commented Johns. “This is a really beautiful example of a seamless melding of pinot and shiraz, both have identity, both components have spice but in different ways, bunch adds interest and the tannins are really cohesive, [on the] middle and back [palate] without being obtrusive – a supple but interesting structure and a really good use of oak. Delicious and true to ‘style’.”

2019 Comyns & Co. Pinot Shiraz Hunter Valley2019 Comyns & Co. Pinot Shiraz, Hunter Valley $35

Both Pastorelli and Shiell rated this highly, occupying the same position on both their lists. “Lovely florals and aromas, nice freshness, perhaps a touch full, but a nice style,” wrote Shiell. “Really delicious fresh pure fruit. Tannin builds on this one – in terms of texture for the genre, I think this one nails it,” he concluded. “The nose is rather intense and rather complex with a bouquet reminiscent of hints of spices such as black pepper,” commented Pastorelli, “red fruits such as redcurrants and raspberries surrounded by hints of vanilla. The entry into the mouth is quite intense, fresh, rather sapid, the tannin and soft sensations are present but not intrusive with a pleasant sensation of softness given by the alcohol which rounds out the tannins very well. A medium-bodied wine of fine quality…”

2019 Giant Steps LDR Pinot Noir Syrah2019 Giant Steps ‘LDR’ Pinot Noir Syrah, Yarra Valley $37.50

Finding favour with Pastorelli, Crowe and Kline, this was only one of two wines that made the list of three tasters. “Blue fruits, perfume lift, wrote Crowe. “Silky and bright. Cool climate enjoyable acid twang. Nice chew from some stalk use. Overall fine tannins drive the palate and give persistence of flavour,” she summed. “The nose is frank, sincere and immediate,” noted Pastorelli. “Notes of young red fruit dominate the scene: raspberries, bilberries and blackberries. The entry into the mouth is quite intense, with a good balance between acidity and tannins… It is a simple and immediate wine; however, it does not bore thanks to the well-present but not excessive tannins,” he concluded. “Red berry fruits and charry reduction lead the aromas and complement one another well,” wrote Kline. “There’s some red cherry and subtle menthol spice too, which carry through to the palate. This has a foot in both ponds – playful and vibrant while underpinned by something deeper. Lovely puckery acid too.”

2018 Silkman Reserve Shiraz Pinot Noir2018 Silkman Reserve Shiraz Pinot Noir, Hunter Valley $50

This made the top-six lists of both Crowe and Ash. “For me, this wine screamed of both syrah and pinot – bright redcurrant and strawberries with blueberry,” wrote Ash, “It was so perfumed on the nose with some high-toned floral aromatics of rose petal and violets, followed by savoury elements on the palate of aniseed, dried bay leaf and earl grey tea. I loved the texture of the wine, its sappy tannins and driving acidity,” she summed up. “Plums, and cherry all up front – fruit forward,” commented Crowe. “Bright acid, saline and moreish palate, stalk grip brings interest. Liquorice, spices and overall, it’s quite a bold style.”

2017 Santolin ‘Cosa Nostra’ Pinot Syrah2017 Santolin ‘Cosa Nostra’ Pinot Syrah, Yarra Valley $32

This was Ash’s top wine of the tasting. “I was drawn to this wine initially because it stood out stylistically from the other wines before it,” she wrote, “with some apparent oak-smoke, char and bitter dark chocolate. Plush, vibrant fruits unfolded on the palate. This wine had some more serious, savoury and mineral elements with taut, structured tannins. Flinty and mineral, with fresh plum and dried lilac, it showed a bigger style in a line-up of lots of perfumed, smashable wines. This was a style I certainly think deserves recognition.”

