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Syrah or Shiraz?
– 2021 Top 50 Winemakers Feature

Wines Of Now
22 May 2021. Words by YGOW.

It’s easy to generalise about Australian shiraz, to lump it all together as one – rich, powerful and often alcoholic wines. And while intense styles from McLaren Vale and the Barossa Valley are indeed the touchstones for so many people, it’s never been that simple. From the elegant reds of the Hunter Valley to the cool climate classics from Victoria, Australian shiraz is far from one-dimensional. Today’s broad stylistic diversity underlines that, and the depth of expressions from our most planted grape is increasing at a rapid rate. The 2021 Top 50 features Charlotte Hardy (Charlotte Dalton Wines), Matt Purbrick (Minimum), Chad Connolly (White Gate Wine Co.), Bec and Nick Dugmore (The Stoke), Charlie O’Brien (Silent Noise), Raquel Jones (Weathercraft), Luke Monks (Made by Monks), Daniel Payne (Dirt Candy) and Anita Goode (Wangolina), who are all championing new expressions of shiraz.

(Tasting notes appear at the end of the article.)

“I grew up drinking typical Australian shiraz, and very good ones at that. But about 15 years ago, I visited its homeland, the Rhône, only to be blown away by styles so delicate that they couldn't be further from what I'd grown up drinking. This really shifted my perception not just about shiraz, but about winemaking in general, and exploring new ways to transform familiar grapes became a new goal.”

There is no grape that says Australian wine quite like shiraz. Even that name for the grape is a uniquely Australian affectation. That name is thought to have been adopted by James Busby (which he spelt “scyras” at the time) when he imported syrah from the Northern Rhône in the 1830s, where the vines were thought to have originally come from Persia, and more specifically near the ancient city of Shiraz, which boasted over 7,000 years of winemaking history before the founding of the Islamic Republic put a handbrake on that industry.

Fast forward, shiraz is grown almost everywhere in this country, excepting the coldest fringes of our coldest regions, but there are compelling wines coming from the Adelaide Hills, Tasmania’s south and at elevation in the chilly regions of Orange and Macedon. It is a versatile, adaptable grape in this regard, with it producing a vast array of expressions reflecting climate and site in the glass.

That diversity of expression has seen some makers of more elegant styles drop shiraz from their labels, instead adopting syrah, the universal varietal name. That was a statement of intent, of style: syrah meant more fragrant midweight wines (in the mould of France), while shiraz stood for inky (uniquely Australian) power. That was meant as a helpful clue for consumers, like pinot grigio means bright and fresh, while pinot gris stands for ripe and textural. However, whether syrah/shiraz or gris/grigio, the reality is that the diversity of styles on the shelves has made those distinctions look decidedly inadequate.

Opposite: Shiraz on vines planted in 1860 at Tahbilk (Nagambie, Victoria). Above: Chad Connolly of White Gate Wine Co. (Barossa, South Australia) is one of many makers using a traditional basket press, because it is a gentler way to press the grapes.

“I love working with shiraz in Australia,” says Charlotte Hardy of Charlotte Dalton Wines. “It was one of the things I was most excited about when I moved from New Zealand 14 years ago. From where I sit, it seems to do well in most, if not all, regions.”

Hardy now makes three iterations of the grape, two from the Adelaide Hills and one from Kangaroo Island. “I work with a few different clones from the Adelaide Hills,” she says, “and they all have completely different attributes; they express themselves differently, and they vary in terms of their robustness out in the field. Shiraz from the Hills is so elegant, but it can be very restrained, or it can also really soak up oak or be expressive in terms of primary berry flavours.”

Making two versions under her Charlotte Dalton label, Hardy takes one out of oak (a third of which is ‘new’ oak barrels) after only seven months, while the other sees three-quarters new French oak and spends a year and a half in barrel. “The first wine is all about raspberry and jube and fullness but still with lovely tannin to bind it together. The other is just so luxurious. The oak integrates so well, and the fruit still shines but it is all packaged up. Every time I bottle these two wines I am in awe of the variety for the differences.”

“For me, fruit that has made its way up to 15–17 per cent potential alcohol – where some in the region pick – just loses its zest, tastes overly pruney and jammy and typically requires large acid and water additions to bring the alcohol and pH into their desired level.”

