Syrah, shiraz… Call it what you will, the grape has captured the attention of drinkers in this country like no other, being the most planted and consumed red variety for many decades. The kingship of shiraz has gone largely unchallenged. Sure, the Australian wine landscape thankfully has seen dramatic increases in all manner of red varieties, but none even comes close to shiraz. That’s not to say that we’re stuck in the past. Indeed, shiraz has seen a dramatic revolution, from the increase in cooler climate plantings to makers pursuing styles from the spicily fragrant and elegant to the distinctly nouveau, with early consumption and a good chill all part of the modern picture, not to mention reviving the fading tradition of sparkling shiraz.
It’s hard to miss the Australian passion for shiraz, as we like to call it (apart from a small enclave in the USA, we’re the only ones to use the synonym for France’s syrah), with it occupying about 30 per cent of our vineyard land – about 46 per cent for red varieties – and taking up plenty of space on wine store shelves and wine lists.
To put that in context, its nearest rival is the deeply unfashionable cabernet sauvignon, which while still holding onto 18 percent of total vineyard land is in steady decline, while shiraz is still being avidly planted. Some may cry out pinot noir’s name, but with under 4 per cent of total vineyard land, those cries are quickly silenced. Shiraz is indeed king.
A cool balance
It’s no secret that Australian shiraz’s reputation has been built around commanding styles, and largely from South Australia’s key warm climate regions: the Barossa and McLaren Vale. Riley Harrison makes wine from both regions under his eponymous label, but it’s not shiraz fruit he’s taking, opting instead for the much cooler clime of the Adelaide Hills for his syrah.
“South Australia's reputation on the world stage can be largely attributed to these more concentrated, decadent, voluptuous styles of warm climate shiraz, but the times they are a changin'!”
“South Australia’s reputation on the world stage can be largely attributed to these more concentrated, decadent, voluptuous styles of warm climate shiraz, but the times they are a changin’!” says Harrison. “There is a shift toward more aromatic, perfumed styles of the variety… wines that pair better with food and wines that keep you going back for more.”
Harrison believes that the right sites in the Hills are ideal for his preferred wine style, but also for shiraz in general, with warm days and cool nights allowing for proper ripeness with retention of natural acidity and bright rather than stewed fruit flavours. “I like to pick early, but one cannot pick early without attention to detail in the vineyard,” he says. “The fruit for the ‘Black Hound’ comes from Michael Downer’s Murdoch Hill vineyard at Oakbank, and hell did I work hard to get squeezed into that vineyard.”
The meticulous work of Downer and his team in the vineyard here is key, Harrison says, with pruning carefully targeted to ensure the vines are healthy and balanced, which allows for intense flavour at lower ripeness levels, and hence lower alcohol in the finished wines.
“This provides the opportunity for me to craft wines of a fine-boned nature but with genuine fruit weight,” says Harrison. “From a winemaking perspective, I really am a junky for bunch. There is an intriguing vineyard-derived black olive character, but it’s the high-toned spice notes from whole bunch inclusion that drive my wine style. Given the nature of our sun-drenched country, fruit presence is a given, so the key for me is reigning this in and highlighting the savoury elements.”
In Victoria’s Rutherglen, Rowly Milhinch is also pursuing more elegant, modern styles of shiraz, and he’s doing it in a region that is better known for fortified wines and often bruising red wines. It is his Terravinia Vineyard that he believes gives him the opportunity to better break the mould with his Scion wines.
“The vision is to celebrate texture, structure and elegance. Balance is the most important element in all wine. The trick is to harvest before obvious ripeness is evident. This is where the structure and spice lives.”
“The site has allowed us to dream about structure and texture in our syrah,” says Milhinch. “Terravinia is a mature site, positioned on a northern slope, which is an ancient bank of the Murray River. The vines see a reasonable amount of stress here, which ripens flavour early, allowing us to pick without the expected ripeness levels, which has guided a style that offers elegance. Flavour is red fruited, with elements of dark spice.”
In the Clare Valley, Andrew Kenny of Kenny Wine also works with a warm climate, but unlike Milhinch, his home site readily produces fuller styles. Like in Rutherglen, that style would be the traditional route for Clare shiraz, or Clare reds in general, but Kenny is taking a different path, with both viticultural and winemaking decisions tailored to generate an unforced expression.
“We grow shiraz on heavy red clay with limestone and calcrete deposits, therefore it’s important to us to pick earlier to retain freshness and vibrancy,” Kenny says. “In the past, we have seen wines off this vineyard quite heavy and chunky, being the opposite of what we’re after, which is silky and elegant.”
The early picking helps to keep the wines bright, and Kenny eschews winemaking artefact. “We’re after bright fruit and vibrant juiciness, not clouded with syrupy extract or oak,” he says. “We cold soak and play around with carbonic maceration, with minimal cap work once fermentation has begun and then basket press straight to older French oak until bottling. We don’t use any fining or filtration as with the minimal movement of the wines it’s not necessary.”