2018 Sawyer Adelaide Hills Pinot Noir Syrah2018 Sawyer Pinot Syrah, Adelaide Hills $35

Pastorelli chalked this up as his top wine of the tasting. “On the nose the bouquet is rather intense and complex,” he wrote. “The contact with the wood has given elegant toasted notes of sweet spices that alternate with each other such as coconut, vanilla and toasted bread. A more careful olfactory analysis also reveals ripe cherry. The entry into the mouth is rather intense; what is immediately noticeable is the remarkable balance between acidity and tannins, leaving a pleasant sensation of softness on the palate. It is a harmonious, structured and persistent wine…”

2018 Vine Collective Syrah Pinot Noir2018 Vine Collective Syrah Pinot, Margaret River $38

This was Shiell’s top wine of the tasting: “Some slight cloudiness in colour, feels a little older – some green spice and then faint edges of mirepoix and umeboshi plum. While the texture is somewhat ill-defined, there’s a very appealing sweet and sour thing going on though. Lovely natty, unforced style. I quite like its difference in this class.”

2019 Golden Child 'Lazy Sunday'2019 Golden Child ‘Lazy Sunday’ Light Red, Adelaide Hills $28

“Beautiful lifted aromas of redcurrant, red cherry, subtle peppery spice, cured meat and some earthy notes sitting beneath adding depth and intrigue,” wrote Kline in picking this as his top wine, “all enhanced by some barely-there VA. The palate shows a great balance of restraint and verve with dried herbs, earth, game and meat. There’s a brightness that captures your attention and a depth that keeps you looking. This is mineral, long and confident.”

2019 Port Phillip Estate Pinot Noir Shiraz2019 Port Phillip Estate Pinot Noir Shiraz, Mornington Peninsula $34

Kline: “Lovely vivid, vibrant and translucent colour. This is bright and perfumed with cherry cola and redcurrant straight off aromatically. The palate is elegant and poised with the right amount of weight and restrained fruit notes. This has some ‘dance’ about it while still maintaining depth and minerality. Well made.”

Nova Vita 'Project K – The SPN' Shiraz Pinot Noir2019 Nova Vita ‘Project K – The SPN’, Adelaide Hills $40

This made both Kline and Ash’s lists. “Blackberry and black pepper straight off aromatically,” wrote Kline. “The aromas are quite pronounced with some meaty and savoury depth that draws you in. On the palate, the high quality of the fruit commands attention before leading to a long and minerally finish which carries some lovely redcurrant through the length of the palate. That mineral component brings an attractive cooling element to the mouthfeel too. This is fine-boned, interesting and classy,” he concluded. “Highly aromatic with surprising structure,” commented Ash. “Vibrant blueberry and blackcurrant with chewy tannins. A wine that seemed dominated by syrah with an undertone of pinot in the dried redcurrant and earthy, flinty minerality. This wine was playful and engaging on the nose and drew you in further by the grippy structure.”

2018 Murdoch Hill 'The Falcon' Syrah Pinot Noir.jpg2018 Murdoch Hill ‘The Falcon’ Syrah Pinot Noir, Adelaide Hills $40

Shiell placed this towards the top of his list. “Stemmy-spice and camphor, lifted red, cranberry, petals and floral and then savouriness from the tannin/stem influence. Bit of oak, but I like this one a lot.”

2019 Precipice Pinot Syrah Yarra Valley2019 Precipice Pinot Syrah Yarra Valley $38

This found favour with both Ash and Crowe. “A vibrant and juicy wine,” wrote Ash. “I was drawn to this wine because I could see it appealing to everyone, with its lighter, juicy style. This had a carbonic vibe to it with red liquorice, strawberries and fresh blossoms. Lots of upfront, plush fruits on the palate with pinot tannins that fanned out made it seem youthful and gulpable,” she concluded. “Red fruits dominate the bright, violet perfumed nose, very floral,” noted Crowe. “Silky, smashable, fine tannins, long and fine. Hint of char from oak or stalk bring interest and complexity.”