The third shiraz is for Bec and Nick Dugmore’s Guroo project, which matches a top maker’s specialty with Kangaroo Island fruit for three vintages. “KI shiraz is an absolute treat,” says Hardy. “I am from Hawkes Bay, and there is shiraz grown on limestone there. KI’s False Cape Vineyard has a fair whack of limestone in the soil, and it leads to very unique wines. Limestone is fascinating. Without nerding out too much, it is made of decomposed fish and sea matter. It has high pH, can promote photosynthesis and generally the wines made from it have succulent high acidity. Give me acid every single day.”

Hardy says that the aromas from the fruit in the winery transport her back 20 years to her first vintages in Hawke’s Bay, while the natural acid retention meshes with her lo-fi approach, with sulphur at bottling the only addition she ever makes. That fruit is sourced by Nick Dugmore, who is a big believer in shiraz from the island – hence the Guroo project, to build the island’s profile as a wine region – with his syrah under The Stoke label subtitled, somewhat helpfully, ‘French for Shiraz’.

“On Kangaroo Island, the physiological ripening occurs early in the season,” says Dugmore, “which allows us to pick early without getting too much harsh awkward tannin, and the flavour development early in the season leads to delicate wines that also have power, structure and age-ability.” Utilising various ferment methods, including whole bunch and fermenting grapes as whole berries to capture pure fruit notes, he builds a wine that he believes “caters for the younger market who can’t afford a wine cabinet, but also satisfies the more serious oldies who love a trip under the kitchen floor.”

Opposite: Charlotte Hardy of Charlotte Dalton Wines. Above: Nick and Rebecca Dugmore of The Stoke.

In the Barossa Valley, Chad Connolly was never going to make old-school regional styles under his White Gate Wine Co. label. “Shiraz has certainly risen to fame with those big, bold and jammy models, which has been great for the region and put the Barossa on a worldwide map,” he says. “But how we approach shiraz is quite different. I personally don’t drink many wines with overly ripe characteristics, so it doesn’t make sense to pick fruit that has those flavours. We’re seeing a shift to more fruit-driven, lighter red styles all over Australia, and I like the style of European wines from Beaujolais, Burgundy etc.”

For Connolly, while his winemaking methods line up with a modern take on the grape, it is in the vineyard that the style is born. “I taste the fruit, watch acid levels and wait until it tastes balanced,” he says. “It’s like biting into a ripe apple, you have fruit that tastes exciting, has a little bit of crunch there from some acid, has balanced fruit concentration, so for our harvests, the acid levels are all typically in tune.”

Picking both early and a bit later is also key to the White Gate style. “This gives us the ability to produce our wines without adding acid, without adding water, and in tune with our style of more elegant, soft examples,” says Connolly. “For me, fruit that has made its way up to 15–17 per cent potential alcohol – where some in the region pick – just loses its zest, tastes overly pruney and jammy and typically requires large acid and water additions to bring the alcohol and pH into their desired level.”

That practice of adding water was once routine in the region, though it is not officially sanctioned. Nicknamed the “black snake” (aka a hose), it was a means of pulling back the potential alcohol of very ripe fruit, not just to reduce the alcohol content, but also to be able to complete the fermentation, as yeast will perish at high alcohol, leaving residual sugar in the wine. That process was borne out of the desire to capture those hyper-ripe flavours, but also in the belief that the tannins in the skins, seeds and stalks weren’t ripe until the fruit was overripe. Essentially, the view was that shiraz, especially in McLaren Vale and the Barossa wasn’t ripe until it was overripe.

Chad Connolly of White Gate Wine Co. “How we approach shiraz is quite different. I personally don't drink many wines with overly ripe characteristics, so it doesn’t make sense to pick fruit that has those flavours. We're seeing a shift to more fruit-driven, lighter red styles all over Australia, and I like the style of European wines from Beaujolais, Burgundy etc.”
Charlie O'Brien starts his pursuit of lighter, balanced, expressions of shiraz in the vineyard. “The wires are lifted up exposing all the fruit to the sun, which is needed to harden the stalks because of the 75 per cent whole-bunch component of the wine,” he says.

For makers like Connolly and Charlie O’Brien of Silent Noise, in McLaren Vale, the solution is in the vineyard, not the winery. Like an increasing number of producers, this means transitioning to organic practices, which typically create a more complete system, hence better balance in the vines and the fruit. O’Brien also adjusts his management of the vine canopy based on wine style.

