Julie Harrison - Australian Shiraz

Publish Date
Thursday, 8 September 2016, 2:26PM
By Julie Harrison

Shiraz and Syrah are the same variety but it is probably a good thing the Australians decided to give it another name  as it expresses itself very differently in the hot Australian climate compared to cooler  regions.   It seems unlikely that the grape had its origins in Shiraz, Iran with genetic evidence pointing to it being the progeny of two now rare grape varieties Dureza and Mondeuse Blanche with its birthplace probably being the Northern Rhone region of France.   

Shiraz was first brought to Australia in the early 1800’s and after initially being planted in Sydney was first planted commercially in the Hunter Valley by George Wyndham, making its way to South Australia by 1839.   Until recently it could also be called Hermitage but that stopped in the 80’s as Hermitage is a famous area in France’s Rhone Valley.   Arguably the most famous Australian Shiraz is Penfolds Grange.  Grange was first made by Max Schubert in 1951 and despite not being well received initially soon became the iconic wine it is today.   Schubert took his inspiration from the great wines of Bordeaux that are designed to be of exceptional quality with great aging potential.  Grange is made from grapes sourced from around South Australia including McLaren Vale, the Barossa, Clare Valley and Magill Estate.  The ability to source grapes from a wide region ensures consistency of quality.  Often fruit comes from the very old, low yielding, dry grown Shiraz found in the famous Penfolds vineyards, Kalimna,  Koonunga Hill and Magill Estate.  South Australia missed out on the devastating phylloxera outbreak in the late 1800’s which means it has some of the oldest commercial vineyards in the world. An incredible amount of work goes into identification of high quality parcels of fruit for Grange from both company and grower vineyards; selected parcels being treated with kid gloves from the vineyard and throughout the wine making process.  

Unfortunately we can’t all afford to drink Grange or other famous Shiraz like Henschke Hill of Grace on a regular basis.  Barossa Shiraz does have a reputation of being one dimensional, overly alcoholic, extracted and jammy but good producers make wines that are more sophisticated and complex.  The warm climate of the Barossa results in grapes that are not only “sugar ripe” but also  “phenolically ripe”, which means the tannins have gone from being bitter and herbaceous to supple and round.  The result is velvety, full bodied, rich wines with plum, fruitcake, dark chocolate and anise characters, often with vanilla from being aged in American Oak.  They are usually very alcoholic; frequently upwards of 15% and have good aging potential.  Wines from the neighbouring, slightly cooler Eden Valley tend to be more savoury with aromas of  liquorice, cloves and blackberry.  They are more structured with firmer tannins and higher natural acidity the most famous example being Henschke Hill of Grace.

The more maritime climate of McLaren Vale just south of Adelaide produces wines that are not quite as full bodied as Barossa wines but are still high in alcohol with flavours of red fruit, plums and chocolate sometimes with a slight tanginess.  Three hours to the north of Adelaide lies the Clare valley where Shiraz responds to cooler nights by producing wines with a finer, more acidic structure, with aromas of prunes, chocolate and black olives.  The Limestone Coast region of South Australia; roughly 3 hours south of Adelaide is (with the exception of well established Coonawarra) a relatively new area.   Nutrient rich soil over water retaining limestone is great for growing grapes in the dry Australian climate.  The slightly cooler maritime climate means there is a longer ripening period resulting in good value medium to full bodied Shiraz wines with blackberry, violet, spice and chocolate characters.

The cooler climate Yarra Valley just outside of Melbourne produces spicy, lighter bodied Shiraz, more peppery and  floral than South Australian Shiraz.   The slightly warmer Heathcote, Bendigo and Nagambie Lakes regions of Victoria produce full bodied wines with more savoury flavours.  Hunter Valley Shiraz from New South Wales is usually less alcoholic than their South Australian counterparts. They are more spicy and leathery  and as this region does not have the guaranteed dry climate of South Australia  quality can vary between vintages.  In the past these wines have had a history of contamination by the Brettanomyces yeast which gave them a sweaty saddle character.   Fortunately improved wine making techniques have largely eliminated this.  Less expensive, bulk produced Shiraz comes from the irrigated regions of The Riverland,  Riverina and Murray/Darling centred around Australia’s Murray River and its tributaries. Shiraz from here is medium bodied with berry fruit characters and is designed to be consumed young.

Shiraz may of course be part of a blend the most famous being the GSM blend which, in Australia stands for Grenache/Shiraz/Mataro otherwise known as Grenache/Syrah/Mourvedre in other parts of the world.  Grange has an addition of up to 8% Cabernet Sauvignon and a small amount of the white Viognier may also be co-fermented with Shiraz; the aim being to “brighten” the wine and add a hint of floral character. 

Good Australian Shiraz is a perfect winter wine or look out for Sparkling Shiraz which is fantastic match for the Christmas turkey. Just remember it is very high in alcohol which you need to take into consideration if you are driving.

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