Australian Shiraz ditches stereotype

12th December, 2012 by Gabriel Stone

Australian Shiraz showed it has undergone a similarly dramatic shift to the country’s Chardonnay during the first UK Shiraz “Landmark Tasting”, organised by Wine Australia.

Yvonne May of Wine Australia introduces Sarah Ahmed, who chaired the Shiraz Landmark Tasting

Chairing the tasting and discussion, which involved flights of three vintages from five producers in different regions, wine writer Sarah Ahmed highlighted some of the most significant stylistic shifts taking place with Australian Shiraz.

“There’s no room for stereotypes,” she remarked of Australia’s flagship red variety. “Like Chardonnay, the pendulum has swung from ripe, sugary styles to lighter, more elegant ones, but there are some anorexic wines there too,” Ahmed summed up of the evolutionary process in recent years.

Outlining some of the most significant changes behind this stylistic shift, Ahmed highlighted “better site selection, lower alcohol levels and less lush fruit,” adding of the latter, “screwcap can help tame that too.”

A growth in experimentation with whole bunch fermentation is also having an impact, with Ahmed praising the increase in fruit rather than wood tannins created by this process. “It takes a while to integrate those funkier, floral notes, but it helps with ageing,” she argued.

Aided by a fresh generation of winemakers, who were described by Ahmed as showing “a close connection to the vineyards” and often an interest “in slightly funkier styles”, she highlighted a growing “focus on wines that have wonderful drinkability; wines for the table.”

Fresh approaches have also led to a number of wines described by Ahmed as “hand grenades” for their extreme break with traditional notions of Australian Shiraz.

Examples of these wines on show at the tasting included McLaren Vale producer Battle of Bosworth’s Puritan Shiraz, which is made using no sulphur with a character reminiscent of a Spanish joven style Tempranillo.

Pushing the cool climate Syrah to its limit – and proving the potential for success – was the Glaetzer Dixon Family’s Mon Père Shiraz 2010 from Tasmania, which won Australia’s prestigious Jimmy Watson Trophy last year.

In addition to the winemakers who are driving this trend, Ahmed linked the growing profile of cooler styles to a shift in demand among Austalian consumers. “At the moment, there are a lot more imports of European wines and people are liking that – there is a cycle going through,” she observed.

However, in some cases the results divided opinion, with concerns that Australian producers were pushing too far towards under-ripe styles.

One of the most contentious wines of the tasting was a flight of De Bortoli Reserve Release Syrah from the relatively cool region of Yarra Valley. In recent years, chief winemaker Steve Webber has drawn on time working in Burgundy to increase the proportion of whole bunch fermentation and introduce larger 280 litre and 500l foudres for the wine’s maturation.

While some welcomed the result, for a number of individuals the style was criticised for being too “austere” and “stemmy”.

Despite these concerns, Ahmed suggested that, on balance, the shift towards lighter, cooler styles of Shiraz was a positive step. “I welcome that playing around on the cusp of ripeness,” she concluded.

Wine Australia is planning to extend its Landmark Tasting series in the UK next year, with Cabernet Sauvignon and Riesling-focused events scheduled for early 2013.

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