“The wires are lifted up exposing all the fruit to the sun, which is needed to harden the stalks because of the 75 per cent whole-bunch component of the wine,” he says. This hardening and drying of the stalks means that when fermented with the fruit they add spice and complexity to the tannin profile, while not adding a pungent green character. It’s an example of today’s holistic approach, with the viticulture allied neatly with the winemaking.

This ability to use whole bunches adds to the detail and depth, with other traditional and gentle methods used to ensure complexity and freshness. “We certainly change our approach to tending to syrah in the winery,” says Connolly. “We hand pick, hand plunge in small fermenters with wild yeasts. We use a lot of whole bunch, season dependent, basket press to older French hogsheads and bottle relatively early. We have also started playing with ferment temperatures and their effect on extraction to build more layered wines. All these processes provide great balance and structure but at lower alcohols and with acid levels that are naturally balanced.”

Above and opposite: Matt Purbrick. “In the heat of the Goulburn Valley, there is little chance we'll ever make such delicate wines as I tried in the Rhône,” he says. “But by picking a little earlier, and by working the ferments somewhat like our rosés, with only partial skins contact, or by playing with blends of skins-on batches, with juice-only batches, or a little oxidation, along with keeping things slow during fermentation and steering clear of new wood, we are getting an awesome range of styles out of the one block of grapes.”

That rethinking of processes and possibilities isn’t just a South Australian thing, either, with the perception of what shiraz should be almost as firmly impressed on the Victorian wine drinker’s psyche, even if a late 20th century cool climate focus generated a lot more variety than was generally tolerated by Barossa acolytes.

It took Matt Purbrick a while to start seriously making it himself, but it’s fair to say he was schooled in wine from an early age, with his family the custodians of some of the country’s oldest shiraz vines, the original 1860s planting at Tahbilk. After having made wines in an ultra-lo-fi way for some years, though not commercially, he started Minimum Wines. His approach is a different one to what he was brought up with, though, feeling unburdened by both history and expectation.

“I grew up drinking typical Australian shiraz, and very good ones at that,” says Purbrick. “But about 15 years ago, I visited its homeland, the Rhône, only to be blown away by styles so delicate that they couldn’t be further from what I’d grown up drinking. This really shifted my perception not just about shiraz, but about winemaking in general, and exploring new ways to transform familiar grapes became a new goal.”

Purbrick stresses that the family vineyard he works, which he has converted to organics (certified), is a far cry from the Northern Rhône. “In the heat of the Goulburn Valley, there is little chance we’ll ever make such delicate wines as I tried in the Rhône,” he says. “But by picking a little earlier, and by working the ferments somewhat like our rosés, with only partial skins contact, or by playing with blends of skins-on batches, with juice-only batches, or a little oxidation, along with keeping things slow during fermentation and steering clear of new wood, we are getting an awesome range of styles out of the one block of grapes.”

That exploration sees wines made in a variety of styles, calibrated up the system from pale rosé to a richer one that has a foot in the rosé camp and another the light red camp, as well as a fuller red. “Syrah brings the bright blackcurrant minerality to our main range rosé,” says Purbrick. “In the middle, our ‘Alt’ rosé is all strawberry jam, and at the red end of the spectrum we see the familiar juicy blackberry and raspberry richness I grew up knowing. Syrah/shiraz is definitely not a one-trick pony for us.”

That openness to expressing the grape in different ways is representative of a new wave of makers looking to push the boundaries and find new expressions as much as it is a reflection on just how adaptable and versatile the grape can be.

“There are a lot of people enjoying big examples,” says Connolly, “and there are many shifting to lighter examples. It’s exciting to increase awareness that this variety can do much more than sit in the cellar for 15 years before you can enjoy it. Shiraz is an extremely versatile variety, with different regions throughout Australia making quality shiraz/syrah… cool climate examples, warmer climate examples, and all individual to their region and style. It’s exciting for us to help showcase how diverse the variety from our region can be.”