2019 Pepper Tree ‘Preservative Free’ Shiraz Pinot Noir

2018 Comyns & Co. Reserve Shiraz Pinot Noir Hunter Valley2018 Comyns & Co. Reserve Shiraz Pinot Noir, Hunter Valley $50

“Shiraz more obvious here, with darker fruits – blackcurrant and black berry notes – intensity,” wrote Johns. “Alcohol is a little more evident, but this wine is moreish with lovely mouth-filling concentration, liquorice and pepper notes and more weight. Hedonistic but still bright on the finish with tannins that build but are still justified by that fruit weight.”

2018 Dappled Pinot Syrah Yarra Valley2018 Dappled Pinot Syrah, Yarra Valley $35

“I really like this wine,” commented Johns. “It keeps making me go back – red fruited with forest floor, bunch, some carbonic etc. It’s not cohesive but it just works – an example of where I think the blend works in a more fun and fanciful way – a little tutti fruiti but good concentration and length, nice ripe tannins and bright-as-a-light acid. Fun.”

2018 Lightfoot & Sons Pinot Noir Shiraz2018 Lightfoot & Sons Pinot Noir Shiraz, Gippsland $40

“Lovely subtle herb and savoury spice-led aromatics with dried rosemary at the fore,” wrote Kline. “There’s great texture, intensity and weight on the palate. This is cohesive and graceful. There’s a shot of mineral elevating the palate and carrying everything long with the fruit and structure sitting together harmoniously. This wine shines a light on both varieties, while also melding them seamlessly.”

2019 Yarra Yering Light Dry Red Pinot Shiraz2019 Yarra Yering ‘Light Dry Red’ Pinot Shiraz, Yarra Valley $95

“Big, bold dark red, smoke and spice on the nose,” wrote Shiell, “There’s whole bunch influence, but really well integrated (no mescal here!), juicy palate, good shape and texture is fantastic,” he concluded.

2019 Other Wine Co Shiraz Pinot Noir2019 Other Wine Co. Shiraz Pinot Noir, Adelaide Hills/Tasmania $26

“Cooler notes, cooler spice,” wrote Johns. “Bright and crunchy dark and red fruits with so much spice. A balanced and lovely energetic wine.”

Lignee Hunter Shiraz Orange Pinot Noir made by Will Gilbert and Angus Vinden2019 ‘Lignée’ Shiraz Pinot Noir, Hunter Valley/Orange $90 (1.5L)

Kline: “Lifted aromas of redcurrant, red florals and red cherry. This is playful and exuberant on the palate with loads of red cherry brightness and verve. Not a ‘serious’ wine but I love it for its sprightliness and mischievous air. Fun.”

2018 Briar Ridge H.R.B. Shiraz Pinot Noir2019 Pepper Tree ‘Preservative Free’ Shiraz Pinot Noir, Orange $20

“This wine was again a bigger, more extracted style,” wrote Ash. “It had a vibrant purple hue and so much density of fruit. Certainly on the darker side of the fruit spectrum with blackcurrant and blackberry. Barbequed meats, cigar and tomato leaf led into some high-quality oak balanced with fruit and structure. The acidity was linear and persistent.”

2019 Silkman Reserve Shiraz Pinot Noir2019 Silkman Reserve Shiraz Pinot Noir, Hunter Valley $50

This made the top-six lists of both Johns and Pastorelli. “The bouquet is dominated by intense and rather complex notes of flowers such as violet and young red fruits … all surrounded by light spicy notes,” wrote Pastorelli. “The entry into the mouth is rather intense, fresh, with good acidity and slightly tannic. The alcohol in the mouth is well balanced and non-invasive, making this wine pleasant on the palate,” he concluded. “The last wine in the bracket,” wrote Johns, “but it offered a lot of joy on the palate with red and white currant fruits and black fruits, too, but on the subtle side, blackberry and cherry notes. Some carbonic perhaps here … but they are FUN and balanced out with whole mouth tannin that is ripe and well-integrated with a lively finish.”

