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Sampling wine at Giant Steps

The history, evolution and revolution of Australian red blends

Sampling wine at Giant Steps

When many wine lovers around the world think Australian wine, they most likely think of Shiraz, with our exceptional Chardonnay or Cabernet Sauvignon next on the list. With the mindshare these varieties occupy, it’s no surprise that our exceptional red blends struggle for attention.

You could see this as a negative. You could shake your fist in the air and curse the world for not understanding the breadth and depth of Australian red blends. Why don’t they know about the history behind Australia’s unique blend of Cabernet and Shiraz? How could they not love Grenache, Shiraz and Mourvedre (GSM) blends from across the country?

Alternatively, you could see this lack of knowledge as an opportunity. You could be proud of our history of brilliant winemakers – such as Maurice O’Shea and Max Schubert - who pioneered Australian red blends. You could be excited by how the next generation of winemakers is taking this great blending tradition to another level with new varieties, new techniques in the winery and innovative combinations.

It’s also exciting to see that recent trade and consumer research conducted by Wine Opinions showed that 34% of those surveyed believed there is great growth potential for red blends in the US, one of Australia’s most important wine markets.

In our latest story, we take a look at the history, evolution and revolution of Australian red blends and find that the future is looking brighter than ever.

The illustrious history of red blends in Australia

Blending grapes to make an (arguably) better wine has been happening since humans first started making wine. In modern times, regions like Bordeaux and the Southern Rhône have built global fine wine reputations on blends. Australia is no different, with a tradition of blending going back to the earliest days of the nascent Australian wine industry. Things really got going when Australia’s first great winemaker, Maurice O’Shea, convinced his widowed mother to purchase Charles King’s property in the Pokolbin area of the Hunter Valley

Maurice O’Shea made thrilling table wines at a time when the vast majority of wine produced and consumed in Australia was fortified. He was an innovator, using varietal labelling for his wines alongside the first names of friends, grape growers and relatives while others were using vat numbers and letters. From a simple shack on the side of a hill he defined just how great fine Australian wine could be.

Over the course thirty-five years he gained the respect and admiration of wine lovers across Australia. Maurice was a master blender and a creative genius. Varieties like Shiraz and Pinot Noir were blended to make wines that were much greater than the sum of their parts. Wines were sourced from wine regions across Australia to make seamless blends that enchanted wine drinkers. While he may have trained in the Old World, Maurice embraced the freedom that making wine in Australia gave him. He laid the groundwork for generations of innovative Australian winemakers to come.

Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz – The great Australian red blend?

The vignerons of Bordeaux have known it for countless years. Cabernet Sauvignon is one of the tougher grapes to grow and make successful as a varietal wine. Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Malbec and Petit Verdot help flesh it out and ensure that a quality wine can be made in almost all years. In Australia, vignerons in the1950s didn’t always have these varieties to turn to. One thing Australia has had and always will have, however, is access to exceptional Shiraz from a diverse range of regions. It’s easy to see how an unlikely partnership in France become a logical progression in Australia.

Another one of Australia’s great winemakers, Max Schubert, can take the biggest share of the credit for popularising the Cabernet-Shiraz blend. While he surely wasn’t the first to combine the varieties, he was the first make an iconic wine from them. Max was a true admirer of Cabernet blends, originally wanting to use Cabernet Sauvignon as the basis for a project that lead to a little wine known as Grange. As the varieties that make up the red wines of Bordeaux (Cabernet Sauvignon) were all in very short supply he decided that the wine would be made from the more readily available Shiraz. 

Most winemakers would be happy with creating one iconic wine in their lifetime. Not Max. In 1960, he produced another icon when he bottled the first vintage of Penfolds Bin 389. The multiregional blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz would inspire many in the Australian wine community with it’s wonderful combination of power and structure. The 389 has been joined by blends from globally renowned wineries like Yalumba, Hardy’s, Jacob’s Creek and Wolf Blass alongside a dizzyingly deliciously array of wines from myriad of boutique wineries from the Barossa to Hunter Valley. The Cabernet Shiraz blend is truly Australian and truly one of the world’s great wines.

GSM, GST, TT, NB, SCSNS – A whole bunch of delicious acronyms

When many in the Australian wine were cursing the amount of Grenache planted across Australia, a young vigneron in the Barossa, Charlie Melton saw potential in these dry grown old vines. Charlie took the fruit from these vines and blended it with Shiraz and Mourvedre (Mataro) to create a wine that would inspire a generation. Vignerons in classic Australian wine regions created their own wine styles using exceptional fruit that had once struggled to find a home. The classic Rhône blend had found a new home in Australia.

The emergence of Grenache blends in Australia lead to a renaissance in red blends in Australia. Winemakers began to experiment with classic and alternative varieties. Tempranillo blended with old vine Touriga Nacional in the McLaren Vale. Nebbiolo blended with Barbera in the Adelaide Hills. Sangiovese with Cabernet, Nebbiolo and Shiraz in the King Valley. Even Shiraz and Pinot Noir blends, pioneered by Maurice O’Shea, have seen a strong revival in the Hunter Valley.

It’s an exciting time for Australian wine. Iconic Australian blends are tasting better than ever. The freedom to blend at the winemakers’ whim is producing modern Australian wine styles that are stimulating palates around the world. A perfect blend that assures an exciting future for the Australian wine community.

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This content is restricted to wine exporters and levy-payers. Some reports are available for purchase to non-levy payers/exporters.