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Deep Dive:
Australia’s Best Syrah

Wines Of Now
19 August 2021. Words by YGOW.

Shiraz is inarguably this country’s key red variety, occupying about 30 per cent of vineyard land and an even larger portion of Australian wine’s prestige. That sense of identity is largely shaped by the commanding resource of old vines, primarily in South Australia’s key areas of McLaren Vale and Barossa, with a style built on fruit depth and concentration. That style was turbo charged in the 1990s, with wine mega-critic Robert Parker shaping styles just as much as he assessed them. The wines got almost impossibly big, soused with alcohol and buttressed with menacing amounts of charry oak. The monolith that was ‘brand shiraz’ sparked a counter movement in the early 2000s that favoured elegance and perfume, and one that branded itself with the French name for the grape: syrah. Today, Australian syrah is a category in its own right, and an exciting one at that. So much so that a Deep Dive is called for.

The panel: Sebastian Crowther MS, owner Real Wines and Wine Theory; Sarah Andrew DipWSET, WSET Business Development Manager for Aus and NZ; Hannah Day, Sommelier and Beverage Manager for Chancery Lane; Gary Mills, owner/winemaker Jamsheed and Jamsheed Urban Winery; Rory Lane, owner/winemaker The Story Wines; Meg Brodtman MW, Chief Winemaker Rob Dolan Wines; Isabelle Szyman, sommelier; Adam Foster, owner/winemaker Syrahmi, Foster e Rocco and Garden of Earthly Delights.

We gathered every Australian wine labelled syrah we could find and set our expert panel the task of finding the wines that compelled the most. All wines were tasted blind, and each panellist named their top six wines. Below are the wines that made the panellists’ top six from the tasting.

The Top Syrah in Australia

2020 Site Wine Syrah, Benalla $26 RRP

This carried the day for half the tasting panel, with Mills, Brodtman, Szyman and Day placing it at the top of their selections, while Andrew also included it amongst her top six. “On the nose, bunchy aromas with cherry, blood plum and hints of violet,” wrote Brodtman. “The aromas are beguiling, with complexing hints of green peppercorn and perfume that invite you in. The palate lives up to the expectation with crisp acidity and gripping, fine-lined tannins that fill your mouth. The fruit aromas are reflected on the palate with a touch of vanilla. This wine needs time to open up and is bloody delicious.” “This was the first wine of the day, but I still loved it at the end,” wrote Day. “Aromatic blueberry perfume on the nose; vibrant and bright. Plenty of evidence of carbonic maceration – rounded fruit, kirschy, morello cherries…. I want to drink this straight away! Maybe from a plastic cup. It’s bubbly and fun, it’s picnic wine.” Mills found it, “Fresh and appealing… energetic – like it a lot!” “This wine was an utter delight to drink,” added Szyman. “Bursting on the palate with jewel-like notes of pomegranate and redcurrants, ripe blackberries, and a savoury edge of pencil shavings and French vanilla bean. Tannins were crisp, like biting into a pink lady apple and the tart acidity gave the wine a moreish quality.”

 

2020 Soumah Syrah, Yarra Valley $40 RRP

Taking top spot for Foster, this came just one place back for Lane, Crowther and Andrew, while Brodtman also included it in her top six. “Bright fragrant nose with exotic spice, alluring red and blue fruits… wow, what an introduction!!” wrote Foster. “Fine savoury palate, sweet ripe wild blueberries and red berries, light to medium bodied, mouth perfume of black olive tapenade, salami with dried thyme. Layers of flavour, intense long power and drive… Excellent wine of pure class.” “Lifted aromas up front in the glass with white pepper a high note,” wrote Andrew. “Lovely dark fruits of plum and cherry accompanied by mocha and dark chocolate. This wine is savoury all the way, showing a harmonious profile from aroma through the palate and to a long and focused finish.” “Explosive pepper aromas,” noted Lane. “This wine has huge energy to it – pink and red fruits and juicy acidity pushing right from the front of the mouth to the back, giving wonderful length. Some meatiness and rosehip, elevated potpourri, oak nowhere to be seen. Elegance is not the word; it is more electric than elegant, but it is so controlled and focused. …An exciting wine, lots of whole bunch, but gee it’s done well and never tips into the green zone.” Brodtman found it, “Balanced, fine and interesting, a great representation of the old world in new hands.”

 

2020 Worlds Apart ‘Springton’ Old Vine Syrah, Eden Valley $55 RRP

This was Lane’s wine of the tasting, while it took out second spot for Foster and Mills, with Crowther also including it in his top six. “A deft use of light roasted coffee style oak on the nose,” wrote Lane, “along with inviting and bright red fruits and hints of white and black pepper. It has a slightly salty, very savoury tensile quality to the palate which shows great transparency in its complex dried floral flavours and ripe but not overdone juicy red currants and berries. The thing that sets the wine apart is the superior tannin structure – persistent, very fine grained and powdery, but not afraid to grip you and make you stand up and take notice. Perhaps it is an older vine thing, but it seems like it has power and structure without excess sweetness or weight. Yummy and likely to be ageworthy as those tannins slowly unravel.” “Rich mouthfeel, brightly fruited filled with verve and poise,” noted Foster. “Well balanced with fine whole-bunch tannin, clean fresh acidity creating a sense of liveliness. Mocha, spiced earth, an intense and well-crafted wine with a sense of place.” Mills noted that while it was a bit closed at first, it “opens up well on the palate, with a good complex light run of flavours, fresh juicy acidity, purple candy swell of mid-palate well-balanced tannins – yep, like.” Crowther saw, “Dark concentrated fruits. Black fruits. Olive, dried herbs, tobacco. Dark core runs the palate, too, but with some firm tannins holding form. Nice length. Good in a few years, too.”

