Australia’s key white and red varietals have come a long way over the past 10 years, with some very definite differences from one region to the next. Chris Losh sits in and watches as a team of sommeliers learn to tell their McLaren Vale from their Barossa Valley
With the Chardonnay masterclass having provided impressive quality and good examples of regionality, our team of eager tasters moved onto their second task: to get to grips with Shiraz, examining its performance in two key regions.
Shiraz, of course, is Australia’s signature red grape. It’s taken to the hot, dry climate down under with the sort of relish normally seen only by Australian batsmen as they get stuck into an anaemic English bowling attack. The big, hedonistic wines mean that ‘Aussie Shiraz’ has rapidly become a classic wine style.
But what, actually, is Aussie Shiraz? Indeed, is it even fair to use such a generalised term, given that so many different parts of the country produce it? Purists would, for instance, be horrified to talk glibly of ‘Rhône Syrah’, given the differences between Côte-Rôtie, Crozes-Hermitage et al, so surely Australia deserves similar respect?
As with the Chardonnay workshop, Walter Speller took our assembled corkscrew jockeys through the wines of two key regions, giving them the theory then allowing them to taste it in the glass.
It’s Australia’s red grape par excellence – beloved by trade and consumers alike.
But does Australian Shiraz have the regional differences of its European counterparts? Our group of sommeliers are about to find out…
McLaren Vale is one of Australia’s oldest wine regions, planted in the 1830s, and site of the first vineyard of a certain Thomas Hardy, who gave his surname to a not-insignificant wine brand. In spite of this, the region itself is mostly home to lots of small wineries.
It gets hot here during the day – 30-34°C – and it’s fairly low-lying (50-200m), so altitude doesn’t really provide any mitigating influence. Instead, producers use the hills themselves to find different exposures (south-facing, for instance, is much cooler) and canopy management to shade the grapes.
There is a wide variety of soil types, but they are nearly all poor and thin, restricting vigour.
Put all of these factors together and it’s no surprise that the type of wines produced have a real intensity of flavour and ripeness. The wines have strong flavours of mint, raspberry and prunes, rather than spicy, leathery notes that are usually regarded as Rhône flavours. With so much density and concentration to begin with, the juice is able to tolerate a fair bit of new oak, and the finest examples can benefit from prolonged bottle ageing.
The sommeliers were impressed with the three examples they were shown, and there was some debate about the favourite, with the Pertaringa just shading it.
‘It was the standout for me,’ said Barry McCaughley of Wineaux. ‘I really loved the deep fruit character, with the cassis and currant leaves.’
The Barossa is one of Australia’s biggest producing regions with a high proportion of South Australian fruit being vinified in the region. The Barossa Valley itself is home to a strong grower community, providing grapes for some of the country’s flagship red wines.
The region’s history is interesting; settled by Silesians in the 19th century, it retains a distinctly Germanic feel, with bratwurst and schnitzel sitting comfortably alongside ancient twisted Shiraz vines. Because that’s another key to this region: old bush vines that give tiny quantities of concentrated juice.
Shiraz in this region is defiantly full bodied, dark, rich and hedonistic, with swirling aromas of fruitcake, plums and chocolate, carried in abvs that are at the upper end of the table-wine spectrum. Fourteen percent would be decidedly girly for a Barossa Shiraz; 15% is the norm.
But, as Speller points out: ‘Talking about alcohol in isolation is unfocused. You wouldn’t want a Mosel Riesling at 14%, and you wouldn’t want a Barossa Shiraz at 11%.’
The best Barossa Shirazes, he pointed out, carry their higher alcohol levels effortlessly. Rich and pokey they may be, but the tannins should be fine, soft and persistent, and a balancing acidity can make all the difference.
The three wines selected, again, met with the approval of the tasters. ‘My favourite was the John Duval 06,’ said Luigi Buonanno of Etrusca Restaurants. ‘It really showed the Barossa style for me: it had power but also elegance, great fruit and ripe tannins.’
There was less American oak than our tasters had been expecting, and the fruit was fresher and less stewed as well. Acidity, too, was noticeable and, interestingly, reckoned all to be natural.
‘The Australian wines I’m trying now are very different from five years ago. The vineyards are working better, and the winemaking is more sensitive.’
‘The UK is ready for the idea of Australia as a series of wine regions. No one would question a wine list with three different Rhône reds on it – and Australia is the size of Europe! I’m especially keen on Aussie Shiraz. They are very well understood.’
‘Today was a refreshing change – to realise that there really is complexity, and, in the best wines, delicacy too in the country’s Shirazes. It’s about whether the winemakers value balance, and want to let the vineyards speak.’
‘This has been a really beneficial day – to be able to pick out all the different regional characters and make unexpected connections.’
As with the Chardonnays, so too with Shiraz. Wine Australia pulled in 20-plus Shirazes from Barossa, Heathcote and McLaren Vale and set the sommeliers loose to try them.
The wines were tasted blind and scored out of 20, marked for personality, food-friendliness, versatility and value for money, with the final results being extrapolated into a score out of 100.
Again, food was on offer, prepared by Brett Graham at The Ledbury: rump of Wagyu beef on toast and venison and juniper sausages. And we asked the tasters to find their top wine matches.
84 St Hallett Blackwell Shiraz 2006, Barossa Valley
Cassis fruit, violets and pepper, it was the winsome floral note, hints of gaminess and the overall elegance of structure that saw this wine take the top spot. ‘Nice contrast between the gritty tannins and soft fruit,’ said Kelvin McCabe.