2019 Meadowbank Nouveau Pinot Syrah2019 Meadowbank Nouveau Syrah Pinot, Derwent Valley $35

Shiell: “Floral red fruited nose, nice and fresh, lithe juicy texture – maybe simple – but very tasty. Some nice grippy tannin on the finish countering that juiciness.”

Blending Pinot Noir and Syrah – The Backstory

While shiraz has been omnipresent in Australian wine history, occupying more vineyard land and a firmer grip on wine drinkers’ imaginations than any other variety, pinot noir has been in the ground here for just as long. For much of that tenure, though, its presence was a mere blip – a curio. And indeed, it was almost forgotten until the cool-climate revolution that took meaningful shape in the 1980s.

When the spotlight started to tilt in pinot noir’s direction – as regions such as the Mornington Peninsula, Yarra Valley, Adelaide Hills and the like started to find their stride – shiraz, or at least many traditional shiraz drinkers, took umbrage. Pinot noir was a usurper. Shiraz was at its peak of powerful domination, with the styles ever enlarging into the often-brutish wines of the 80s, 90s and 00s, while pinot was light and fragrant. They were polar opposites. You liked one or the other, but not both.

Many may be surprised that the Hunter Valley is the cradle of Australian pinot noir, but it is.

But the varieties actually have a noble history of sharing the same bottle, being paired in a uniquely Australian blend – in the Hunter Valley – that was all but forgotten until a somewhat recent revival.

There was a time when Australian wines were appended with famous names to both lend them lustre and convey style, which has also created much confusion. Hunter Valley Chablis was naturally never actual Chablis, but nor was it chardonnay. Hunter Valley riesling bottlings were not riesling either. Both, in fact, were semillon, with the monikers an attempt to capture style.

By car, the Hunter Valley is two hours north of Sydney. Photo by Elfes Images.

“Hunter Valley (or Hunter River) Burgundy” is also a term that was often used, both as a general reference and on front labels for shiraz-based wines, before the French thankfully put their foot down and called the lawyers in – allowing both the old and the new world to shine for what they did, and not holding up one as a foggy mirror of the other.

Although it is a somewhat warm zone for viticulture, the Hunter typically made reds of middling weight, often with a savoury, earthy fragrance. Those wines were deemed to fit into what were the ‘Burgundy Classes’ at wine shows of the times, with the ‘Claret Classes’ reserved for more structured wines that more readily recalled the wines of Bordeaux.

The three major players in the Hunter Valley in the mid-20th century – and still the icons today – were Lindeman’s, Tyrrell’s and Mount Pleasant. It was Lindeman’s who most famously wore the Burgundy tag, with ‘Hunter River Burgundy’ appended with a bin number on their labels – ‘Hunter River Chablis’, ‘Hunter River White Burgundy’ and ‘Hunter River Riesling’ also featured.

One of Australia’s greatest winemakers and pioneering viticultural thinkers was Maurice O’Shea of Mount Pleasant. He died too early, in 1956 aged 58, but his legacy is clearly still vibrantly apparent. At a time when fortifieds ruled the market, O’Shea championed table wines from the 30s through the 50s. And his efforts helped to shape the wine industry that we know today.

Maurice O’Shea, described in the biography by Campbell Mattinson as, “The greatest winemaker Australia has known”.

Mount Pleasant claims to have Australia’s oldest pinot noir vines – down to two rows now – and is the source of one of this country’s most revered clones: MV6 or Mothervine 6 (purportedly sourced from the Burgundy Grand Cru Clos de Vougeot). Today, MV6 is especially prevalent in Victorian vineyards. Many may be surprised that the Hunter Valley is the cradle of Australian pinot noir, but it is.

O’Shea often put pinot to work in his shiraz bottlings, though generally anonymously. He also frequently used white grapes to achieve the weight and aromatic profile that he desired, fermenting red grapes on white skins and sometimes vice versa. The idea of blending grapes was not new, as distinguishing between varieties would not have been seen as that important previously. Rather, it would have been all one crop to make one wine or so.