 

2018 Marion’s Vineyard Syrah, Tasmania $55 RRP

This was Andrew’s wine of the tasting, while it featured in the top-six lists for both Foster and Lane. “Cherries, plums and raspberries jump out of the glass accompanied by vanillin and cedar spice,” wrote Andrew. “A lovely textural mouthfeel to this wine which shows a freshness on the palate. Savoury in profile but red and dark fruits highlight on the palate suggesting a hint of fruit sweetness. Mulberry adds intrigue and lends to a touch of charcuterie. Linear and focused tannins drive the palate and the wine finishes with a lift of white pepper on the back palate.” “A little old world wet stone, wet concrete and graphite on first glance,” wrote Lane, “There’s pepper, freshly turned earth, and a positive sulphide complexity. There’s a wildness to the nose – some meat and boudoir florals that are very alluring. …The blue fruit intensity is impressive, and wow there’s excitement here. It has lip-smacking acidity that drives the palate back through the mouth, too. Tannins are savoury yet controlled, and with a little more depth it would be truly amazing. It could go anywhere, but right now it’s a sexy ride.”

 

2017 The Wanderer Syrah, Yarra Valley $55 RRP

Crowther’s top wine of the tasting, this also featured on Lane and Szyman’s top-six lists. “Very seductive aromatics,” wrote Crowther. “Smoke, tobacco, earth and red and black fruits intwined. Great whole bunch. Medium bodied and refreshing with great layers of savoury complexity. A beautiful example of Australian syrah and something people should really look at.” “There was a distinctly savoury edge to this wine that stuck out to me in a line-up of predominantly fruit-forward offerings,” noted Szyman. “The nose brought me incongruous notes of fresh brewed filter coffee and oyster shells. A lovely salty minerality, framed by fine-boned tannins and a refreshing wash of acidity…” “It’s light in colour, leafy and mulchy and super peppery on the nose, with hints of furniture polish and wildflowers,” wrote Lane. “The palate swishes and swashes, without much tannic extract to get in the way or direct it in any particular way, but that’s the joy of it. It’s unforced, unbridled and hugely gluggable.”

 

2020 Ben Haines Syrah, Great Western $40 RRP

This was in the top three for Crowther and Lane, while it also featured on Szyman and Andrew’s top-six lists. “It was a little shy on first meeting,” wrote Lane. “A bit of nice French oak, a hint of meaty reduction, but slowly and surely it opened up to reveal excellent red and pink fruits, a glossy texture to the mouthfeel and that rare but lovely sense of ‘mouth perfume’ that is tasting and smelling at once. Medium weight red and blue berry fruits that give way to some excellent and finely wrought tannins. Seems very youthful and like it needs another year or two to come into balance, but it will be something else when it does!” “A classy wine with great varietal identity in a classic syrah style,” noted Szyman. “Dark fruit on the palate evokes black olive tapenade, star anise and ripe black plums, while aromas of strawberry gum and French vanilla dance around the nose. Sappy tannins and a great balance of sweet, plush fruit, sumptuous acidity and savoury depth.” “Very poised and pristine fruits with great purity,” wrote Crowther. “Wonderful layers of complexity. Fresh and vibrant on the palate. Good clean crisp palate with fine tannin.”

 

2020 Hughes & Hughes Syrah, Tasmania $37 RRP

This featured amongst the top-six wines for four tasters: Foster, Mills, Day and Crowther. “Raspberry sorbet and pepperberry,” wrote Day. “Delicate, light-bodied palate, with a vanilla custard kind of oak profile. I love the weight of this wine; it floats so lightly and easily across the palate. Another complete surprise, blasting my preconceived ideas about syrah to smithereens.” “Purple hued with bright red cherry colour,” wrote Foster, “exotic dark Indian spice, juicy fresh ‘poppy’ style that’s super youthful. Light bodied, delicate, silky with layers of fresh raspberries, finesse of fine tannin and bouncy acidity. Lacks the mid-palate intensity and depth of my top wines but must be commended for the youthful ‘nuovo’ fresh style. Juicy and delicious.” Crowther saw, “Very bright and vibrant aromatics. Red florals and lavender. Thyme and red earth. Chalky tannin and very silky fine tannin. Lovely red fruits and sappy and raspy. Very appealing and drinkable.”