£13.06, Bibendum, 020 7722 5577
83 Glaetzer Bishop Shiraz 2007, Barossa Valley
A lot of praise for this wine’s potential, with tasters enjoying its meaty, white-pepper viscosity and concentrated black fruits. But pretty much everyone realised that it was being drunk 10 to 15 years too young. ‘Great minerality, but it needs ageing,’ said Laurent Chaniac.
£15.75, Great Western Wines, 01225 322800
83 Jacob’s Creek Centenary Hill Shiraz 2004, Barossa Valley
Eucalyptus notes and soft black fruits won over the tasters, who were attracted to the softness of flavours wrapped around a grittier, more mineral core. ‘Well structured, and good length,’ said Nicola Thomson.
£15, Pernod Ricard UK, 020 8538 4539
82 Haan Prestige Shiraz 2005, Barossa Valley
Likened by Alain Lee to a rugby player for the way in which it blended power and grace, this spicy plum, cardamom and cassis wine needs food, but has plenty of oomph. ‘Light, yet meaty. A fine construction,’ praised wine consultant Jim Carey.
£17.06, Hallgarten Druitt, 01582 722 538
81 Turkey Flat Shiraz 2006, Barossa Valley
Smooth, sweet raspberry fruits, with plenty of crowd-pleasing qualities and a delicate, violet freshness on the finish. ‘Quintessential Barossa elegance,’ said Laurent Chaniac.
£13.98, Mentzendorff, 020 7840 3613
78 Elderton Shiraz 2005, Barossa Valley
Slightly medicinal blueberry fruit (‘refreshing for a red’, as one taster put it) with integrated tannins. ‘Concentrated, delicate and balanced,’ said Kelvin McCabe of Roka.
£11.25, Fields, Morris & Verdin, 020 7819 0360
74 Peter Lehmann The Futures Shiraz 2006, Barossa Valley
Chocolate cherries and fruitcake. A mid-sized wine, rather than a huge one, with rounded tannins.
£8.70, Enotria, 020 8961 4411
73 D’Arenberg Love Grass Shiraz 2006, McLaren Vale
A savoury, herbaceous character in here, along with chocolate and black pepper. Attractive grainy tannins mean that this dark-fruited wine needs food.
£9.05, Bibendum, 020 7722 5577
70 Chapel Hill Shiraz 2006, McLaren Vale
Good black fruits on both the nose and the palate, with attractive freshness and well-integrated tannins. ‘Be good with a piece of Angus rib,’ mused Alain Lee.
£9.73, Berkmann, 020 7670 0964
70 Saltram Mamre Brook Shiraz 2005, Barossa Valley
Juicy dark fruits and chocolate, this wine was picked out by several tasters as excellent value for money, praising its ‘gluggability’ and ‘barbecue-friendly’ nature.
£6.84, Fosters EMEA, 020 8843 8418
68 Kay Brothers Amery Shiraz 2005, McLaren Vale
Pine, mint, vanilla and cassis. Sweet red fruit with a chocolatey edge, very slightly let down by the alcohol on the finish.
£10.92, Cult and Boutique Wines, 020 8948 9433
68 Greenstone Shiraz 2006, Heathcote
Gaminess on the nose, with briars, berry fruits and good tannin/acid balance. ‘Quite delicious,’ said Alain Lee.
£10.28, Liberty Wines, 020 7720 5350
67 Penny’s Hill Shiraz 2007, McLaren Vale
Cinnamon spice, pine, black cherries and eucalyptus. ‘Well structured,’ said Jim Carey.
£11.79, Hallgarten Druitt, 01582 722 538
66 Gemtree Uncut Shiraz 2007, McLaren Vale
Minty black fruits and sweet spices. Juicy and floral.
£9.96, New Generation Wines, 01444 248 654
62 Tyrrell’s Rufus Stone Shiraz 2007, Heathcote
Eucalyptus and liquorice. Confit of blueberries.
£8.02, Fells, 01442 289 346
BEST FOOD WINE
Turkey Flat Shiraz 2006, Barossa Valley
Saltram Mamre Brook Shiraz 2005, Barossa Valley.
‘Shiraz with beef and venison is a great match – a classic. Though something that’s not too tarry and eucalyptal can work with Peking duck. You need dark-berry fruit and a touch of chocolate.’
‘There were clear regional differences in the Shiraz, especially in the Barossa. The wines were big and full – perfect for both the Wagyu beef and the venison.’
‘The flight of Shiraz went from medicinal red fruit through to darker fruits. My favourites were the freshest ones – you’re not tied to having to serve them with dark meat. The McLaren Vale wines were very consistent, and a great match with the venison sausages.’
‘In this flight, I generally preferred the Barossa wines. They seemed to have more cohesion than some of the other regions. The higher alcohols helped with the Wagyu beef, too. You need a bit of that to cut through the fat.’
‘Of course, to see regionality, you need to move up to a certain price point, like you would anywhere. But it’s there. We are moving away from big, bold, oaky wines – there’s a lot more balance and minerality. We list all our Australian reds by sub-region now.’
| FOOD AND WINE MATCHING TIPS
from Ledbury chef Brett Graham
|With firmer tannin and peppery flavour, Shiraz is an ideal match to succulent, Australian Wagyu beef. Indulging my own interest in game, the douglas fir and juniper in the venison sausage play well to the eucalyptus aromatic and vibrant fruit of the grape.|
| OFFERS TO SOMMELIERS
The following importers and agents are offering a by-the-glass promotion on select Australian Shiraz in January and February 2010
CULT AND BOUTIQUE WINES
NEW GENERATION WINES
Editorial feature from Imbibe Magazine – January / February 2010