To the extent that it is possible to confer sympathy on a species of fruit, Shiraz from Australia could really use a hug. It still features regularly in discussions of ‘what went wrong’ for Australian wine in the US, and to this day is thoroughly misunderstood as a variety, style and consumer proposition.
Shiraz is hugely important to Australian wine. Shiraz is Australia’s most famous wine grape; is its calling card variety in all export markets and at home, and four out of five Australian wineries grow it. Shiraz represents nearly half of Australia’s planted red grapes, and close to a quarter of total wine production. It is the Australian wine equivalent of the Beatles: commercially and creatively influential around the world, its output exalted and reviled by different audiences.
So why is Shiraz the subject of howling disagreement and prone to such gloomy speculation about its future in the US? The numbers, while challenging, contain some positive signs. Total Shiraz exports to the US are declining, but at key price points are actually in growth.
There are occasional grenades tossed between regions in Australia: cool-climate Australian wine producers are known to lambast the Barossa and other warm areas for making Shiraz that props up stereotypes (jammy, over-extracted), and some producers in warm regions resent the coverage that ‘cool kids’ from up-and-coming cooler areas receive in the media.
A key priority in the US isn’t to solve this complex argument in a hurry, but rather to educate more consumers and the trade. Despite Shiraz’s popularity, there isn’t widespread awareness of how cool- and warm-climate styles differ, or where regions are located on a map.
‘We came into export markets with lots of Shiraz wines that were, by and large, full of flavour and easy drinking,” says Wine Australia’s global education manager, Mark Davidson. “But that’s not the full story, nor does it explain the evolution and diversity of style across the country.’
An upcoming Wine Australia seminar in Dallas lines up 12 examples of Shiraz, each from a different region in Australia. Half are from South Australia, while others are from regions as diverse as the Hunter Valley in New South Wales, Margaret River in Western Australia and from several areas within Victoria. Panellists include master sommelier James Tidwell and winemakers Steven Henschke, Bruce Tyrrell and Kim Longbottom, who is spending more time in the US promoting her Henry’s Drive wines from Padthaway. And she is upbeat about the future.
‘I see people understanding Shiraz a little more. It’s becoming about people learning the differences and falling back in love with Shiraz again.’
The point is simple: when people talk about ‘Australian Shiraz’ in the US, it is seldom with a firm grasp of how stylistically distinctive it is from different parts of the country. It is essential that retailers, sommeliers and consumers have a proper understanding of Shiraz as a product of dozens of unique regions and terroirs.
Sorting Aussie Shiraz fiction from fact
Fiction: All Australian Shiraz tastes the same
Fact: This persistent myth posits that Australian Shiraz is straightforward, one-dimensional and lacking in complexity. Yes, there are some generic similarities between Shiraz wines from the same region (and, sometimes, at similar price points at the low end, as large companies blend heavily to maintain a consistent flavour profile), but Australia’s diverse geography and climate make it almost impossible to make the same thing in two different places.
Fiction: Australian Shiraz is high in alcohol
Fact: Ten years ago, Australian Shiraz at 15 percent alcohol or higher was more commonly found in the US. But the vast majority were between 14 and 15 percent. Nowadays, wines from Luke Lambert, Ochota Barrels and others are showing prettiness and balance with alcohol in the 12.5-13 percent range. Data published in the Australian Journal of Grape and Wine Research showed that average alcohol levels in red wines declined almost a full point from the 2005 peak (14.5) to 13.6 in 2014.
What’s really needed here is a solid dose of context. Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa Valley – recognized as America’s choice of higher end red – is seldom under 14.5 percent. In warmer vintages in Barolo, like 2009, many of the wines have 15 percent on the label.
Fiction: Australian Shiraz doesn’t go with food
Fact: Yes, it does. Fuller bodied reds pair extremely well with the right cuisine. Classic examples are châteauneuf-du-Pape with lamb and Nebbiolo with braised red meats.
‘With Barossa Shiraz, for example, you have richness but (in the good ones) you also have precision and clarity,” says Davidson. ‘Those wines pair well with a range of dishes: kangaroo, game meats, even Texas brisket. And Tyrrell’s Vat 9 from the Hunter is exceptional with roast chicken.’
Fiction: Australia produces commercially driven Shiraz with limited aging potential
Fact: Yes, but also hundreds of serious Shiraz that can age for a decade or more. Some examples, like Penolds Grange and St Henri, Henschke Hill of Grace, Wendouree, can live for half a century.
Shiraz is an Australian classic. One that is capable of producing world-beating wines in a dazzling array of styles. So, let’s raise a cheer – and a glass – to the glory that is Shiraz.
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