 

2018 De Bortoli ‘A8’ Syrah, Yarra Valley $52 RRP

This made it into the top six selections of Foster, Day and Lane. “Light, fragrant, very pretty, red raspberries, white and black pepper, energetic fragrant dried herbs,” wrote Foster. “Medium bodied, very Rhône like, quite exotic with intense lift of perfume across the palate. Fine whole-bunch tannin, youthful, intense with finesse in spades, finishes long and deep!” “Very pretty floral, carbonic aromatics!” noted Lane. “Some candyfloss, some pepper. Leaps out of the glass. The nose is unobscured – no oak or heat or stinky sulphides to speak of. It has a lovely, bouncy, lifted palate of pink berries, jaunty and positively strutting along. …Yummo.” “Peppery and funky,” wrote day, “this wine is cool, calm and collected. Elegant fruit, blue and black berries. The acid is almost refreshing and palate cleansing. There’s a toasted, biscuity note, a nice little oak nod? Finishes with green peppercorn. I like how this wine ‘lives’.”

 

2020 The Stoke ‘French for Shiraz’ Syrah, Kangaroo Island $35 RRP

Brodtman had this in second place for the tasting, while Szyman also included it in her top six. “This wine is like a little cacao and cranberry bliss ball with the berry fruit shadowed by prosciutto and barbequed meat aromas,” wrote Brodtman. “On the palate, the wine is elegant and refined. It appears delicate but there is plenty of red fruit to support the chalky tannins. A perfect balance of fruit and tannin crunch. Just lovely.” “This wine had a really attractive perfume to the nose, think musk sticks, crushed strawberries and star anise,” wrote Szyman. “Chalky tannins and a slightly green-tea-leaf quality paired with the lighter frame of the palate makes it, in my opinion, a syrah that would benefit from being served lightly chilled and drunk in afternoon sunshine with mates.”

 

2020 Guroo ‘Charlotte Dalton’ Syrah, Kangaroo Island $50 RRP

This made Szyman’s top-six list, while it was just pipped out of top spot for Day. “I guess what I expect when I think of cool climate syrah is an element of stalkiness, which personally I love,” wrote Day. “This may be too ‘stemmy’ for some, but I can’t get enough. Behind all that is a touch of floral and red fruit. Excellent structure from tannin without being overwhelming. Red apple flesh and tart berries, with a blue-fruited palate.” “Another elegant and approachable wine that is light on its feet,” wrote Szyman. “Perfumed pink and purple fruit on the nose, red apple skin, blackberries and bramble. A slightly menthol pine needle character that gives the palate alpine freshness. The combination of generous fruit and tart acidity floods your mouth in a deliciously mouth-watering way.”

 

2020 Wines of Merritt Syrah, Margaret River $40 RRP

This made the top-six lists of both Mills and Foster. “Enticing smoky nose, with a jumble of mixed red fruit, think wild strawberry and raspberries,” wrote Foster. “Very chewy tannin, whole bunch like, sappy and firm, a baby of a wine with meaty complexity and depth. Needs time to gel, as its power needs to soften to the fruit, but I’d love to see this wine with five plus years.” Boysenberry forest fruits,” wrote Mills. “Coal-dust medium-weight tannins. Silky palate, well weighted. Some woodsmoke. Generous in its dimensions, opening up very well with later tasting, rich dark and engaging.”

 

2019 Fairbank Syrah, Central Victoria $35 RRP

Szyman had this as her second top wine of the tasting. “A darker, more plush offering,” she wrote. “Blackberry, green olives and fennel fronds. The fruit weight on the palate was ripe enough to balance the briny edge, coupled with velvety tannins, black pepper and freshly turned earth on the finish. This made for a very smart glass of wine.”

 

2019 R. Lane Vintners ‘Westgate Vineyard’ Syrah, Grampians $75 RRP

“Blue fruits jump out of the glass showing blueberries dusted in white pepper,” wrote Andrew, placing this in her top three. “New oak spice adds vanilla and cedar on the nose, and as the wine opens in the glass a lovely floral lift adds to the enticing nose. Dry on the palate with dusty tannins that are supported by a lick of licorice… Generosity of fruit on the mid-palate continues through to the finish which support the dry tannins. This wine shows line and length and an understated generosity that builds quietly to the long finish. Lovely integration of oak which contributes to the complexity of this syrah. Time on its side.”

 

2020 White Gate Wine Co. Syrah, Barossa Valley $32 RRP

Day had this in the top half of her top-six picks. “I am nervous; I can see the extract and brace to be bashed about the mouth,” she wrote. “I love being proved wrong. There’s tobacco leaf, smoke and mushrooms on the nose; it’s restrained and taut. A leafy, stemminess… The palate is velvet and silky. Dark black fruit and plenty of savoury, umami goodness. Fine tannins gently tap at the door. This is a meat wine. I’m thinking French cuisine. Pair with dry-aged steak and a fatty sauce. Mr Rob Kabboord [Chancery Lane], I’ve got something for you!”

 

2018 Bowerbird Syrah, Sunbury $40 RRP

Andrew had this just outside her top three wines of the tasting. “An opulent nose with a core of sweet red fruits, such as raspberry and cherries,” she wrote. “Oak spice wraps the fruit and transitions nicely to the palate. The mouthfeel is generous with concentrated youthful fruit and a lovely glycerol creaminess. Rich and opulent but grounded by tannins that feature on the mid to back palate. Generosity of oak is matched by fruit intensity and palate weight and the finish is long and harmonious.”

