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Best Buys Among Australian Shiraz
Perhaps the most frequently fielded question asked of a wine writer is: "What do you recommend as a good red wine at a bargain price?"
Increasingly, I find myself recommending one or more Australian Shirazs in this category, as California Cabs, Merlots and even Zins continue to escalate in price. The folks asking the bargain wine question want something flavorful and bold with some character, but ready to drink tonight, priced around $10-$12. If
it's really something special, they might be willing to pay up to $18.
True, the consumer can find plenty of reds from Chile in this price range, but they mostly lack the punch delivered by Shiraz, which is what the Australians call Syrah. The syrah is a noble grape -- right up there with cabernet sauvignon-- that produces satisfying and generous red wine in a range of styles, depending
on where it's grown, the age of the vines and the kind of oak used for aging, among other factors.
Syrah's home is in the Rhône Valley in France (although how it got to France is still the subject of some controversy), where it accounts for the some of the greatest wines on the planet -- the single-vineyard Côte-Rôties from Guigal (La Landonne and La Turque), Hermitage "La Chapelle" from Jaboulet, the Hermitage from Chave and the Chateauneuf du Pape "Cuvée Perrin" from Beaucastel.
The Australians first planted syrah in the middle of the 19th century, and long considered it to be sort of a "workhorse" grape -- much as Californians regard zinfandel -- used to produce inexpensive, yet flavorful wines very appropriate for everyday drinking. Yet, as the Australian wine industry became more
sophisticated, with many wineries intent on producing world-class wines, Shiraz picked up a lot of class in places, emerging as the country's greatest winemaking expression in the form of Penfold's Grange (which used to be called Grange Hermitage).
Just as zinfandel is California's most prolific winegrape, shiraz is Australia's most widely grown red grape. American, rather than French, oak is widely used for both wines, with the Australians extremely fond of these spicy, vanilla-tinged barrels.
Basically, there are four styles of Australian Shiraz: The black pepper/spice Rhône Valley look-alikes of Central and Southern Victoria, north of Melbourne; the lush, concentrated, dense wines of the Barossa Valley northwest of Adelaide, exemplified by Penfold's Grange; the smooth, red cherry and mint style of
Coonawarra and Clare Valley, both near the coast in the vicinity of Adelaide; and the earthy, velvety reds of the Hunter Valley in New South Wales, northwest of Sydney.
With but a few exceptions (those with heavy handed oak treatment) Shiraz is a superb food wine, offering intensity of flavor without being heavy. This, combined with good acidity, makes for a wine that can be enjoyed with a wide variety of foods, from lamb, venison and kangaroo to Ahi tuna, goose liver pate,
anything with mushrooms, and light to medium spicy Mexican and Southwestern cuisine.
Fortunately for the wine lover in search of a bargain, there's a lot to be had between "jug-style" Shiraz the Aussies drink at the beach from plastic glasses filled from a "bag-in-a-box" container, and the mighty Grange, which is drunk from the finest crystal in the kneeling position.
Recently, the Vintners Club tasting panel evaluated 12 current-release Shirazs in our traditional blind-tasting format. Vintages spanned 1996 through 1998, all considered good-to-excellent years; prices ranged from $10 to $18. There were bargains galore, with the top three wines priced from $15 to $18, and wines
placing 4th through 6th place priced between $10 to $12. Many of these selections can be found at discount if you shop around.
One very important thing to keep in mind when sampling any syrah-based wine is that the wine requires more "breathing" time than most other varietals for the aromas to open up and the palate to soften. Decanting is highly recommended, since very little is accomplished simply by opening the bottle and letting it sit on the table a while before serving. In lieu of decanting, pour a glassful and allow the glass to sit a bit before sipping.
1996 Wolf Blass Shiraz, President's Selection, South Australia ($18)
Intense, very appealing nose of ripe black fruit, cracked black pepper, tobacco leaf, chocolate, cedar and vanillin oak. Plenty of oak on the palate balanced by enormously concentrated, rich, plummy, slightly peppery black fruit. Thoroughly delicious, and its medium tannins make it accessible now.
1996 Black Opel Shiraz, Barossa Valley ($16)
Fragrant, distinctive nose of dried herbs or black tea, raspberry and cassis fruit, accented by notes of chocolate and spice. Rich and silky smooth in the mouth with medium tannins and good acidity, the wine is brimming with rich, almost jammy black raspberry-black cherry fruit. A complex, generous wine with a long finish. Very stylish packaging.
1998 Owens Estate Shiraz, South Eastern Australia ($15)
Moderately forward, plummy, spicy black raspberry aromas are tinged with black pepper and anise. The wonderful black fruit on the palate is deep and rich, and is highlighted by a minty note that is typical of Goulburn Valley Shiraz. Velvety mouthfeel, medium tannins and good acidity.
1998 Wolf Blass Shiraz, South Australia ($12)
Very fruity nose, with hints of white pepper, cloves and chocolate. Smooth and round on the palate with lots of spicy blackberry and raspberry flavors. Nicely integrated oak.
1998 Hermitage Road Shiraz, South Australia ($10)
This is an incredible wine for $10! Complex, expressive nose of milk chocolate, ripe berries, cherries, plum, black pepper and raw red meat, and background notes of vanillin and toasty oak. Rich, deep and wonderfully spicy in the mouth with jammy blackberry and strawberry fruit along with robust tannins and fine
concentration. Intensely flavorful; long finish.
1998 Deakin Estate Shiraz, Victoria ($12)
Initially quite closed nose opens with time to offer black raspberry fruit and cinnamon spice. Hints of black pepper (though not as much as previous bottlings) along with cassis-blackberry fruit. Somewhat restrained now; needs some bottle age.
1998 Rosemount Estate Shiraz, South Eastern Australia ($10)
Fragrant, appealing scents of mocha, black fruit, caramel eventually open up to reveal some green herb and gamey notes, plus clove spice. Round and rich with lots of mocha-tinged fruit; generous; medium tannins.
1998 Black Opel Shiraz, South Eastern Australia ($10.50)
Nose of tobacco leaf, black pepper and raspberry fruit, plus spicy plum. A lighter style, almost delicate, with restrained fruit and soft tannins.
1996 Riddoch Shiraz, Coonawarra ($18)
Plummy, ripe black fruit accented with vanilla bean and a hint of gaminess. Oak is quite evident on the palate, but it's balanced by lots of spicy berry-cherry-cranberry fruit. Tasty and quite drinkable, with medium tannins.
1998 D'Arenberg Shiraz, The Footbolt, Old Vine Shiraz, McLaren Vale ($18)
I liked this wine more than the panel did, finding the slow-to-open nose eventually irresistible for its cedar, mocha, dark chocolate, white pepper and leather components accenting the ripe berry fruit. White pepper comes through on the generous palate, which exhibits black fruit and vanilla from the oak, plus hints of stewed plums and mint. Delicious and moderately complex, with medium tannins.
1997 Barwang Shiraz, Regional Selection, Coonawarra ($14)
"Barwang" is a native Australian word that means swiftly flying bird. The nose shows lots of oak from 14 months aging in new French and American barrels, which masks somewhat the red plum-cherry fruit. Shy fruit enhanced by notes of white pepper and smoky oak.
1997 Hermitage Road Shiraz, Reserve, Angle Vale Vineyard, Hunter Valley ($15)
This wine lost points for its vegetal nose and large dose of dill from American oak. Slightly harsh and sharp on the palate, with weedy flavors.
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Steve Pitcher is a freelance wine writer based in San Francisco. He is vice president of the Vintners Club and president of the San Francisco Bay Area Chapter of the German Wine Society.