Shiraz has been said to be Australia’s contribution to the wine world. It is indeed the most widely planted red vine ‘Down Under’. It was John Busby who first took cuttings of Syrah vines from Rhone’s Hermitage village in France to Australia, naming the vines Shiraz. Syrah as the noble grape of the Rhone region in France is currently being enthusiastically adopted in South Africa, Chile, Argentina, New Zealand, California and even in Italy and Spain. Even Chapoutier, one of Rhone’s top producers in France has even begun to make Shiraz in Australia. California is next on his list.
There is a rekindling in tastes for the wines made from Shiraz/Syrah. Perhaps because they always present a sunny disposition. Wines are often concentrated with heady aromas, ripe sumptuous flavours of plum, spice and herbs – the flavours of summer. That the Syrah grape thrives in Mediterranean sun perhaps explains its origins in Iran where wines were first made in the Middle East. History has it that the Romans brought the grape to the Rhone Valley where it was planted on a hill called Hermitage.
It was said that Louis XIV as a token of royal affection presented Hermitage wines to his cousin, England’s Charles II. The present opened up the shipping route of Rhone wines by a canal to Bordeaux where the wines went on to Northern Europe. Lord Hervey, the Earl of Bristol who on tasting the wines of Rhone, pronounced them to be so delicious that he started the trend for drinking Hermitage in England. Eventually, London merchants in the 18th Century also took to blending Syrah with their top Bordeaux wines to increase the Bordeaux wine’s appeal and value – as an example, Lafite-Rothshild.
Why Shiraz is not as famous as Cabernet Sauvignon or Pinot Noir/Burgundy, has less to do with the quality of the wines and more to do with its ubiquity, especially in Australia. Perhaps too much of a good thing is seldom appreciated. Turn to France, and Syrah is used as blending material in the Southern Rhone for Chateauneuf-du-Pape and Gigondas. Whilst the Cinsault grape variety provides finesse and fragrance, the Mourvedre grape, an expressiveness and structure, the Syrah is prized in the blend for its colour, fragrance and its propensity to impart great longetivity in the wine.
Northern Rhone producers, who use a much high percentage of Syrah play down the varietal name by using village and vineyard names for their wines. But it is their prerogative for the Hermitages and Cote Rotie villages. If their wines make their impact from the taste of ‘terrior’ in the wines, then it makes sense to name the wines after the villages for the wines from each village is different. Or for that matter, different vineyards – compare the individual vineyard wines of La Landonne and La Turque, both made by Guigal and you will detect distinct contrasts.
Winemaking of Syrah is a contentious issue. In the Rhone, (Cote Rotie, St. Joseph, Crozes Hermitage, Hermitage and Cornas) some producers, ferment grapes with all their stalks at high temperatures, in order to incorporate terrior flavours. The resulting wines that have been matured in large oak casks for 2 years or more, are full bodied, strong and tough. With bottle age, they grow into aromatic and smooth wines.
Other producers prefer to destem the grapes, ferment using temperature control and mature wines in small oak casks with some re-blending of wines not treated with oak. The wines are medium bodied and have been described as more elegant than the previous style, closer to the new world winemaking style.
Australians who have experimented with just about all the techniques available in the vineyard and winery refute the French notion of terroir, proposing that old, low-yielding vines play a more important role in quality. At most they accede that recent experiments in the New World with cool climate growing of the vine have resulted in some variations of the wine style – Australian Clare Valley (cool-climate) wines have a big structure allied to elegance, compared to the big, complex full-flavoured Barossa Valley (hot-climate) wines.
With the disparity of approaches as to new or old techniques, (with die-hard winemakers that insist on clinging on to the traditional Rhone methods, some insisting on only new and others are advocating a blend of old and new) three major styles have emerged from Australia.
One style is from grapevines that are dry-grown or non-irrigated. Because they are not physiologically ripe in tannins, the grapes go through a maceration (crushed grapes soaking in their juice) prior to a long fermentation at high temperatures for tannin and colour extraction. Marketed as ‘basket-press’ (where employed, traditional hand presses that extract more tannins than modern hydraulic bag presses), the wines achieve just as much following as the modern styled wines. Another style is made from crushed and de-stemmed grapes that are fermented in stainless steel at cool temperatures, then matured in American oak. Yet a third style comes from grapes that are pressed before fermentation is over. Malolactic fermentation is introduced and the wine is left to mature in small French barrels. A variation to the third style, is to let the wines macerate at the end of fermentation.