Like Kenny, there’s no doubt Milhinch would be making more elegant styles no matter the fruit source. “The vision is to celebrate texture, structure and elegance,” Milhinch says. “Balance is the most important element in all wine. The trick is to harvest before obvious ripeness is evident. This is where the structure and spice lives.”
The bunch, the whole bunch…
Milhinch and Kenny employ some whole bunches in their ferments, which is a theme that runs through many modern shiraz maker’s methods, though in varying proportions. For Entropy Wines’ Ryan Ponsford, his methods are closer to those of Harrison, and the equation is a simple one. “I have an all-or-nothing approach to whole bunch,” he says. “Either use all the bunches or don’t. Why complicates things?”
“It's an interesting thing; pinot noir in Baw Baw Shire makes really expressive, delicious wines, but they don't look like Burgundy. But syrah from Baw Baw Shire actually look like wines from the Northern Rhône. They have their own thing going on, but the Rhône is the reference point. The wines have lower alcohol than most Australian syrah, and the expression is completely different.”
For his Gippsland syrah, Ponsford takes the ‘all’ approach. “I started working with whole bunches because many of the syrah wines I enjoyed were whole bunch,” he says. “The way I work is by hand sorting the bunches into a tank, completely intact. They’re left there for a week, sealed up. This allows a partial carbonic fermentation to happen, which gives you those punchy perfumed aromatics, then in the second week, I open the tank and foot tread the bunches every couple of days. This releases juice into the tank and gives you colour and structure. I like the balance of elements you get from this technique – the pretty and the rustic.”
Working from a site in Sunbury, north of Melbourne, Kirilly Gordon roughly splits it down the middle for her Bowerbird wines. “I like to pick shiraz with flavour and tannin ripeness and ferment with at least 50 per cent whole bunches,” she says. “The palate structure is influenced by the whole bunches but if there is ripeness in the rachis [the stem cluster that the grapes radiate from], then the tannin is still soft and generous. It leads to a lighter, elegant style of shiraz that when called syrah tells the consumer a bit about what to expect.”
That style definition is a guide for consumers, but the reality is those lines are very blurred now, and pleasingly so. Naturally, winemakers pursue styles, but the reality is that with shiraz planted so much more broadly now, from our hottest regions to our coldest, the expression of geology and climate play a major role in shaping a diverse landscape of wines. For Ponsford, he sees a kinship between his area of West Gippsland and France’s benchmark syrah region, the Northern Rhône.
“It’s an interesting thing; pinot noir in Baw Baw Shire makes really expressive, delicious wines, but they don’t look like Burgundy,” Ponsford says. “But syrah from Baw Baw Shire actually look like wines from the Northern Rhône. They have their own thing going on, but the Rhône is the reference point. The wines have lower alcohol than most Australian syrah, and the expression is completely different. The vineyard I farm straddles an interesting line between elegance and rusticity, often with red fruits and sometimes violet florals that are surrounded by savoury characters – smoked meat, earth, pepper, spice and forest floor.”
Ponsford’s Rhône analogy is an apt one, and one that is far removed from the broad brushstrokes take on Australian shiraz. While cool climate shiraz is hardly a new thing, the depth of expressions that is now on the market is quite dazzling, complementing warmer climate examples of both traditional and modern leanings to make a complex web that is a world away from what was seen as a decidedly Australian take on the grape. That variety is also being seen on a classic Australian style that, while it has a loyal following, is becoming somewhat forgotten by many of the newer guard of makers.
A sparkling makeover
As a sparkling winemaker, working with red grapes would normally be consigned to pinots noir and meunier, but Cuvée-Co’s Peta Baverstock also celebrates that most Australian sparkling: sparkling shiraz (or sparkling Burgundy, as it used to be known). “It was always a wine that I preferred to drink without the bubbles to be honest,” she says. “I saw so many made as an afterthought to the style. Either too oaky, too alcoholic, too sweet or bubbled-up old red wines.”
“A homogenised drinking scene is both boring and dismissive of the consumer's palate preferences.”
Aside from some great exemplars, sparkling red (not always shiraz, but often so) was often indeed a way of making faulted dry reds acceptable to consumers, with the wines often having issues such as brettanomyces (a spoilage yeast that can leave the wine stripped of fruit and smelling horsey). Once filtered and bottled with enough sugar, those wines found an audience, though one that has dwindled over the years.
“I had intentionally been making the style for quite a while – allocating the picking in the vineyard and maturing the red wines in old oak – for other brands and noticed the encouraging amount they were selling,” Baverstock says. “The old saying, ‘make wine that sells, not just what you want to drink’ was part of the manifest for my sparkling shiraz project. But why not have both and make a bright, juicy and smash-able fun wine that was still complex?”
To that end, Baverstock matures the current harvest’s wine in stainless steel only, then blends it with an older vintage that has been raised in oak, building complexity while leaning heavily on freshness. The fizz is also generated in tank, which she says further frames this brightness. “It hits the brief of a contemporary sparkling shiraz that I would want to drink, and the alcohol is in check too! The spice and blue fruit perfumes are lifted with the carbon dioxide and the cold temperature makes for a completely different drinking sensation, and it’s extremely slurp-able.”