 

2020 Longview ‘Macclesfield’ Syrah, Adelaide Hills $45 RRP

“Bramble, spice, musk candy,” wrote Mills in placing this towards the middle of his top-six picks. “Good palate, rich and textured without overpowering. Perfumed and exotic spice cupboard. The palate is fresh and uplifting with some good mid-palate layer and mouth-coating tannins. Great balance – definitely my kind of wine.”

 

2019 Lambert Syrah, Yarra Valley $40 RRP

Brodtman placed this towards the middle of her top-six selections. “Quite a lot of bunchy aromas on the nose: spice, oregano and green peppercorn,” she wrote. “The palate surprises with loads of raspberry, blackcurrant and violets. A tighter style of wine with chalky tannin and a touch of sour cherry on the finish. Give it some time to open up.”

 

2015 Catlin Adelaide hills Syrah, Adelaide Hills $40 RRP

“The black and red pastille fruit jumps from the glass and is underlaid but aromas of slate and damp earth” wrote Brodtman, placing this in her top six. “A rounded wine which is richer than expected and very seductive. The tannins are evident but quite soft and mouth filling. Intriguing and appealing.”

 

2019 Quiet Mutiny ‘Venus Rising’ Syrah, Tasmania $48 RRP

Crowther had this placed in his top six wines for the day. “The wine presents with some dark fruit character, black and red fruits – blackberry and deep plum,” he wrote. “There’s a little char and spice sitting within this frame of fruits. The palate is compact and concentrated. Dark earth and some rugged, savoury tannins are attractive. Good depth, flavour and concentration running from front to back on the palate. Makes me want food. Something off the barbecue or slow roasted!

 

2019 Coulter ‘C4’ Syrah, Eden Valley $30 RRP

Day had this amongst her six favourite wines of the tasting. “Blackcurrant for days; bright and ripe,” she wrote. “Blues and purples, with a little green, and lovely. It’s so plush and plump over on the palate, with warm fruit and a little backbone of warm baking spices. Lovely structure of tannin, just add food…”

 

2020 Sven Joschke ‘Das Klaus’ Syrah, Barossa Valley $37 RRP

“Dark brooding purple tones,” wrote Mills, giving this a top-six result. “Meat, spice, brooding ‘serious wine’. Has weight and richness but isn’t over the top. Dense tannins, well balanced, supple. Black spice liquorice but still fine boned. Great length and balance… like a lot. Lots to like, would be a crowd pleaser for sure.”

 

2019 Jamsheed ‘Wandin’ Syrah, Yarra Valley $54 RRP

This featured in Brodtman’s top-six selections. “Plenty of freshly cracked black pepper and roasted tomato on the nose,” she wrote. “As the nose opens up, violets and aniseed follow in this complex, enticing wine. The palate overdelivers with roasted pepper, green spice (think cardamom and fresh peppercorns) balanced out by grunty tannins. More structured than some of its counterparts, there are touches of barbequed meats and ripe plum.”

Australian Syrah – The Backstory

Parker pens a new future

In the 1990s, American wine critic Robert Parker doled out a slew of top scores to Australian shirazes for his Wine Advocate, famously anointing Chris Ringland’s ‘Three Rivers’ (now called ‘Chris Ringland’) with 99-point scores in 1993 and ’95, then upping the ante to a perfect three figures in ’96, ’98, 2002 and ’04. Unsurprisingly, that resulted in a feeding frenzy, with the value of the wines skyrocketing from somewhere around $60–70 on release to fetching over $1,000 on the US auction market. That saw Ringland hike his sell price by an astonishing 1,000 per cent, but the consumer interest was undimmed.

Above: Robert Parker. Opposite: Chris Ringland.

Unsurprisingly, other makers – many with vines as old and quite a bit older than Ringland’s Eden Valley centurions – wanted a piece of the action. And that meant making wine in a way that mirrored those reviews. To put that in context, it’s worth looking at some of Parker’s descriptors, writing that the 1996 was “akin to a dry vintage port” and a wine of “unreal concentration”. That overlay was just as evident in his assessment of another pillar of that Parker frenzy, Wild Duck Creek’s 1997 ‘Duck Muck’ Shiraz from Heathcote.

That wine had a similarly stratospheric uptick in value after its 99-point review, with Parker’s note praising its monumental nature: “Opaque black purple-colored, with a viscosity resembling vintage port… The acidity and tannin appear to be missing because of the wine’s wealth of fruit, glycerin, and extract.” For those interested in more elegant styles, Parker’s reviews were more cautionary tales, warnings writ large, but for most they represented the zeitgeist – bigger was indeed better.

Boom years

This period was also one of unapparelled growth, with Australian land under vine in the 1990s more than doubling. It would be overstating things to say that Parker was the sole golden-egg-laying goose, but his impact was profound. Australian shiraz was seen as being darkly powerful, with wines often well over 15 per cent alcohol, and typically laden with sweet American oak, loaded with vanilla and coconut characters. And the style found a receptive audience, both domestically and internationally.