Shiraz has a disposition to age well. To drink Australia’s flagship wine the Grange, one often has to wait a decade or more. Of late, winemaking styles have evolved and even concentrated young Shiraz with great power is delicious to drink young. Furthermore, a young Shiraz drinks inordinately like a youthful Cabernet Sauvignons full of fruit and structured tannins, but with age, develops the perfumed elegance and the wild untamed side of Pinot Noirs.
As a result, one finds a variety of styles from Australia, and before too long in the future, also from many other countries. Now that California has joined the Syrah making club, the choice is a spectrum of taste sensations for the consumer. They vary from tarry tannic wines that become earthy and velvety with time, like the Cornas of North Rhone to wines with cherry and pepper essences that are like those of the Southern Rhone wines. Then there are the concentrated wines with berry and vanilla that is a distinct New World style.
To taste the vast variety and styles of Shiraz in one sitting, one could select the following:
Marques De Grinon Dominio de Valdepusa, Spain
Qupe Syrah, California
Te Mata Bullnose Syrah, New Zealand
Graillot Croze Hermitage Laguirode, France
Isole e Olena Syrah, Italy
Saxenberg Shiraz, South Africa
Michelton Peppertree Shiraz, Australia
Charles Melton Nine Popes, Australia
Vieux Telegraphe Chateauneuf-du-Pape, France
A-Z of Selected Australian Shiraz
Armagh (by Jim Barry) – Concentrated and big wine ranking amongst the best
Bannockburn Geelong – Raspberry, herbs and smoky finish
Chatsfield (Mount Barker) – Serious well balanced wine needing time
Draytons William Shiraz – Rich with mint, plums and cocoa.
Eileen Hardy – Elegant almost European styled wine
Grange (by Penfolds) – The flagship wine of Australia
Henschke Hill of Grace – One of the top five wines of Australia
Jasper Hill Emily’s Paddock – A top classed wine with smooth tannins
Kingston Estate Reserve – A well priced mellow and well made wine
Leasingham Bin 61 – Ripe fruit with balance.
Meshach (by Grant Burge) – Aspiring to be one of the top wines in the country
Normans Chais Clarendon – Jammy with berry and develops good bottle bouquet
Old Block (by St. Hallett) – A spicy-raspberry wine
Plantagenet (Mount Barker) – Rich with chocolate and stone fruit
Richmond Grove (Barossa) –Complex with hints of licorice
Saltram Mamre Brook – Medium bodied wine that pleases even when young
Torbreck Runrig Barossa – A big serious wine, ranks amongst top wines
Vine Vale (by Peter Lehmann) – Economically priced wine
Wynn (David Wynn Patriarch) – Structured wine with spice and fruit
Yalumba ‘Octavius’ – A benchmark Shiraz
Zema Estate (Coonawarra) – Fresh fruit and subtle oak.
A-Z of US Syrah
Alban Estate (Edna Valley) – Gamey, herbal style
Beaulieu (Dry Creek) – Cherry and tobacco hints
Columbia Winery (Washington) – Smooth raspberry light style
Dehlinger (Russian River) – Blackberry and oak in a big Australian style
Eberle (Paso Robles) – Ripe fruit, forward style
Geyser Peak (Sonoma) – Raspberry, earthy wine
Hamel Wines (Russian River) – Mouthfilling tannic wine but bursting with fruit
Karly (Amador County) – Ripe fruit with tannins requiring time in the bottle
Le Cigare Volante (Bonny Doon Winery) – The Rhone Ranger of California
McDowell (Mendocino) – Attractively priced light Petit Sirah and also a serious sweet Syrah produced
Neyers (Napa) – Jammy sweet spiced elegant wine
Ojai (California) – Supple wine with balance of fruit, spice and wood
J. Phelps Vin du Mistral (Napa) – Rhone style with a long finish
Qupe Bien Nacido – One of the benchmark wines of California
Rabbit Ridge (Sonoma) – Approachable young, and with balance
Sierra Vista (El Dorado) – Rich woody, peppery and tannic wine
Terre Rouge (Domaine de la) – A benchmark Syrah
Villa Mt. Eden (Calif) – A strong wine with spicy aromas
Wellington Vineyards (Russian River Alegria Vineyard) – Cherry, spice and firm
Zaca Mesa – Earthy wine with fruit flavours on nose and in the mouth
Shiraz in South Africa
Bertrams, Fairview, Lievland, Stellenzicht and Zonnebloem
Syrah in France
Guigal, Chave, Graillot, Gaillard, Ogier, Allemand, Cuilleron, Verzier, Durand, Clape, Jaboulet, Chapoutier, Vidal-Fleury, Raspail, Les Fils d’Etienne Gonnet (Domaine Font de Michelle), Chateau La Nerthe and the Cave Cooperative of Tain.