Shiraz (aka Syrah) is now firmly in place as Australia’s most popular grape–and wine. But it wasn’t always that way. From the mid-1970s to the mid-1980s, plantings of Shiraz went down by half (to about 12,500 acres) because the Australian government paid growers to pull out vines as consumption of red table wine fell from fashion. However, during the following 20 years, Shiraz plantings rebounded remarkably, soaring to 100,000 acres and, by 2004, accounting for a whopping 25% of all Australian vines.
According to Bill Hardy, grandson of Eileen Hardy and group enologist for the Hardy Wine Company, James Busby, the father of the Australian wine industry, went to Europe to select vines for an excellent reason: there simply was no such thing as an indigenous vine in Australia. In 1831, he arrived in northern Rhône town of Tain-l’Hermitage, where he found that the best wines were made from Syrah–and not uncommonly shipped to Bordeaux to enrich their more famous but comparatively anemic cousins. (Thus the Australians were not the first to blend Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon, though they are probably the first to label the resulting blends explicitly). Busby returned to Australia with Syrah vines and the rest, as they say, is history.
Hardy disputes the popular idea that the grape was named for either Syracuse, a city in Sicily, or Shiraz, a city in Persia. Instead he believes, based on documentary evidence, that the name Shiraz arises from nothing more than poor Australian spelling and pronunciation. According to documents, Busby spelled it Ciras. Later writings refer to it as Scyris. In 1867, Dr. Alexander Kelly, the founder of Tintara, one of the wineries currently in the Hardy Wine Company, was already spelling it Sirrah.
Many consumers assume that all Australian Shiraz are like those produced in South Australia’s Barossa Valley: whopping, juicy, powerful wines. While Shiraz always has power, particular renditions generally reflect the climate where the grapes were grown. Warm climates produce Shiraz with juicy, plum-like flavors, while the peppery, spicy overtones common in some wines–like those from the Northern Rhône–are the result of cooler growing areas.
Although Western Australia, especially the Margaret River area, receives high marks for their Cabernets and Bordeaux blends (and deservedly so), I find the Shiraz from there stylish, refined, and seriously under appreciated. Many winemakers in the region commented to me that the current fashion among Australians is for the intense, over-the-top Barossa style Shiraz, and that the more subdued ones from Western Australia are overlooked. Shiraz from Western Australia typically have a wonderful complexity based on peppery or spicy notes that balance the plumy ripe flavors thanks to the cooling influences of the Indian and Southern Oceans.
If you are unfamiliar with Wewstern Australia’s distinctive profile of Shiraz, here are notes on several wines from two exemplary producers that will get you started:
Located in the Geographe subregion of Western Australia, Capel Vale will put the wines from this relatively unknown area (situated between the Margaret River and Perth) on the world’s wine map. Capel Vale, like so many other Australian wineries, was founded by a physician, Peter Pratten, along with his wife. Pratten, a radiologist, knew Western Australia well because for years he traveled throughout the region interpreting radiological studies. He suspected (and correctly, as time was to tell) that the Margaret River area was not the sole locale capable of making fine wine. Over time, he and his wife have purchased about 500 acres of vineyards in the major subregions of Western Australia: Margaret River, Mount Barker, Geographe and Pemberton.
Pratten says, “we are making Old-World style wines with New World fruit.” They produce three levels, Sheldrake, Capel Vale White Label, and Capel Vale Black Label (their reserve line). Wine for the Sheldrake label is a blend from the subregions, whereas the white Label is used for wine that comes from a single subregion, such as Mount Barker or Margaret River. The Black Label wines are sourced from single vineyards.
Capel Vale’s wines are noteworthy across the board. They are meticulously made, and one can sense a how a radiologist’s attention to detail helps craft these precise wines:
Capel Vale, Western Australia (Australia) Shiraz “Sheldrake” 2002 ($15, multiple distributors) : Two thirds of the fruit comes from Pemberton, which gives this a lovely black pepper character, while the third that comes from the warmer Geographe subregion supplies ripeness and richness. The overall effect is a lovely balance of plums and pepper. 90
Capel Vale, Mount Barker (Great Southern, Western Australia, Australia) Kinnaird Vineyard Shiraz Black Label 2001 ($45, multiple distributors): A single vineyard wine from the Mount Barker region of the Great Southern, this is a very appealing, cocoa-infused, meaty and lush style of Shiraz that is remarkably silky and long. Nicely evolved, it’s lovely to drink now. 92
Capel Vale, Mount Barker (Great Southern, Western Australia, Australia) Kinnaird Vineyard Shiraz Black Label 2003 ($45, multiple distributors): Less meaty than the 2001, presumably because it is younger and bottled under screw cap, it still has a hint of that lovely gamy quality. It’s fresh, lush and juicy with a remarkable silkiness and elegance for its power. 95
Evans and Tate
Proving that quality and quantity can coincide, Evans and Tate, the largest producer in the Margaret River area (accounting for about 25% of the region’s wine) makes an excellent range.