But to define Australian Shiraz by the Barossa and McLaren Vale of the time leaves so many prime growing regions unaccounted for, and it also blurs history. The reality is that earlier Australian red styles – shiraz and otherwise – were significantly lower in alcohol, with the wines elegant even in those warmer regions.s. Then there’s the Hunter Valley, which has long produced elegant but savoury midweight styles. What was starting to be seen as a traditional style favouring brute force was indeed not traditional at all. There was also a growth in cool climate viticulture around the same time, with many Victorian regions forging different expressions of the grape – joining long-term exponents like Best’s Great Western – as well as the ascent of areas like the Canberra District.

“The cool area styles of shiraz are so different to traditional Barossa and McLaren Vale ones that we thought it was confusing for consumers to call it shiraz,” says Webber. “That is to buy something called Yarra or Canberra shiraz and have consumers saying, ‘That’s not what I was expecting.’”

The cooler regions, though not suited to bigger styles, were not completely immune from the effects of Parker, with many makers aiming for higher ripeness and using significant amounts of new oak. They rarely achieved the levels of opulence that was achieved in South Australia or indeed in Victoria’s Heathcote, but the grapes were often taken to the extremes that their sites would allow. It had become a consumer expectation, and a commercially dangerous one to defy.

A new horizon

Jamsheed’s Gary Mills spent several years in the US, first working with Paul Draper at Ridge Vineyards, then further north in the cool of Oregon before returning home in 2003. “One of the things I noticed when I first arrived back in Victoria,” he says, “it was when Barossa was king, attracting the high prices, people here were pushing the vineyards, and pushing the styles until they were at breaking point… and the wines just weren’t that interesting, and they’d fall apart after a couple of years. They pushed the ripeness because they wanted to be Barossa-esque.”

“There is also a huge wank factor in calling it syrah. It’s a pretty toff sounding word, and I don’t want to be thought of as a wine wanker… though, I definitely am,” he laughs. “But shiraz in Australia is a brand, and it’s such a strong brand, and for the average punter, when they want a shiraz, they know what they want.”
Gary Mills with a picking bin full of shiraz grapes at harvest time.

For De Bortoli’s Steve Webber, that perception of what Australian shiraz was supposed to be was never going to be an easy fit for the styles he wanted to make from the cool of the Yarra Valley, choosing instead to label De Bortoli’s ‘A8 Reserve’ as syrah in 2003. It wasn’t the first time syrah had appeared on an Australian label, with perhaps Rosemount’s ‘Balmoral’ the most famous example, but Webber was making a strong statement about style.

“The cool area styles of shiraz are so different to traditional Barossa and McLaren Vale ones that we thought it was confusing for consumers to call it shiraz,” says Webber. “That is to buy something called Yarra or Canberra shiraz and have consumers saying, ‘That’s not what I was expecting.’”

The whole bunch and nothing but the bunch…

Mills started using the term syrah from 2004. It’s also the year he committed to fermenting largely with whole bunches. “Having no formal degree in winemaking,” he says, “I only ever tried to imitate the wines I liked to drink – those wines all contained whole bunches as part of the process. But I was also part of a push to get the acknowledgement of a different style of wine out there. We were all making a point, that these were not heavyweight, over-extracted over-alcoholised wines… they were perfumed, medium-weight wines.”

That use of whole bunches in the ferments has become a major marker of wines labelled syrah, with the process adding layers of spice, expressing the fruit in a very vibrant way and adding complexity to the tannin structure. Webber stresses, though, that you can’t approach the use of whole bunches as a recipe. “I think we have come a long way with the use of whole bunches,” he says. “Some years they integrate really well, others not so much.”

Steve Webber inspecting a tank with fermenting whole (non-crushed) berries. “There’s nothing wrong with the odd 100 per cent de-stemmed fruit and minimal plunging, particularly in the early stages of fermentation, for gently aromatic pinot-like characteristics.”

Webber also notes that more can be less. “We tend to find 100 per cent whole bunch gives less whole-bunch character than a ferment with 20 per cent,” he says, “and there’s nothing wrong with the odd 100 per cent de-stemmed fruit and minimal plunging, particularly in the early stages of fermentation, for gently aromatic pinot-like characteristics.”

“It’s not just about throwing heaps of bunches at it to make a syrah style,” says The Story’s Rory Lane, “but for the general pendulum swing of syrah from shiraz, I’m perfectly fine for it to be swinging to bunchier styles, rather than those overripe styles. Wines that are quite leafy and green can work, but it needs to be matched with some decent, ripe skin tannin as well, with decent fruit ripeness.”

That ripeness is a thing that Webber stresses is important in his site. “We find that cool area shiraz needs to be reasonably ripe to give the weight and violets that we like,” he says. Webber also favours shorter time in neutral French oak, and uses larger format barrels. “We particularly like 500-litre and 600-litre barrels, and 2,300-litre foudre,” he says, noting that increased size and reduced duration retains freshness and fragrance and are better suited to the weight of the wines.

Weight and perfume were just as much key for Mills now as when he started out. For him, those bigger styles were not only not his style, but he believed they were obscuring expression of site and fruit. “At that time, particularly in the Yarra, shiraz was commonly made in an over-extracted, over-oaked style, which neither reflected the terroir nor came even close to being varietally correct,” he says.

Opposite: Rory Lane. “Wines that are quite leafy and green can work,” he says, “but it needs to be matched with some decent, ripe skin tannin as well, with decent fruit ripeness.” Above: Steve Webber sorting berries as they come into the winery at harvest time. “We find that cool area shiraz needs to be reasonably ripe to give the weight and violets that we like,” he says.