O’Shea took things a step further, using the raw materials to create light and shade, focusing on the differences of varieties and the vagaries of sites. And this was with the most primitive of equipment, and with no electricity. He was a visionary, and a tenacious one at that.

Maurice O’Shea plunging red ferments at Mount Pleasant. Photo courtesy of McWilliams Wines.

In the 40s, pinot took an emphatic place in O’Shea’s famous ‘Light Dry Red’. That most iconic blend of shiraz and pinot was the Mount Pleasant ‘Mount Henry’ bottling – there were varietally labelled blends, too, though the location-specific synonym of the day for shiraz, Hermitage, was used. (There is no actual Mount Henry, rather it is an homage to O’Shea’s friend and ardent supporter of his wines, restaurateur Henri Renault, chef and owner of l’Hermitage in Sydney.)

While we think of pinot noir being the lighter and less structured of the two grapes, it is an earlier ripener, so it has the opportunity to reach both flavour and tannin maturity more readily than shiraz. Additionally, the MV6 Clone is one of the more robustly fruited, with a strong tannic line, which is particularly emphasised in the Hunter. Needless to say, a Hunter pinot looks nothing like a Mornington pinot. So, it can contribute structure and depth of flavour rather than diluting either attribute, and it is said to have actually bolstered the shiraz in cooler years.

While we think of pinot noir being the lighter and less structured of the two grapes, it is an earlier ripener, so it has the opportunity to reach both flavour and tannin maturity more readily than shiraz. Additionally, the MV6 Clone is one of the more robustly fruited, with a strong tannic line, which is particularly emphasised in the Hunter. Needless to say, a Hunter pinot looks nothing like a Mornington pinot. So, it can contribute structure and depth of flavour rather than diluting either attribute, and it is said to have actually bolstered the shiraz in cooler years.

Early in his career, long-serving winemaker Karl Stockhausen was responsible for making two of Lindeman’s most famous red wines. They were the legendary ‘Hunter River Burgundy’ pair of ‘Bin 3100’ and ‘Bin 3110’. Both were from the 1965 vintage and harvested significantly later than normal.

It was known that pinot noir was blended into one of the wines, though not which or how much. Over the years, this presence of pinot took on mythical proportions. In reality, a small pinot plot was blended into the ‘Bin 3100’, and only accounted for 0.5 per cent of the wine – hardly a decisive inclusion. Nonetheless, a legacy started by the great O’Shea was given more life, and the style an even more legendary aura.

The Hunter Valley Burgundy style, which was very much the product of the mid-20th century was always fundamentally shiraz. Some would have included a parcel of pinot here and there, sometimes out of conscious blending decisions, and sometimes because there was some pinot that needed to go somewhere, but the true pinot shiraz blends were the province of O’Shea.

It’s worth noting that, anecdotally, the Hunter had more pinot noir in the ground in the 30s and 40s (relative to shiraz), as well as meaningful amounts of pinot meunier. The more reliable, more regionally apt variety soon held sway, and now pinot represents about 3 per cent of the size of the shiraz plantings.

It’s worth noting that, anecdotally, the Hunter had more pinot noir in the ground in the 30s and 40s (relative to shiraz), as well as meaningful amounts of pinot meunier. The more reliable, more regionally apt variety soon held sway, and now pinot represents about 3 per cent of the size of the shiraz plantings.

When O’Shea died, the ‘Mount Henry’ label faded into history, along with the blend. Though it was quietly resurrected after much urging from long-time Chief Winemaker Phil Ryan. The first modern release was the 1998, and a 2002 was also made. But it was the next release that made the impact, the 2011, which was also the same year that Mount Pleasant released their first varietal pinot noir since 1996. Both 2011s were made by Gwyn Olsen, who now works with both Pepper Tree Wines and Briar Ridge – and both now make versions of O’Shea’s blend.