The Wines

Photo by James Morgan

2020 Minimum Short Runs Syrah ‘Alt’ Rosé $32

The colour is certainly dialled up from classic rosé, with the nose turned up in flavour from classic rosé, too. Aromas of ripe red forest berries, macerated strawberries, cranberry and some wild herbs, with a gentle dusting of spice. This leans on the textured side, with a generous sweep of red fruits across the palate that is pulled in with a very fine fan of grapey grip.

See Minimum’s website for purchase enquiries.

2019 Made by Monks Tasmania Syrah Semillon $32

Well clear of rosé in colour, but certainly heading in that direction, with a luminous raspberry hue. The nose is packed with sour wild berries, raspberry, cranberry and redcurrants with bramble and bracken notes, walking a fine and cool ripeness line. Superfine and gentle tannins team up with vibrant acidity to give this real line and freshness. This is served well with a chill.

2020 Silent Noise ‘FO’ McLaren Vale Shiraz $35

This is ultra-bright and buoyant with red forest berries, strawberries and red cherries, some twiggy spicy notes and a pop of cherry and vanilla cola, brown spices adding complexity. Bright and silky in the mouth with supple fruit and fine tannins which end with a pithy grip of grape-stem tannin and a gently sour-fruited twist to close.

See Kangarilla Road’s website for purchase enquiries.

2020 White Gate Wine Co. Barossa Valley Syrah $32

Notes of spiced plum, turned earth, macerated black cherries and a dusting of dark cocoa with a pleasing smoky whisper. There’s ample flavour here, but it’s not overt or jammy in any way, with a suggestion of whole bunch spice adding savoury accents, with some sour cherry notes, too. Midweight, with supple tannins, a ferrous mineral note adding complexity, this has depth and verve in near-equal measure.

See White Gate’s website for purchase enquiries.

2020 White Gate Wine Co. Barossa Valley Cabernet Syrah $32

Equal parts cabernet sauvignon and shiraz, this sits on the bright and vibrant side of the ledger, but there’s no overt leafy coolness from the cabernet, rather the nose is a tangle of ripe forest berries, cherries, bracken and brambly herbs. There’s a pleasing generosity of flavour without being broad, and the palate is marked by vibrant acidity and fine-grained tannins carrying the flavours long, with a lingering sour cherry/berry note underlining the freshness.

See White Gate’s website for purchase enquiries.

2019 Weathercraft Beechworth Shiraz $38

This sits in the midweight camp, while being packed with detail and flavour, red and dark forest berries, dusky plums, warm spices, woodsy herbs and crushed autumn leaves, with a ferrous mineral note carrying through the finish. This has fine but grippy tannins, which lean on grape extract rather than oak influence.

See Weathercraft’s website for purchase enquiries.

2019 Dirt Candy ‘The Wild One’ Hunter Valley Shiraz Cabernet $30

There’s a distinct trademark Hunter Valley character here, a territorial growl of kicked earth and leather accenting the dark plum and berry notes, with dried herbs and some sour red fruits lifting through. There’s plenty of tannin here, with acidity providing a spine of freshness to a wine that walks a fruitful but generally savoury line.

See the Dirt Candy website for purchase enquiries.

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

There’s an exuberant brightness to this, with macerated forest berries and sour cherries to the fore, but there’s a serious lacing of spice and herb notes adding a high level of complexity. That blend of brightness and detail carries on the palate, with those wild sour fruit notes matched with a sweet-fruited glide, a charming prickle of acidity enlivening through a silky palate of fine but chewy tannins.

See The Stoke’s website for purchase enquiries.

2018 Wangolina ‘Spectrum’ Mount Benson Syrah $32

Ripe red and black berries, dark plum skin and dusty spice notes, with star anise, brown cardamom and savoury oak flourishes, leather and coffee grounds dusting the fruit. The palate has a richness to it tempered by a graphite mineral note, with firm tannins taking control of the palate, leaving a distinctly savoury impression.

See Wangolina’s website for purchase enquiries.

2019 Guroo Charlotte Dalton Kangaroo Island Shiraz $50

This sees half whole bunch, half not, with a blend of vibrant fruits, wild herbs and spice – a distinctly savoury dimension with a smoky whole bunch note set against a flurry of damson plum, black cherries, gingery spice and forest berries. There’s so much flavour but such a bright pep of fine grapey tannin and super-fresh but perfectly pitched acidity, leaving the palate vibrant but flushed with flavour.

See Charlotte Dalton’s website for purchase enquiries.