Evans and Tate, Margaret River (Western Australia) “Classic Red” 2003 ($14, Scott Street Portfolio): A blend of 2/3 Shiraz and 1/3 Cabernet Sauvignon, this Classic Red is a great value. Filled with spice and plums, it is surprisingly complex for the price. Its suppleness is part of the charm. 90
Evans and Tate, Margaret River (Western Australia) Shiraz 2003 ($18, Scott Street Portfolio): Another great value, this Shiraz has meaty overtones along with pepper and plum-like flavors. A savory wine, it holds its 14.5% alcohol effortlessly. 93
Evans and Tate, Margaret River (Western Australia) Shiraz “Redbrook” 1998 (No longer available commercially): Praising wines that are no longer available commercially is a good way to make enemies. Nonetheless, this Redbrook Shiraz (Redbrook is the name given to the top of the Evans & Tate portfolio) shows just how well their wines develop. It’s a wonderfully mature multi-layered example of great Shiraz–meaty, gamy, plumy all at the same time. And well balanced to boot. 95
This winery’s name comes from the first two letters of each of the four children: Sarah, Lisa, Tamara, and Gerard, all of whom are grown now and involved in the business. John Horgan, the owner and brother of Dennis Horgan of Leeuwin Estate, was one of the six Australians who had a 50% ownership of Pousse d’Or estate in Burgundy from 1983 to 2002, which helps to explain their focus on Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Located in the cool Pemberton Region, southeast of Margaret River and only about 20 miles inland from the Southern Ocean, they hedge their bets with other varieties because of the vagaries of the climate. There is little Shiraz in Pemberton because, as a late ripening grape, it is often still on the vine as the rain or cyclone season starts.
Salitage, Pemberton (Western Australia) Shiraz “Treehouse” 2003 ($15, Wines West): The Treehouse label is used for Solitage wines made from purchased fruit, usually from a single vineyard, within the Pemberton region. A nice balance of peppery and plumy flavors and a lovely finish makes this Shiraz a steal at the price. 90
Michael Wright, who made a fortune in the mining industry, owns Voyager Estate. He is clearly pouring vast amounts of money into the vineyards and winery and it shows in the resulting wines. With 325 acres of vines, they need not purchase grapes. All of their wines are sourced from their vineyards, which should guarantee consistency and quality. They are especially proud of their Cabernet, but I found their Shiraz equally impressive.
Voyager, Margaret River (Western Australia) Shiraz 2004 ($18, Serge Doré Selections, Ltd): Voyager blended in a little Viognier into this bottling, which likely explains its lovely floral quality. A spicy and enticing black pepper component, along with great length and finesse, reinforces its similarity to wines from the Northern Rhône. 91
Merv Lange started Alkoomi winery in 1971 by accident. He grew up in the isolated Frankland River subregion of the Great Southern and assumed the role of the traditional farmer, raising sheep, cattle and wheat. Prices for these agricultural products were very depressed in the late 1960s, forcing him to diversify. He asked the local governmental agriculture department for advice. They recommended vines, but as Merv says, “I could have planted either pumpkins or strawberries.” He planted 2.5 acres of Cabernet Sauvignon in 1971 and gradually expanded the plantings. At first, he sold the grapes to large Western Australian producers, but by 1976 he was making and selling only wine. Today, Alkoomi is one of the leading producers in this up-and-coming region. Although Alkoomi is justifiably known for their great Rieslings (whites outnumber reds in the vineyard by a two to one margin) their Shiraz bottlings are stunning. Lange likes to harvest a little earlier than many other producers in order to preserve freshness. That technique and the dramatic cooling at night in this region (which preserves grape acidity) explains the finesse of his wines.
Alkoomi, Frankland River (Western Australia) Shiraz White Label 2004 ($13, Ravensvale Group): An atypical Australian Shiraz, the charm of this lovely wine lies in the interplay of understated fruit flavors with gamy, earthy notes. 91
Alkoomi, Frankland River (Western Australia) Shiraz/Viognier Black Label 2004 ($21, Ravensvale Group): Another restrained style of Shiraz with long, layered flavors that linger. Although the blend includes only two percent Viognier, that little dash provides real lift and an added layer of finesse. 93
Alkoomi, Frankland River (Western Australia) Shiraz “Jarrah” 2002 ($38, Ravensvale Group): Alkoomi’s top-of-the-line Shiraz takes its name from a local hardwood tree. It has a great combination of succulent fruit and meaty flavors, which are balanced rather than not overdone. 95
A relative newcomer to the Frankland River, Ferngrove is making excellent wine. They finished their winery in 2000, just in time for their first vintage. They like to think their Shiraz is somewhere between a Barossa and Rhône Valley renditions in stylistic terms.
Ferngrove, Frankland River (Western Australia) Shiraz White Label 2003 ($13, Partners Wine Marketing): Sourced from Ferngrove’s estate vineyards, this Shiraz delivers rich, ripe, plumy flavors without overwhelming the attractive gamy notes. A long and lovely wine at a wonderful price. 92
Ferngrove, Frankland River (Western Australia) “The Sterling” 2004 ($29, Partners Wine Marketing): A blend of two-thirds Shiraz and one-third Cabernet, Ferngrove’s flagship wine has a fabulous mix of notes including chocolate, smoke and tobacco. It’s a big wine, yet balanced, with great finesse. 93
April 11, 2006