A few year later, the blend was then vocally championed by Chief Winemaker Jim Chatto. It was also Chatto who resurrected many of O’Shea’s individual parcel bottlings, too, reviving what was then a very uncommon practice of focusing on site, rather than regional style.

That 2011 was the start of the Hunter’s renaissance of the blend, with Meerea Park following in 2013, and makers like Silkman, Usher Tinkler and Comyns & Co., amongst others, following suit. Hunter winemakers also imported the style down south, notably to the Yarra Valley, with Simon Steele of Medhurst and Sarah Crowe of Yarra Yering leading the way. Steele’s Medhurst ‘YRB’ wine even carries a cheeky nod to the Hunter‘, with the acronym standing for ‘Yarra River Burgundy’.

Crowe notes that the makers in the Hunter generally have the intent of producing medium-bodied wines that will age well, usually with shiraz the dominant component. They will often use a little more new oak and see a seriousness to the blend that is perhaps not so widely taken up in places like the Yarra, where a close to equal blend is more likely, and early approachability and crunchy vibrancy are the order of the day – though not exclusively. And the latter is her approach, though with a decent nod to the former, too.

Crowe made the first ‘Light Dry Red’ at Yarra Yering from the 2015 vintage, which was both a tribute to a long-retired style made by the late Dr Bailey Carrodus – Yarra Yering’s founder – and those early wines of O’Shea. It was somewhat of a breakout wine for the style, making a big impression critically and inspiring other makers to experiment with the blend.

Crowe notes that the makers in the Hunter generally have the intent of producing medium-bodied wines that will age well, usually with shiraz the dominant component. They will often use a little more new oak and see a seriousness to the blend that is perhaps not so widely taken up in places like the Yarra, where a close to equal blend is more likely, and early approachability and crunchy vibrancy are the order of the day – though not exclusively. And the latter is her approach, though with a decent nod to the former, too.

Sarah Crowe, winemaker of Yarra Yering. Photo: by James Morgan, taken at Prince Dining Room.

“Firstly, I look for balance, but for me I don’t want it to be simple and fruity and confected. I want it to be soft and juicy, and you think, ‘that’s really slurpy and I want another glass,’ but then you notice the structure to it. And you think, ‘hang on a minute, it’s more spicy, more complex, there’s more longevity – this wine has more legs than I thought it did.’ It’s about building all those things in.”

That principle may just indeed be a distant reflection of how O’Shea crafted his wines, with an eye firmly on a more complete whole. Perhaps in a lighter frame, but with an eye to detail, drinkability and potentially age-worthiness. And it’s worth noting that those wines of O’Shea stood the test of time, too, drinking spectacularly – by all reports – 60 years later. The wines that many winemakers are making today, outside of pure curiosity, are very much tributes to those early wines of O’Shea. And in the absence of readily accessible liquid examples, it’s an old idea seen through a brand-new lens.

The grapes

Pinot noir and shiraz, or syrah if you prefer, are anchored in the French regions of Burgundy and the Northern Rhône respectively. Pinot noir is naturally grown very successfully further north in Champagne and syrah is grown in the Southern Rhône, and elsewhere, but those are the pinnacle old world regions for table wines. And they’re not that far apart geographically. The grapes, however, were always seen to be exclusively individual cultivars – products of different genetic lineages. It seems, though, that they have a closer relationship than that, with the preeminent grape geneticist Dr José Vouillamoz’s research pointing to pinot being a likely “great-grandparent” of syrah.

In broad brushstrokes, pinot will tend to the fragrant and perfumed with red fruits predominating, while shiraz will tend to darker fruits with more robust spice notes and more tannic grip.

Genetic links notwithstanding, an experienced taster is unlikely to confuse the two, even when they meet close to the middle, with shiraz at its most fragrant and pinot at its most brooding. In broad brushstrokes, pinot will tend to the fragrant and perfumed with red fruits predominating, while shiraz will tend to darker fruits with more robust spice notes and more tannic grip. But that middle ground is where blending starts to make some sense. Blending like with like increases volume but not necessarily interest or detail. Blending with a mixture of the complementary and the contrasting starts to build layers, to build character. The way the structure is arranged and the fruit complexity etc., keeping in mind that both varieties must at least be moderately successful in their region.

