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Shiraz The story of an Australian legend
Shiraz The story of an Australian legend

When it comes to Australian wine no other grape is more synonymous than Shiraz. Almost universally planted, capable of everything from affordable, quaffable BBQ reds to magnificent, age-worthy classics that are truly world-class, Shiraz has it all.

Shiraz is Australia’s stable red grape variety, makes the most popular red wine and is at the core of the country’s incredible export success. The most widely planted wine grape in the country, Shiraz continues to dominate the Australian wine scene with its bold, ripe flavours and easy-drinking nature. A dedicated band of winemakers are ensuring that Shiraz is known for quality rather than quantity by bringing back traditional, hands-on winemaking that is creating Shiraz with distinctive character and personality. By virtue of its capabilities, army of winemaking advocates and consumer adoration, Shiraz is something special.

Shiraz: French in origin, Australian by nature

With its modern winemaking origins in southeast France, Shiraz, or Syrah as it’s commonly known there, is a late budding and late ripening red grape that is the foundation of leading wines including Hermitage, Côte Rôtie and St-Joseph, as well as being a major component of wines from Châteauneuf-du-Pape, the Languedoc-Roussillon and many a Vin De Pays.

The first Shiraz vines made their way to Australia in James Busby’s 1832 collection. Recognised as the father of Australian wine, Busby travelled through Spain and France collecting vine cuttings that were the foundation of the Australian wine industry. The first wines to come from these cuttings were labelled ‘Hermitage’, or rather more curiously, ‘Claret’ or ‘Burgundy’, by bin numbers or with other generic, non-varietal descriptors. Australia adopted the name Shiraz in the mid 19th century and soon popularised it as an internationally accepted term for the variety.

Shiraz finds its place in the sun

To ripen fully Shiraz needs a warm growing season, however, the most aromatic, elegant styles are grown in regions with cool nights and high diurnal temperature ranges - such as the Canberra District, Adelaide Hills, Mornington Peninsula and the Yarra Valley.  In warm to hot regions, Shiraz shows greater jammy, blackberry and plum fruit characters and less of the delicate aromas that are the hallmark of the premium styles.

With popularity has come competition and Old World Shiraz (Syrah) challengers come from nations as diverse as France (wines which often Australia the greatest compliment by labelling their wines as Shiraz), Italy, Spain, South Africa, Chile, Argentina and the United States. But the brand identity and recognition that Australian Shiraz has built up over the years plays a large part in the ongoing worldwide success of this quintessential Australian red wine.

The world’s oldest Shiraz vines

Australia is home to the world’s oldest continuously productive Shiraz vines with vineyards believed to date back to 1843 (Langmeil), 1847 (Turkey Flat) and 1860 (Tahbilk). These ungrafted, pre-phylloxera vines produce tiny crops of intensely concentrated grapes. 

As with most red wine grapes grown in the early 19th century, Shiraz was historically used for blending, often with Grenache, Cabernet Sauvignon or Mataro (Mourvedre), rather than to make single-varietal wines.  Shiraz quickly became a significant part of the output from the Hunter Valley, parts of Victoria (Geelong, Bendigo, Rutherglen, Ballarat, Glenrowan, Yarra Valley) and South Australia (Barossa, Clare Valley, McLaren Vale, Adelaide Hills and Coonawarra). Led by pioneer winemakers such as George WyndhamHenry LindemanWilliam AngoveJoseph Seppelt and Thomas Hardy, wines made with a high proportion of Shiraz found their way onto tables in Australia, Britain and Europe, to widespread acceptance and critical acclaim.  Australia’s export industry waxed and waned in the following decades, eventually experiencing a decisive resurgence in the 1980s and ’90s.

Shiraz – Just what the Doctor ordered

Many of Australia’s early wine promoters were doctors, among them Dr Christopher Rawson Penfold who arrived in Adelaide in 1844 establishing Magill Estate. He called his property the Grange, a name that would become synonymous with Australian fine wine. Penfold’s first wines were available on prescription, thought to be of benefit to anaemic patients – lucky them!

With the immigration of Silesian settlers in the mid 1800s, the Barossa Valley became home to generations of winemakers that would take Shiraz production to new levels of quality and output. Renowned Shiraz producers such as OrlandoJacob’s CreekSeppeltHenschke, and Yalumba all have links to those original settlers.  English immigrant Samuel Smith founded Yalumba in 1849, with his vineyard planted mainly to Shiraz.

The trajectory of Shiraz from its early days as a blend component to standalone star can, in part, be attributed to the consistent nature of the wines – full-bodied with bold, upfront dark blackberry and plum fruit, most often made with oak – toasted American oak for vanilla characters or French oak for subtler cedar notes.

Shiraz: Nation domination achieved

Shiraz is now Australia’s number-one wine grape overall.  The 2016 harvest yielded a crush of more than 430,000 tonnes, followed by Chardonnay at 406,000 tonnes, then Cabernet Sauvignon at a mere 255,000 tones. The popularity of Shiraz is due to the ease of production for large-scale commercial wines across all price points.  But at the boutique end of the market, Shiraz takes centre stage, making some of Australia’s most revered, collected and expensive wines.

