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Syrah Around the Globe: Australia

Down Under's premier red grape needed time, and luck, to gain respect
Harvey Steiman
Posted: January 6, 2004
Oak plays a distinguishing role in several high-end wines made by Penfolds from South Australian Shiraz.
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Big, ripe and powerful, but ultimately seductive, Jim Barry Shiraz Clare Valley The Armagh 2000 (94, $100) offers rich plum, cherry, pepper and sweet leather flavors. The texture is velvety and the finish sails on and on. This profile is pretty much what the wine-drinking world expects from big-time Australian Shiraz. The flavors have a family resemblance to those of Northern Rhône Syrahs, but the accent is different.

Shiraz came to Australia in the 1830s, possibly in a collection of cuttings from European wine regions, though some historians insist that the original vines came from South Africa, which had an established wine industry decades before Australia. In any case, the grape became a mainstay for the production of Port but it also made the better-quality dry reds. When fortified wines like Port went out of fashion in the 1970s and consumer tastes turned to dry wines, the Australians madly planted Cabernet Sauvignon to meet the demand for dry reds.

The familiarity of Shiraz had bred contempt in Australia. Shiraz was listed among the unwanted varieties that the government actually paid growers not to grow in the 1980s. Thousands of acres were pulled out before Australia realized that the world had plenty of good Cabernet Sauvignon but needed more Syrah. Fortunately, enough of the old vines had survived to provide the backbone for a resurgence of Shiraz.

Today, Shiraz covers more than 100,000 acres and Australia excels with the variety, especially in the warm dry summers of Barossa, Clare and McLaren Vale in South Australia, whence most of the high-profile Shirazes come. The grape ripens beautifully there, cooled just enough by exposure to the Southern Ocean to keep the wines balanced.

One reason the wines are so rich and vivid is that unlike those in France and California, the vines in South Australia are planted on their own roots. Phylloxera has never been a problem in this region. In addition, the actual vines that make some prestige wines have been there for more than a century, as at Henschke's Hill of Grace Vineyard in Eden Valley, planted in the 1860s. One key vineyard for Penfolds Grange was planted in the 1890s, others in the early and mid-20th century.

But mostly, Australians just like to make these wines big and bold. They wait to pick until the grapes start to shrivel, concentrating sugars and flavors. A common technique is to finish fermenting the wines in barrel, which polishes the tannins to make plush textures. Australian winemakers also believe that this better integrates the oak flavors into the finished wine, as the wines stay in barrel for a year or longer.

Oak is a familiar flavor in Australian Shiraz, and until recently it was almost always American oak. The Aussies historically haven't imported barrels. They import wood, cure it longer, and cooper their own barrels from it. Recently, they have been using more French oak.

Oak plays a distinguishing role in several high-end wines made by Penfolds from South Australia Shiraz. Grange, arguably Australia's icon wine, has used American oak since Max Schubert made the first experimental vintage in 1951. The most recently released vintage, 1998 (99, $205), is powerful, exotic and aristocratic. Penfolds' RWT ages Barossa wine in a mixture of new and old French oak. The 2000 (95, $69) wears its subtle cherry, blackberry, chocolate, pepper and sweet spice flavors on a polished frame like a bespoke suit, letting them all play out elegantly on the well-buffed finish. The St. Henri uses old oak casks, which impart little flavor, putting the emphasis on the fruit. In the seamless 1999 (92, $39), intoxicating ripe blackberry, cherry, leather and pepper flavors swamp the finish, leaving one begging for another sip.

Some of Australia's most venerable Shiraz makers blend fruit from several regions to make an established house style. Penfolds does it for Grange and St. Henri; so does Hardys for its Eileen Hardy bottling. But most of the others narrow the parameters to achieve some regional character, often focusing on single vineyards. Henschke's Hill of Grace is from Eden Valley, a subregion of the Barossa Valley, which also yields Elderton Command, Barossa Valley Estate E&E Black Pepper and Torbreck Runrig. Jim Barry The Armagh and Leasingham Classic Clare are Clare Valley wines. McLaren Vale gives us d'Arenberg The Dead Arm and Rosemount Balmoral, as well as a raft of new contenders.

Those who prefer their Shiraz leaner in structure with flavors that can veer toward peppery and earthy -- in other words, more Rhône-like -- favor cooler climate bottlings. A swath of hilly regions north of Melbourne in Victoria cranks out the best of the less-obvious wines. Complexity is more difficult to achieve, but when the wines get it they're special. Jasper Hill (2001: 92, $75) and Taltarni (2000: 90, $17) are two examples that are still ripe in flavor, but have relatively high natural acidity.

Most regions, and most vineyards, do not pretend to make great wine, but do brew up oceans of appealing, reliable reds from Shiraz. These range from $6 quaffers such as Stonehaven's bright, juicy Shiraz South Eastern Australia (2001: 84, $6), with pleasant raspberry and cherry character, to look-what-I-found surprises such as Jim Barry's new The Lodge Hill (2001: 90, $14), dense, chewy, with licorice-scented blackberry and dark plum flavors reminiscent of much more expensive wines.

Most of these wines are 100 percent Shiraz. A few use a dash of Viognier, as in Côte-Rôtie. A wine called Shiraz can have up to 5 percent of something else blended into it. Anything more must be listed on the label. Blends of Shiraz with Cabernet Sauvignon are not unusual, often in roughly equal parts, usually in value-priced wines such as Rosemount Shiraz-Cabernet South Eastern Australia (2002: 86, $9) with a lively core of blackberry and currant fruit. At a higher price, Peter Lehmann blends Shiraz with Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot to make its deep, plush-textured Clancy's Barossa (2001: 91, $20), bursting with plum, blackberry, vanilla, white pepper and cream flavors.

Australian growers have seen drastic swings in yields in recent years, but the vintages likely to appear on retailers' shelves have delivered on quality. There are no bad vintages to steer clear of. Most of the currently available reds are from the 2000 and 2001 vintages, both of which were concentrated by low rainfall in the prime growing regions of South Australia and Victoria. Among previous vintages, 1996 and 1998 are the plums.

With their generous, fruit-centered style, Australian Shirazes make companionable dinner wines even when young, but cellaring presents no problem, either, especially among the higher- priced bottlings. The best wines develop extra flavors as they age, losing that sense of baby fat while keeping at least some of that intense fruit character. Wines from the 1960s still taste of fruit beneath layers of mature flavors -- decadent, spicy, earthy and more.

Connoisseurs in Australia worry that today's wines, many of them made in a plusher style than those now decades-old classics, may age less gracefully. But those who love the heady, fleshy opulence of these newer wines are filling their cellars with them. The smart consumers are those who take advantage of Shiraz's dual ability to deliver early appeal and to develop with age; they drink some of their bottles young and try to keep their hands off the rest. Not a bad plan.

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