Aussie Shiraz shift is not critic-driven

Producers rather than critics are driving the stylistic shift in Australia’s flagship Shiraz, maintains one expert on the country’s wines.

ShirazHosting a Shiraz masterclass in London last week, Mark Davidson, global education manager for Wine Australia, considered the move in recent years by an increasing number of producers towards a “fresher” expression of this variety.

“That over-ripe character I guess was successful for some producers in certain markets, but it’s not where most people are pushing now,” he reported. “In the last five years with Shiraz there’s been a freshness.”

However, Davidson indicated that the source of motivation behind this change was different to the primary force that encouraged the rich, oak-driven expressions that emerged during the 1990s.

“What was encouraged in Australia, especially by the North American critics, was the big style that’s easy to make in Barossa,” commented Davidson. Turning to the current evolution, he suggested: “It’s driven by something different. It’s producer driven – I don’t think in this case it’s being driven by the press. There’s a younger generation coming through and saying ‘these aren’t the style of wines we want to make.’”

Davidson also drew a contrast with the earlier swing towards fresher styles that took place with Australian Chardonnay, suggesting that the latest move with Shiraz “does seem to be slower.”

Marking a distinction between the way these two major Australian varieties were originally planted, he observed: “The problem with Chardonnay was that a lot of the early stuff was planted in places where it was easy and the new clonal material only came in the 1990s.”

By comparison, Davidson continued: “Shiraz is largely in better regions so there’s not been so much replanting and it’s been more of a steady evolution. The clonal material for Shiraz is not an issue.”

In addition to the more sensitive use of oak, whether in terms of maturation time, proportion of new barrels or size of barrel, Davidson pointed to other factors contributing to the modern style of Australian Shiraz.

“One of the things we’ve seen along with that freshness – and actually contributing to that freshness – is more tannin,” he remarked, noting that historically “the maceration time in Australia for a lot of Shiraz has been very short.”

Today however, Davidson pointed to examples such as Clonakilla, “who do 40-45 days on skins”, with a similar approach currently in evidence from a number of Yarra producers in particular, as he observed that such a method “is not necessarily making the wines more tannic, but it’s adding to that freshness.”

Just as disaffection with oak led many Chardonnay producers to push towards the very opposite end of the spectrum before settling in the middle ground, so too with Shiraz Davidson acknowledged the rise in techniques such as whole bunch fermentation to create a dramatically different expression. Nevertheless, he added: “The extremes do exist, those very stemmy, stalky styles do exist, but people are moving back.”

Wine Australia

Mark Davidson leads the Wine Australia Shiraz masterclass in London

Above all, Davidson set this newer style of Shiraz within the wider context of Wine Australia’s regional communication strategy.

“While we’ve got this wonderful legacy, this treasure trove of Shiraz, it’s sort of our weakness too,” he remarked of the challenge to spread the message about the evolution of this variety. “The biggest problem with how we’ve promoted Australia and Shiraz is that we talked Australia, not the regional situation. The work going forward is talking about those regions.”

From the context of this regional rather than national framework, Davidson emphasised that the new style of Shiraz emerging from Australia – often centred around cooler regions – did not mark the end of the fuller bodied expressions on which the country built its reputation. “I don’t want some of those traditional things to go away,” he maintained. “The discussion has to be that regional discussion.”

With Wine Australia data indicating that Shiraz accounts for roughly 42,012 hectares, or 28% of Australia’s total vineyard area, Davidson highlighted the variety’s particular dominance in certain parts of the country.

Shiraz represents 51% of overall vineyard plantings in McLaren Vale, 57% of Barossa, 64% of the Grampians and 57% of Heathcote. Other major regions for Shiraz include the Riverland, where 13% of the country’s Shiraz can be found, and Riverina, which is home to 12% of Australia’s flagship red variety.

For all the work in recent years to communicate this alternative expression of Shiraz, Davidson suggested that the message would still take another “three to five years” to filter through to the market.

As for strengthening support for Australian Shiraz among fans of highly regarded regions such as the northern Rhône, Davidson warned against a tendency to under-estimate the sophistication of many expressions from Down Under. “There’s so much exuberant fruit that it seems simple and straightforward,” he remarked, “but if you wait then all those lovely complexities come out.”

One Response to “Aussie Shiraz shift is not critic-driven”

  1. What a good read this was! Our far side of the moon pt23 shiraz was planted 16 years ago on our very well protected
    macropocket/amphitheatre on the edge of a deep saltwater estuary along the Tamar in Tasmania.The style is so different and delightful and does well at a $40.00 price point and so does cab.franc, merlot,cab. sauvignon,tempranillo, zinfandel, mavrodaphne and viognier.a wickedly rocky 36 acres on the edge of a southern hemisphere Gironde which doubles as the loveliest vineyard location in the nation. It took 15 minutes to decide on the spot in 1978. We were the 1st cellar door in Tasmania (now90) www. is worth a look.
    Ta tuaru,
    mark semmens – owner

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