Outtakes from the tasting

While there were wines that drew the appreciation of two to three tasters, this was one of the most diverse results we have seen so far, with all the panellist’s number one selections being different. And while this may seem like a somewhat fractured result, it more accurately reflects both a diversity of style and high level of quality, with some very good wines missing out on a berth entirely.

The panel gathered at Prince Dining Room. Photo by James Morgan.

“Overall, I was really very impressed,” said Crowe. “There were probably 12 wines that I thought were really very good, and to knock some out to come up with six was really very hard. For me, it’s become this style that is fragrant, juicy and just really drinkable… but that’s my interpretation of it, so I had to be careful not to discount wines that were not in that style.”

“The choice to make these types of blends is not only courageous and interesting, but is based on the past, giving greater importance to the history that Australian wine has had over time. History is important in the world of wine and it is right to enhance it. The marked freshness and the remarkable fruity and floral intensity of pinot noir goes well with shiraz, which has a more spicy and structured character.”

For Pastorelli, this was the first time he had knowingly tasted the grapes blended together, so there were no style expectations. “In my experience in Europe and America I have never tasted similar wines,” he said. “The choice to make these types of blends is not only courageous and interesting, but is based on the past, giving greater importance to the history that Australian wine has had over time. History is important in the world of wine and it is right to enhance it. The marked freshness and the remarkable fruity and floral intensity of pinot noir goes well with shiraz, which has a more spicy and structured character.”

“There’s often something playful about this blend that I really enjoy,” said Kline. “There’s a brightness, a red-fruited-ness with some spice underneath, and there was plenty of that [in the tasting]. The ones that I rated highly often had that playful, bright, supple character, but the ones that rated highest had that but then drew you in a bit more, with meat and spice and depth.”

“I thought the quality was really high in general,” said Ash, “and the wines that I was drawn to were plush and bright and in balance. I was drawn to the wines the most where I wasn’t thinking about variety.”

Ellie Ash records her notes at the blind tasting. Photo: by James Morgan, taken at Prince Dining Room.

Crowe agreed. “The ones that I like are where I can’t pick the pinot or shiraz, and it just looks like a beautiful balance, not like when one dominates the other. And they were probably the lighter, more fragrant ones. For me, the ones that were more dark-fruited stepped outside of that wine style, being a bit blocky and chunky.”

While also noting the high quality across the board, Shiell found the poorer examples were those where varieties jarred at times. “Some had a bit of an identity crisis, and that, for me, was probably more at the heavier end, when they looked a bit more dominated by shiraz. That being said, some of the larger framed wines were successful as well.”

Natasha Johns and Jeremy Shiell. Photo: by James Morgan, taken at Prince Dining Room.

Tannins are important, too,” noted Johns. “My thought with shiraz pinot is that you get weight and spice from shiraz and beautiful mid-palate tannins, and with pinot you can get back-palate tannins as well, and if you had a wine where the bunch stood out but the tannins weren’t disjointed then the wine was still really interesting, but if the tannins were off, then it didn’t really work.”

That extraction of tannins from the stems during whole bunch fermentation, which can add lifted spice/herbs and chewy, grippy tannins and sometimes green flavours and unripe tannins, was a major feature in the wines, and often a positive one.

Whole bunch was generally handled reasonably successfully,” commented Shiell, “though there were cases where stem tannin did seem to stand out a little.”

“For me, if the stalk tannin is obvious in any wine,” ventured Crowe, “then it throws the balance out. I like a little bit, a little lift, but I want fruit tannin to be the driving force, not stalk tannin. It’s tricky to get it right, especially in blends like this where there is a lot of bunch work used.”

