Australia's Next Chapter of Shiraz/Syrah

Wines of Australia held a trade tasting in San Francisco yesterday. Their goal was simple: show us Australia isn't all about furry critters on overly oaked jammy Shiraz. That was the perception of Aussie wines from about ten years ago, but oh how a decade can change things. Many younger wine professionals might not even remember there was a time when Robert Parker would anoint one Australian wine after another as the next collectible cult wine high in alcohol, extraction and use of American oak. Back in the early 2000's, Australia's wine industry suffered from the same problem most other new world regions suffered from—which is to say large wine companies drove one particular style while leaving smaller producers without the large marketing budgets out of the equation.

American consumers revolted, but this time around the Australian wine industry is doing what they should've done back then—they're making more varietally and regionally accurate wines that have interesting stories and interesting people behind them. I dove into this subject a bit back in the fall with the Don't Call it a Comeback post.

During the first seminar led by former-Penfolds Grange winemaker, John Duval who now has international Syrah projects in Chile, Washington State and the Barossa along with Brokenwood's Chief Rebelrouser Ian Riggs and Master Sommelier, Matt Stamp we looked at six newish wines that epitomized Australia's next chapter.

The first impression of this lineup is that this isn't your father's Australian Shiraz. Without even smelling or tasting the wines you could tell the "new" style of Aussie Shiraz would be different. No more opaque dark purple port dressed up as a table wine. These wines were red ruby in color and semi-transparent coming from new cooler regions made by young maverick winemakers who apparently never heard of the "old" style of Shiraz.

From left to right:

2012 BK Wines 'Cult' Syrah - The only thing I didn't like about the wine is adding the word, "Cult" on the label. It does the wine a disservice. The cooler Adelaide Hills would be exposed to frigid arctic air coming up from the south pole if it weren't for the Mount Lofty range standing in the way. Most winemakers in Adelaide Hills are after Riesling and Chardonnay because of its altitude and cooler temperatures, but not necessarily Syrah. Luckily, winemaker Brendon Keys doesn't care much for convention or what you're 'supposed to do'.

His irreverence is our reward. Red ripe fruits, black pepper, tart red cherry, tobacco and significantly less oak and less alcohol shows off the kind of wine we knew Australia could make.

2010 Brokenwood Shiraz - Over the past two decades Brokenwood's Shiraz has averaged 13.2% alcohol mostly due to Mother Nature's inability to get those grape the sunshine they need to ripen (or over ripen) and that's not a bad thing. Volcanic soils and 40% new French oak set the stage for another ruby red effort with a fatter, lusher mouthfeel than the BK Syrah. Don't sleep on Hunter Valley Shiraz—we might not see them here in the states mostly because Australia's last time in the spotlight highlighted big, sappy fruit bombs...something Hunter Valley isn't known for. This time around, however, should bode well for the leaner more balanced lower alcohol style from Hunter.

2010 Fowles 'Ladies Who Shoot Their Lunch' Shiraz - Oh those crazy Aussies! They just can't stick to naming a wine in a conventional fashion, can they? The name of Fowles' wine might be the only thing not serious about the wine. Other than the ability to appeal to rednecks, granite based soils and unique 140-year old English oak casks high up on the Strathbogie plateau set the stage for ruby red plush high quality juice with a nose of smoked meats, charcuterie board and surprisingly fresh palate cleansing acidity.

For the record, they really do shoot their lunch. This wine was specifically created to go with wild game dishes.

2010 Luke Lambert Syrah - During my last trip to Australia in 2011 I was taken back by Lambert's wines. This time around confirmed the infatuation. This was the second wine of the lineup to be labeled 'Syrah' rather than 'Shiraz'. For me, the Lambert Syrah was probably my favorite wine of the flight—dark ripe, bordering on cooked black cherry, turned earth, roasted cashews bundled together with a fine gritty tannins and moderate acidity.

Master Sommelier, Tim Gaiser compared the wine to the wines of Cornas in the Northern Rhone. Not a bad comparison to be part of. Lambert accomplished this style in part to 40% whole cluster fermentation in large neutral oak casks. Just smelling the wine in glass was half the fun—great aromatics in the glass, the kind that let you know you're in for a delicious experience.

2010 Holmes Estate Shiraz - Not everyone thinks the big, jammy style of Shiraz is a bad thing. There are plenty of consumers (my wife included) who really want that bigger, darker 15% alcohol style of wine from time to time. Holmes Estate from Mt. Benson will certainly scratch that itch with a "collector-style" exhibiting dark, opaque purpley color in the glass and black fruits, eucalyptus and vanilla-friendly baking spices from new French oak. Although Holmes' Shiraz was a over the 15% alcohol line, a smidge of Cabernet Sauvignon and cooler growing conditions gave the wine a bit more tannin, a bit more finish and a bit higher acid for a more structured final product.

2010 John Duval Wines Entity - After spending sixteen years as Chief Winemaker at Penfolds (29 years total winemaking), John Duval certainly spent plenty of time at the luxury end of the Shiraz spectrum. Aside from crafting the legendary Grange blend, he also spearheaded the RWT Shiraz project in an effort to explore different oak influences and a higher standard for what Barossa Shiraz could be. Since leaving Penfolds, Duval has travelled the globe working on Syrah-themed projects in Washington state (Long Shadows) and on Chile's Pangea from Apalta Valley (see John's bio here).

For Duval, Entity is the reward to come home to. After racking up frequent flier miles, he enjoys returning back to the Barossa where he finds the highest quality fruit in his own back yard to therapeutically continue what he started with RWT, which is to say to take what he has learned over his thirty-plus year career to keep raising the benchmark for Barossa Shiraz. After all, the Barossa is where earth's oldest Shiraz/Syrah vines are planted.

There's a reason they put this wine last as if to put an exclamation point on the flight. It seems what Entity is showing us is that Australia doesn't need to try to be like northern Rhone or anywhere else, the Shiraz/Syrah grape is well suited to this place. And thanks to a combination of old and new winemakers wine lovers get to enjoy what comes from Australia's next chapter.