The history of Australia’s Shiraz success is linked directly to the efforts of a visionary winemaker, Max Schubert.  In 1951, inspired by a visit to Bordeaux, Schubert set out to make the ‘great Australian red’; a wine that would be capable of cellaring for at least 20 years. Schubert developed a revolutionary technique and matured his Shiraz in new American oak casks.  When he presented the wines to management seven years later, he was ordered to cease production immediately.  But Schubert continued his work in secret, hidden out of sight in the cellars of Magill Estate. In 1960, a new wine, Penfolds Grange Bin 1, hit the market to great critical acclaim and instant commercial success.  With renewed confidence, Penfolds head office ordered Max to resume production of this groundbreaking wine.  It was then they discovered he hadn’t missed a vintage and Penfolds subsequently released the 1952 vintage to the public.  Penfolds Grange has become one of the world’s most iconic, collected and revered wines, and proudly wears the mantle of ‘Australia’s greatest red’.  Penfolds Grange is still predominantly Shiraz, with some vintages including a small portion of Cabernet Sauvignon.

The Shiraz export boom

Through the 1980s and 1990s, the great Australian export boom saw the popularity of Australian Shiraz soar overseas.  The style found favour with its approachability, full-flavoured fruit and irreverent approach.  In a market dominated by Old World producers with arcane labelling and stratospheric prices, Australia’s fresh new wines hit the market with a bang. Sometimes called ‘critter wines’ after the quirky, colourful labels depicting Australian animals, Australia’s low-cost, commercially produced Shiraz became a huge export success.

In the United States, consumers looked to critics for guidance, closely following one of the world’s most influential wine voices, Robert Parker Jr. of ‘The Wine Advocate’.  Parker found favour in the intensely bold flavours and characters of Australian Shiraz, awarding 100-point scores to wines like Penfolds GrangeTorbreck The LairdChris Ringland (Three Rivers) and Greenock Creek. The popularity and commercial success of a such ratings saw many Australian winemakers chase high scores, picking fruit riper, making wines with deeper colour, higher alcohol levels, maturation in toasted new oak.  At first the market lapped up these wines, but consumers soon realised that too much of a good thing was, indeed, too much. With such high alcohol levels and intensely powerful flavours, the wines didn’t offer much subtlety or the complexity, aroma and texture of lighter-bodied, restrained examples.  Buyers were also finding that the wines didn’t age as well as anticipated.  In response, the market shifted slightly, encouraging winemakers back to a more moderate approach to Shiraz.  Today, while blockbuster Shiraz is still being made, with inky depth and syrupy richness, tastes are largely now aimed at a more moderate, easy-to-enjoy style.

Cool-climate Shiraz takes centre stage

In the cool Yarra Valley, Luke Lambert lets wild yeast kick off the fermentation of his Syrah, which is partly whole-bunch pressed then matured in large old oak casks and bottled without fining or filtration.  This rustic approach creates a wine with layers of aromatics and savoury dark fruits knitted together with firm tannins.

As happy surfing the world’s best surf breaks as he is in a winery, Taras Ochota brings a casual, laid-back approach to wine, letting the fruit and terroir do the talking.  Ochota Barrels’ ‘I am the Owl’ Syrah (McLaren Vale) and ‘Shellac’ Shiraz (Barossa Valley) are textural wines reflecting delicate spice and smoke characters with a beguiling balance of power and elegance.

Ray Nadeson of boutique producer in Geelong says his Shiraz is ‘out on a limb’. Grown on red clay over limestone and ironstone, it’s savoury, tannic and brooding, ‘like a double-bass quintet’ enthused a taster at a recent wine show.

In the Clare Valley, Col MacBryde and Jen Gardner apply organic principles to grow 100-year-old Shiraz, using old-fashioned winemaking techniques and fermenting in concrete tanks to create Adelina Shiraz.

Biodynamic winery Yangarra Estate focuses on grape varieties of the southern Rhône. Peter Fraser, Australian Winemaker of the Year 2016 (Australian Wine Companion, James Halliday) handcrafts wines that reflect the nature of the land and climate in McLaren Vale.  His ‘PF’ Shiraz, made with wild yeast and cold-soaked with no additives or fining, shows fragrant floral characters.

Although Abel Gibson grew up in the Barossa surrounded by wine, he didn’t find inspiration to make wine himself until 2002, when he gained experience at Rockford followed by a vintage in Spain and work at Spinifex.   Inspired by the hands-on, low-tech approach, Gibson established Ruggabellus to craft red wines with a touch of lightness that belies the traditional Barossa style.

Australia’s benchmark cool-climate Shiraz is crafted by Tim Kirk at Clonakilla in Murrumbateman, in the heart of the Canberra District.  Co-fermented with Viognier, the wine reflects a vast aromatic spectrum of white pepper and spice over a palate that’s elegant yet powerful.

Australian Shiraz: The future

The status of Shiraz as Australia’s number-one wine grape looks set to continue well into the future as consumers continue to lap up the easy-drinking, rich, full-bodied styles made by the major commercial brands.  But it’s the smaller, boutique producers who are really getting the best out of the style, creating Shiraz with a beguiling balance of aromatics, flavour, tannins and personality.  It’s these wines that we’ll continue to watch with interest in the years to come, and who knows, perhaps in another decade we’ll be adding yet another chapter to the story of Shiraz.



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