“I think it can be everything,” added Johns. “It can be fun and fanciful and easy drinking and just delicious, or when it’s done with some real artistry, you can create something really synergistic with two grapes that structurally work really well together. Pinot can make shiraz a bit lighter on its feet as well, and I think the drinking public is moving a bit that way, but then the extra concentration of the shiraz is really comforting as well. So, I think for Australia particularly, with our historic strong shiraz focus, it’s a good segue.”

The idea of what a definitive pinot and shiraz blend should or could be was elusive, with no clear benchmark for style, but that seemed more tantalising than a barrier.

“Should these be playful and exuberant? Or deep and complex?” posited Kline. “The answer seems to be that pinot noir and syrah/shiraz blends can comfortably present as either.”

“I think it requires a bit of promotion from the industry,” said Ash, “as there’s certainly a lot of hype about single varieties and single vineyards. And there are obviously some quite serious examples, but it’s also a great one to pour and to be excited about and to get consumers excited about.”

“I think it can be everything,” added Johns. “It can be fun and fanciful and easy drinking and just delicious, or when it’s done with some real artistry, you can create something really synergistic with two grapes that structurally work really well together. Pinot can make shiraz a bit lighter on its feet as well, and I think the drinking public is moving a bit that way, but then the extra concentration of the shiraz is really comforting as well. So, I think for Australia particularly, with our historic strong shiraz focus, it’s a good segue.”

The lineup of pinot noir and shiraz blends were all tasted “blind”. Photo: by James Morgan, taken at Prince Dining Room.


The Panel

Ellie Ash is the Head Sommelier for The Recreation in Fitzroy North. Ash recently passed her Advanced Sommelier Certificate and is a recipient of the Sommeliers Australia wine scholarship. Ash runs a wine list of 250 bottles from all over the world, but with a strong focus on Victoria and a wide choice from other Australian regions.

Mirko Pastorelli is part of the Association of Professional Italian Sommeliers (ASPI). He has had various experience in the hospitality industry and event organization both in Italy and abroad. He writes about cigar and drink pairings on the web magazine Gusto Tabacco, both in Italian and in English. He moved to Australia in March 2020 to work as a sommelier at Vue de Monde, and then the pandemic hit…

Natasha Johns has worked in the wine industry for over 15 years, primarily in sales and marketing roles, and most recently as the Brand Manager for iconic labels Shaw + Smith and Tolpuddle. She is the owner/director of Primavera Selections, a key importer of Italian wine, while also consulting on restaurant wine lists. Johns is a holder of the prestigious WSET Diploma.

Jeremy Shiell is the Victorian regional representative for Andrew Guard Wine Imports. He works for Jen and Owen Latta at Winespeake (the recently relocated and rebooted Wine & The Country), in Daylesford, and drags hoses around in the winery for Joshua Cooper. Shiell is also one of Australia’s most respected sommeliers, with a lengthy stint curating the mammoth wine list at The Royal Mail Hotel, in Dunkeld. His tenure was during the peak of Dan Hunter’s reign when it was acclaimed as one of the country’s finest restaurants.

Sarah Crowe is the Winemaker/General Manager of Yarra Yering, one of the Yarra Valley’s iconic pioneering vineyards. Crowe’s passion for horticulture led her to marvel at vineyards in France on a sojourn in her early 20s. That led the Wollongong native to a stint at Brokenwood, in the Hunter Valley, which turned into a decade-long tenure. Yarra Yering followed in 2013, as did a string of dazzling accolades for her work at the Yarra icon. Crowe has also judged at countless wine shows.

Tom Kline is the Victorian State Sales Manager for benchmark importer and wholesaler Bibendum Wine Co. He is a second-generation wine educator, following after his father, and now teaches WSET as well as self-authored wine courses.

  Newsletter Subscribe
SUBSCRIBE TO NEWSLETTER

Subscribe to our newletters and be informed about latest news, events and updates.

×