Diversity is key
It is easy to pigeonhole Australian shiraz, but that boxing in of style is becoming increasingly dated, with the sheer diversity of wines becoming a much stronger argument for why shiraz is Australia’s most emblematic grape. “Syrah/shiraz will always have a place in the modern wine landscape,” Milhinch says. “As one of the world’s most widely planted varieties, its acts as a varietal showcase of terroir and winemaker vision – a vigneron’s hallmark.”
That’s a view shared by Harrison, who follows his own path, but emphasises that he’s a “huge fan” of a rich variety of styles. “A homogenised drinking scene is both boring and dismissive of the consumer’s palate preferences,” he says. “While I am drawn to the brighter, spicier, midweight syrah styles, I realise South Australian shiraz has historically lent more towards the bolder, boozier, brutish interpretations of the variety. I rarely indulge in the latter; however, I do understand its place on the world stage. Let’s show the world we can do both.”
2021 Harrison ‘Black Hound’ Syrah
Adelaide Hills, 13.1% ABV, $40
There’s a darkly tarry feel to this, but it’s in an elegant mould, with savoury expression of red and dark fruits, dried black cherries, black olive, spices like star anise and brown cardamom, a brush of dried woodsy herbs and a white pepper whole bunch accent. This is a mix of plushness and verve, the whole bunch feel giving it a pleasingly spicy edge, but there’s a silkiness to the fruit and ample flavour, with fine but chewy, pithy tannins closing out.
A distinctly smoky, herbal and spicy nose lifts across aromas of black cherries, dark forest berries, cured meats and ripe raspberries. There’s a dusting of white pepper, with that whole bunch note carrying to the palate, and those fruit notes persisting along a silky play of chewy tannins, with a malty, mineral character infusing the finish that runs long.
There’s a real step away from classic Australian sparkling shiraz in its emphasis on bright fresh fruit and great purity, with brambly forest berries, plums and dark spices to the fore. There’s a classic plump of sweetness, but it reads more richly textural than actually sweet, with an ultra-fine web of tannin providing savoury detail. The flavours run long, with some cola/sarsaparilla character adding further complexity through the finish.
Part of their ‘One Acre Project’, this comes off the lowest yielding vines on the Jones Ridge Vineyard. This is dark and brooding yet refined at the same time. Notes of dark plums and cherries, rugged wild herbs, star anise and brown cardamom greet the nose, with a compact feel at present, which will only unfurl with time. Notes of sarsaparilla chime in on the palate, with a svelte mix of fruit and oak tannins giving this a refined drive.
2021 Kenny Wine ‘Auburn’ Shiraz
Clare Valley, 13.5% ABV, $35
There’s intensity here, but there’s an equal pitch of elegance, with lifted floral notes and spices lilting over the dark wild forest berries, plums and tart black cherries. This sits just up from midweight with ample flavour, the accenting with sour fruit notes and spice lending this so much charm and sneaky complexity, pithy, grapey tannin providing pleasing chewiness through the finish.
This bristles with spice, wild dark berries and brooding mineral notes. It’s a savoury wine, with smoked meat notes, graphite, celery salt and tobacco interlacing with wild black cherries, tart blackberries and mulberries, a fine acid and tannin line suspending the fruit, which remains vibrant and intense but is wound into the spice and structure, with no obvious fruit sweetness intruding on a complex, sapid and savoury expression.
2021 Paxton ‘Queen of the Hive’ Shiraz Mataro
McLaren Vale, 14% ABV, $25
There’s a real sense of vibrancy, depth and poise here, with ripe blackberries, red forest berries, liquorice and brambly herbal notes sitting in a wine that scores high for friendly drinkability. There’s a supple mesh of silky fruit, ultra-fine tannins and crunchy acidity that make this compellingly slurpable, but there’s a bit more going on than that, with the darkly spicy characters and finely wrought texture having real presence.
With an earthy, ferrous feel, this feels like a distinct reflection of site, of rugged territory overlaying a splay of dark cherries, wild plums and tart blackberries accented with dark spices, like brown cardamom and star anise. This is bright, a tick up from midweight, but it’s marked by its savoury feel, sense of minerality and spicy depth, with the plushness of fruit knitting into the wine, rising up with fleshiness to support, but never tipping over.
The variety of sparkling styles is expanding, from those that are Champagne inspired, to prosecco, to quirky pét-nats, the choice has never been so great. The 2021 Top 50 features Cavedon, North Wine, Dirt Candy and Wines by Jean-Paul who are all pushing the boundaries of sparkling wine in this country. Tasting notes appear at the end of the article.
Today’s broad stylistic diversity of shiraz (or, syrah) in Australia is increasing at a rapid rate. The 2021 YGOW Awards Top 50 features Charlotte Dalton Wines, Minimum, White Gate Wine Co., The Stoke, Silent Noise, Weathercraft, Made by Monks, Dirt Candy and Wangolina, who are all championing new expressions of shiraz. Tasting notes appear at the end of the article.
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