What’s in a name?

That early move by both Webber and Mills to label their wines as syrah rather than shiraz was a risky one commercially, perhaps just as much as the styles they were making. It’s a decision that Webber says he still has robust discussions with his marketing team about. Not for the flagship syrah wines, but at the more everyday end of the spectrum where perhaps there is less familiarity with the term. But Webber is adamant that the “more aromatic styles” still need to be corralled from the expectations of what Australian shiraz is supposed to taste like.

“At the time,” says Mills, “I wasn’t giving much thought to whether it was a smart commercial decision or not. I was adamant, foolhardy even, that my wines were going to be represented as Syrah. I’m sure they would have sold faster if they were labelled shiraz, but I guess it is a moot point as I would never have done that anyway. The reception was mixed, as was to be expected. The sommelier ‘gatekeepers’ responded to it very positively, appreciating and recognising what we were trying to do.”

Today, that choice is perhaps a clearer one, with a distinct, though very broad syrah category that complements rather than challenges the bigger styles. “We need to distance our styles from those wines that our dads drank,” says Louis Schofield of Worlds Apart Wines in the Adelaide Hills. “I would have probably been making wines like that then as well, because that’s what people wanted, and that’s what sold. Most of those ‘dad wines’ are made from incredible fruit from a great region, and they can be great wines. The only problem I have is the great myth that high alcohol and high levels of new oak are going to make a wine age really well. And we now know the opposite is true.”

Above: Louis Schofield at his winebar, Hellbound, in Adelaide. Opposite: Schofield making his Worlds Apart Wines in the Adelaide Hills. “We need to distance our styles from those wines that our dads drank,” says Schofield “I would have probably been making wines like that then as well, because that’s what people wanted, and that’s what sold. Most of those ‘dad wines’ are made from incredible fruit from a great region, and they can be great wines. The only problem I have is the great myth that high alcohol and high levels of new oak are going to make a wine age really well. And we now know the opposite is true.”
Webber also notes that more can be less. “We tend to find 100 per cent whole bunch gives less whole-bunch character than a ferment with 20 per cent.”

Schofield says that he was in two minds about calling his Eden Valley wine syrah or shiraz. “There is also a huge wank factor in calling it syrah. It’s a pretty toff sounding word, and I don’t want to be thought of as a wine wanker… though, I definitely am,” he laughs. “But shiraz in Australia is a brand, and it’s such a strong brand, and for the average punter, when they want a shiraz, they know what they want.”

Making wine under his The Story label since 2004, for Lane the shift to using the syrah nomenclature was a recent one, even if his wines have always stylistic fit for the category. “We started using the term syrah in 2017, quite late really,” he says. “I was reflecting on the fact that the majority of the world uses the term syrah, and I wanted our wines to be understood in a global context rather than just a national one.”

Mills agrees that export markets “were, and probably still are, the most receptive to syrah – not surprisingly”. But he’s also buoyed by the emergence of a genuinely deep exploration of the finer side of the grape, giving the local category meaningful definition. “What is happening now is that people are celebrating the perfume, the lightness,” he says, “and that’s really quite a wonderful thing to see. There’s a real deftness of touch that’s come about now with wines they call syrah. I think the term is even more relevant now, particularly given how awareness of the style has increased.

Our panel of experts gathered at Jamsheed Urban Winery, Preston (Melbourne).

Outtakes from the tasting

We gathered every Australian wine labelled syrah we could find and set our expert panel the task of finding the wines that compelled the most. All wines were tasted blind, and each panellist named their top six wines. Below are the wines that made the panellists’ top six from the tasting.

The panel: Sebastian Crowther MS, owner Real Wines and Wine Theory; Sarah Andrew DipWSET, WSET Business Development Manager for Aus and NZ; Hannah Day, Sommelier and Beverage Manager for Chancery Lane; Gary Mills, owner/winemaker Jamsheed and Jamsheed Urban Winery; Rory Lane, owner/winemaker The Story Wines; Meg Brodtman MW, Chief Winemaker Rob Dolan Wines; Isabelle Szyman, sommelier; Adam Foster, owner/winemaker Syrahmi, Foster e Rocco and Garden of Earthly Delights.

All wines tasted 'blind'.

“The thing that stood out to me was freshness,” said Brodtman. “When we associate shiraz/syrah with Australian wine we think of these big, fruity styles of wine with high alcohol. But to approach these ‘LDRs’ – ‘light dry reds’, which I thought most of them were – they varied in their degree of freshness, and I hate using the term ‘bunchy and crunchy’, but a lot of these wines were just that, and you think both about food and enjoying these on their own, and it’s just exposing a whole new realm of syrah/shiraz.”

“A general shiraz class at a wine show is hard work,” commented Crowther. “They’re littered with wines with heaps of oak, have massive amounts of extraction and are typically very ripe in style. But this tasting wasn’t overly hard work, because of the refreshing nature of a lot of the wines; there was a vibrancy and a purity. There was a very good middle ground [of quality], some better and some fell a bit below the line, but generally very good.”

