You don't hear much in the United States about Shiraz from Victoria. Maybe that's because much of it doesn't fit the mold of ripe, jammy reds many Americans expect from Australia. But Australians themselves have a long-standing fondness for the crisp textures, lively fruit flavors and food-friendly styles that come from the best Victorian vineyards and wineries.
Victoria is the state at the southern end of the Australian continent, and therefore a legitimately cool climate. The mountains actually get snow. Only Tasmania, an Australian island, is closer to the South Pole.
My relationship with Victorian reds can best be described as "love-hate." In this cool climate, reds such as Shiraz and Cabernet can taste acidic and harsh, or just plain funky. Some Aussie connoisseurs go nuts for the likes of Tahbilk (Goulburn Valley), which has some of the oldest Shiraz vines anywhere, dating from 1860, or Mount Mary (Yarra Valley), which specializes in Bordeaux varieties. I find their reds weird.
On the plus side, some of Australia's most promising Pinot Noirs come from Victoria. And many wineries succeed with Shiraz. Jasper Hill, Passing Clouds, Whistling Eagle, Balgownie, Taltarni and Mitchelton often hit the 90-point mark with distinctive wines. Two Hands, until recently known for its South Australian reds, has a new bottling from Heathcote. Mount Langi Ghiran, under the new ownership of Yering Station (which itself makes a wonderful Shiraz-Viognier in Yarra Valley), is improving again after a late-1990s slump.
But the real eye-opener for me is what's happening at Green Point, the Yarra Valley winery known in Australia as Domaine Chandon. The French Champagne company makes sparklers there, as it does in California, but if the Green Point Shiraz Victoria 2002 (93, $18) I tasted recently is any indication, Green Point will also be a factor for table wines. The wine is bright, juicy and lively, melding blackberry, huckleberry, white pepper and a refined floral character beautifully through the finish. It has a tremendous aftertaste that just doesn't quit.
Chandon/Green Point has been bottling a Shiraz for several years, but the grapes were from McLaren Vale in South Australia, not Victoria. "There's a proliferation of McLaren Vale Shiraz on the market," says winemaker James Cooper. "It was an OK wine, but not a standout. We're a Victorian winery, so we looked at how we could make a splash with Shiraz from our own neighborhood."
Most of the juice is from Yarra Valley, thought of as too cold to get Shiraz ideally ripe. Green Point's vineyard ripens two weeks earlier than the rest of the valley, however, and these grapes provide the pepper and spice notes that make the wine distinctive. Grapes from Heathcote (home to Jasper Hill) provide backbone and silky tannins; fruit from Bendigo (home to Passing Clouds) adds hints of mint.
"We understand Yarra Valley much better than we did even 10 years ago," says Cooper. "We can identify the sub-regions for Shiraz and Cabernet. We put the vines in the ground when I started here in 1995, and this is the result."
Green Point Shiraz Reserve 2002 (86, $25) is not nearly as good as the regular bottling, showing more herb and mint flavor than fruit. Cooper winces, then notes, "Yeah, the 2002 isn't what we want it to be. We lowered the yields in 2003 to 2.2 tons [from 4]. You'll see a big difference."
Most American wine drinkers know Shiraz as an easy-drinking red in low-priced bottlings that carry a Southeastern Australia appellation. Many of these rely on high-yield grapes from the Riverlands and other hot inland regions. Big-name, high-price Shiraz is usually a hefty red wine with ultraripe flavors from South Australia -- Barossa and McLaren Vale, mostly.
But now the picture is becoming more complex. Notes Cooper, "When you ask Americans if they like Australian Shiraz, they say, 'yeah, I like it.' But if you ask them if they like California Chardonnay, they say, 'well, that depends on the style and where it's from.' It will take a while, but we're getting to that point with Shiraz."
If you're curious, try one of these other examples of Victorian Shiraz I've tasted and liked recently: Two Hands Heathcote Max's Garden 2002 (92, $55), Mitchelton Central Victoria Print 1999 (91, $38), Mount Langi Ghiran Victoria Cliff Edge 2001 (90, $25), Tyrrells Heathcote Rufus Stone 2002 (90, $25). Any one of them should sing crisply and harmonize with your holiday roast.