Shiraz Through Rhone-Colored Glasses

Let me start by saying that I love a good Syrah. It’s a wine that I turn to when I want something to challenge my palette and satisfy my longing for a meaty, earthy wine.   To be sure, not all Syrah are created equal.  Historically, Northern Rhone appellations like Cote Rotie, Hermitage, Cornas and Crozes Hermitage have provided the model for Syrah.  Then came Shiraz.

While Syrah and Shiraz are the same grape, the term Shiraz was adopted by Australian winemakers to denote a soft, fruit-driven style, with high (14%+) alcohol levels.  The Shiraz style became immensely popular as it made the varietal appealing and accessible to a broad group of wine consumers that wanted big, easy-drinking reds.  This style became the hallmark of Aussie Syrah.

In 1996, the Australian wine sector published Strategy 2025This initiative set a target for Australian wine to achieve annual sales of $4.5 billion by the year 2025.  With this goal driving production, world markets were flooded with a wave of inexpensive one-dimensional wines from Australia.  The influx of these wines coupled with the tendency of the higher priced wines to be too “Shiraz-ey” made a significant negative impact on the general perception (as well as my own perception) of Australia as a region for fine wines.  In my wine shop, the Australian category over $20 is virtually nonexistent, as there is little consumer interest.

This is how my preconceived notions of Aussie Syrah were formed.

…This is how these notions changed:

Around two weeks before Mother’s Day in 2012, I was asked to prepare a lesson on some select regions in Southern Australia, most notably, Barossa.  While I had my own opinions about Shiraz, I was determined not to let my opinions interfere with preparing an objective lesson.  As I prepared the class, I learned that the oldest Syrah vines in the world are in Barossa – Some 150 years old and on their own rootstock!  The average age of the vines in Rhone is around forty years old.  This was a revelation regarding the potential of Australian Shiraz.

At this point, I lamented that even the finer (more expensive) Australian Shiraz that I had tasted really did not demonstrate this potential.  Further, many of the great and storied Shiraz came from bins of grapes rather than individual vineyards.   A bin system combines fruit from different vineyards, sometimes in different Geographical Indications to produce a single wine.  While the fruit may be of extremely high quality, terroir is not expressed. In fact, widespread use of a bin system will tend to homogenize the characteristics of wines.  In other words, they all start to taste the same.   I thought with the potential of these old vines, it would be great to taste a single-vineyard terroir-driven Shiraz from Australia.  IT could be great.

Then came Mother’s Day 2012.  My stepfather said he was bringing some “nice” Shiraz from his collection.  I brought some “nice” Bordeaux as I was sure I would need it to get through the day (“Needing Bordeaux” was a reference to needing something instead of the Shiraz, not needing wine to get through a family gathering.  Actually, I quite enjoy my family gatherings)

The wine that my stepfather brought was Elderton Command 2002 Barossa Shiraz.  At first whiff, my skepticism was replaced by joy.  It’s funny how things work out.  The wine was exactly what I had hoped for – A single-vineyard Shiraz!   At ten years, this wine was just hitting its stride. It was redolent with dark fruits, leather, pepper, camphor, smoke and spice, all resting on a firm foundation of silky tannins that must have been impenetrable on release.  I highly recommend trying Elderton Command if you ever have the chance. It will set you back about $90.  Robert Parker’s review is below:

 

A stunning effort, the 2002 Shiraz Command exhibits an inky/blue/purple color as well as a sweet perfume of camphor, blueberries, blackberries, acacia flowers, and smoky, toasty oak. Full-bodied, opulent, and viscous, with huge, but sweet tannin, decent acidity, and a muscular, long, 40+ second finish, this is a classic, potentially long-lived, Barossa blockbuster. It’s accessible now, but ideally needs another 2-4 years of bottle age, and should keep for two decades. Drink through 2026.  95 Points.

 

A few months later, with the Elderton experience still fresh in my mind, I decided to seek out further evidence of down and dirty Aussie Shiraz.  I know of a wine shop (not my own regrettably) that has a nice selection of mid to high-end Australian wines.  I found a Rolf Binder Heysen 2005 Barossa Shiraz that looked interesting. The alcohol was not ridiculous at 14.5% – There were a number of choices that topped 15%.  The wine was $50 and the shelf-talker featured Parker’s review:

 

The 2005 Shiraz “Heysen” is a blend of three vineyards. It was aged in 40% new French oak, 20% new American oak, and the balance neutral French. The nose reveals wood smoke, toast, game, bacon, blueberry, and blackberry. This leads to an opulent, complex, and intensely flavored wine which merits 6-8 years in the cellar. This lengthy wine will drink well through 2025. 96 Points.

 

The descriptors “Bacon, Smoke and Game” sounded like what I was looking for.  The wine was absolutely as advertised.  Mission Accomplished.

As a Syrah lover that appreciates the earthy, savory expression of the varietal, I have found proof that there is Aussie Syrah that will hold its own in the company of the great wines of the Northern Rhone is being produced in Australia. I have only a couple of examples here, but I promise that I will update the list as I discover more.

PS – Syrah Lover,

If you find a Syrah to add to the list, please let me know.

-Rob