“I think if we did this tasting ten years ago, or 15 years ago,” said Mills, “you would have seen a lot more dark and brooding wines that just called themselves syrah but were just impersonating… syrah was just on the label. But looking at most of these wines, there’s a level of freshness and lightness and brevity that never used to be in cool climate syrah.”

“There’s a level of freshness and lightness and brevity that never used to be in cool climate syrah.”
Gary Mills and Meg Brodtmann. “The thing that stood out to me was freshness,” said Brodtman.
“I hate using the term ‘bunchy and crunchy’, but a lot of these wines were just that, and you think both about food and enjoying these on their own, and it’s just exposing a whole new realm of syrah/shiraz.”

“With the old school big styles of shiraz, there’s the glycerol and sweetness that comes from alcohol not fruit,” noted Andrew. “There was fruit sweetness in some of these wines today, which was absolutely delightful, but they finished savoury… there was this textural contribution from the fruit that was just delightful…”

“I see that as a whole bunch, a cab mac contribution,” said Mills. “Absolutely,” agreed Andrew, “which adds to the complexity without detracting from the purity and the balance.”

“I was struck by how much use of whole bunch was in this category,” Mills added. “It seems to me about 80 per cent of those wines would have had a lot of whole bunch. The wines that I liked the least were the ones that were overly whole bunch and extracted, where you lose the delicacy and the perfume.”

“There were a lot of bunchy wines,” agreed lane. “In some cases, the fruit didn’t support that, but in some cases, it made a really great contribution. The wines that did it best, were where they didn’t look overtly green, but they had all the lift and the explosiveness of carbonic character that comes from well-judged stem use.”

Sarah Andrew and Rory Lane.

“The Northern Rhône can often be described as stalky, stemmy and over-extracted,” added Brodtman. “The thing that I loved about these wines is that we had that stalkiness and that stemminess, which I don’t mind, but there was this beautiful bright fruit of cranberry and just-ripe plum, lots of blackcurrant and raspberry… I think they’re taking the best of both.”

“The first three vintages for Syrahmi were all de-stemmed,” added Foster, “then from using barrique, the oak got bigger, and bigger, and then there was no new oak, but I started with whole bunch… and in the early years, I added viognier, but with the magic of whole bunch you got that perfume and an improved tannin structure… but whenever you smell and taste stems overtly, that green bean character, it’s gone too far.”

“I think what we can also see is a general trend for picking earlier in Australia, both shiraz and syrah,” said Mills. “There’s no need to ripen something up to 15 per cent… The days of old mate [Robert Parker] in the USA rating wines 15 plus per cent wines 100 points… We’re now at the point where we go, ‘No, this wine is perfectly balanced at 12.5–13 per cent.’”

“Shiraz cannot ripen beyond 12.5–13 per cent by itself,” added Brodtman. “Sugar accumulation stops around there, then everything else is shrivel, desiccation… One of the things we’re seeing in these wines in non-shrivel in the fruit.”

Isabelle Szyman and Gary Mills.
“The Northern Rhône can often be described as stalky, stemmy and over-extracted,” added Brodtman. “The thing that I loved about these wines is that we had that stalkiness and that stemminess, which I don’t mind, but there was this beautiful bright fruit of cranberry and just-ripe plum, lots of blackcurrant and raspberry… I think they’re taking the best of both.”

“With the wines in the tasting that looked to be from hotter areas,” said Mills, “like the Barossa, they’re harking back to how those wines were perhaps made in the 1980s and earlier until the Parker bombs of the 90s.”

“That’s true of Heathcote, too,” added Foster, noting that what we regard as a big style of shiraz being traditional is indeed more of a modern invention. “You look to anything made before about 1997, and the wines were all 13 or high 12s, and they were delicious… they still are.”

Meg Brodtmann and Adam Foster. “In the early years [of Syrahmi], I added viognier,” said Foster, “but with the magic of whole bunch you got that perfume and an improved tannin structure… but whenever you smell and taste stems overtly, that green bean character, it’s gone too far.”

“I work in a retail setting that see a reasonably diverse cross-section of ages,” said Szyman, “and I speak to a lot of people who are very firmly in the big-Aussie-shiraz realm, and a lot of younger people who don’t really even know what shiraz is, and perhaps don’t care. But I think the word shiraz is very loaded, much more so than syrah.”

“Sometimes synonyms, like pinot gris and pinot grigio, are used based on what will sell better in the market,” noted Crowther. “But with this category of wines, I think there’s genuine intent behind people making the wines and labelling them as syrah.”

“Whether it’s a marketing decision or a stylistic decision,” added Andrew, “there’s a gravitation to syrah for being from a cool to moderate climate… those that have chosen the term syrah have done it for reasons that we can see in the glass today.”

Hannah Day and Sebastian Crowther. “Sometimes synonyms, like pinot gris and pinot grigio, are used based on what will sell better in the market,” noted Crowther. “But with this category of wines, I think there’s genuine intent behind people making the wines and labelling them as syrah.”

Andrew confessed that while she is an ardent supporter of Australian wine, she has rarely cellared Australian shiraz. “I find fruit-driven, heavy, high alcohol wines are not very age-worthy,” she said.

“But when you look at what we’ve tasted today,” said Day, “you can see development and you can still see the plushness of fruit and retention of acid…”

“Absolutely,” agreed Andrew. “There were some oak-driven wines, but it was matched by purity of fruit, delightful acidity, engaging tannins… and there’s age-ability here, some have not yet knitted, but to see them in five- or ten-years’ time… I would put them in my cellar.”

“I think syrah’s a helpful name to use, because producers are making stylistic choices,” said Lane.

“I know I could label my wines shiraz, and they’d sell five times better,” laughed Mills.

“I know I could label my wines shiraz, and they’d sell five times better,” laughed Mills.

“But let’s not compare it to French syrah,” noted Brodtman. “These are definitely Australian wines made in a lighter style, as opposed to the traditional shiraz wines. Let’s not compare them to the Rhône, or anywhere else… let’s hang our hat on them being proudly Australian, because I think they are. Let’s elevate syrah styles, but without denigrating the bigger styles of shiraz that a lot of people love.”

“It could be quite an important labelling tool,” added Day, “because people are moving backwards from these big, beefy styles and they’re looking for things lighter on the palate that are a little more food friendly. From a consumer perspective, if they see it in a store or on a wine list, they have some general idea of what the wine is going to be like.”

“These wines as a category are much inclusive from a dining experience,” added Brodtman. “A lot of what we do now is nibble, and I’d be happy to drink most of those wines while grazing across food. I don’t need that protein hit to match the wine, because there’s such an amount of fruit and lightness and not as much alcohol.”

The Panel

Adam Foster is a chef by trade, but he accompanied his apprenticeship by moonlighting on the floor at Walter’s Wine Bar. After working at some of the finest restaurants in Melbourne and London, while also working vintages, including at Torbreck, wine won the day in 2002. Foster has worked primarily in the Northern Rhône and Heathcote, focusing on syrah/shiraz, while also launching his Syrahmi label, which was followed by Foster e Rocco and Garden of Earthly Delights. Foster was the 2008 and ’09 Young Gun of Wine People’s Choice winner.

Hannah Day’s entry into hospitality was a means to prop up a nascent musical theatre career, which took her to Berlin and a stint at the “busiest pork knuckle restaurant in the city”. On her return to Melbourne, Day completed her WSET Level 3 qualification. She has worked for Rockpool Dining Group, firstly at Rosetta, then at Rockpool Bar & Grill. Mentored by Jonathan Ross MS and Jane Lopes, she completed her Certified Exams with the Court of Master Sommeliers in 2019. Day was awarded an Education Scholarship with Sommeliers Australia and a place on Wine Australia’s Sommelier Immersion Program. She is currently the Sommelier and Beverage Manager for Chancery Lane.

Rory Lane came to wine after completing a Bachelor of Arts majoring in Comparative Literature (Ancient Greek tragedy) before diverting to study a Masters in Wine Technology and Marketing, while also completing vintages both here and in Oregon, USA. In 2004, he made the first offering under his The Story Wines label, with a central focus on the grapes of the Rhône Valley, primarily shiraz/syrah from the Grampians, but with some diversions, too. Today, that central focus is the same, though his range has expanded somewhat, even including a range of gins. Lane also works as a consultant to other makers.

Sarah Andrew is the WSET Business Development Manager for Australia and New Zealand and is the Co-President of Sommeliers Australia. She is on the Global External Diversity & Inclusivity Working Group for WSET and the Association de la Sommellerie Internationale (ASI) Diversity & Inclusion project group. Andrew holds the WSET Diploma with Honours, is a WSET Certified Educator, an A+ Wine School Educator for Wine Australia, a Certified Sommelier with the Court of Master Sommeliers and is currently studying for her Master of Wine.

Gary Mills path to wine came via a literature degree at Curtin University in his hometown of Perth. Mills also studied Japanese at the time, which gave him the edge on getting a placement at California’s iconic Ridge Vineyard with Paul Draper. Mills spent three years at Ridge, from what was originally a three-month role, then worked further north in Oregon. In 2003, he began his Jamsheed label, forging an uncommon path with syrah/shiraz at the time from the Yarra Valley and Grampians, with 100 per cent whole bunch at the core. Mills also runs his urban winery in Melbourne’s Preston, complete with bar and dining hall.

Meg Brodtmann MW began her career as a medical research scientist before studying winemaking at Adelaide University. She worked internationally as a consultant winemaker throughout Europe and South America while also completing her Master of Wine qualification – the industry’s toughest test. Today, she is winemaker at the Rob Dolan Wines in the Yarra Valley.

Sebastian Crowther is one of only five Master Sommeliers in Australia, having passed the notoriously difficult test in 2013. He currently runs his wine import and domestic wholesale business, Real Wines, as well as his retail project, Wine Theory. Crowther has previously won Sydney Morning Herald Sommelier of the Year and also the Judy Hirst award for the best wine list in the country. Prior to devoting himself to his own business, Crowther was the Beverage Director for the Rockpool Dining Group.

Isabelle Szyman worked as a sommelier at the City Wine Shop and Carlton Wine Room before taking up a role at Rathdowne Cellars in mid-2020. She has a WSET Level 3 qualification, is a Certified Sommelier with the Court of Master Sommeliers and is currently undertaking the French Wine Scholar program.