Savouring the shiraz spectrum

Australia owns shiraz – not just in the generic sense of making juicy, soft, affordable quaffers (which we do very well) but in expressing a wide spectrum of styles across our dozens of regions.
We’ve arrived at an amazing diversity of extraordinarily good shirazes. And the quality we’re now enjoying seems to be drawn from long traditions, combined with attentive, sympathetic winemaking.

We can look up to expensive icons like Grange and Hill of Grace. But we don’t need to spend hundreds of dollars a bottle to enjoy comparable quality. There’s a wealth of superb shiraz out there in a sweet spot between $30 and $50 a bottle – not everyday prices for sure, but a modest enough sum for the luxurious indulgence they provide.

With shiraz in mind, eight tasters recently explored an eclectic line-up at Chateau Shanahan. We served the wines masked, in groups of three, over a long, leisurely meal.

The selection represented the finer, cool-grown end of the shiraz spectrum from seven regions – with one wine each from New Zealand and France thrown in to broaden our perspective.

Here’s our report. Remember, too, this is not a final tasting following an exhaustive search. They’re just nine wines, currently available in retail stores and representing a range of styles.

We found nine distinctive wines each enjoyable. Only one, considerably cheaper than others, seemed out of its depth – the selector’s fault, not the wine’s. Mea Culpa.

BRACKET 1

Penfolds Bin 128 Coonawarra Shiraz 2008 $25–$34
Max Schubert made the first Bin 128 in 1962 and matured it in American oak barrels similar to the ones he used for the other Penfolds reds, generally from much warmer regions than Coonawarra. In 1980 chief winemaker Don Ditter switched from American oak to French oak. This proved more in tune with the comparatively delicate fruit of Coonawarra.

The 2008 vintage is on the ripe side of the Coonawarra flavour spectrum. It’s very bright with sweet berry flavours, wrapped in layers of soft tannins. The oak flavours are already well integrated with the fruit.

Some of the earlier Bin 128s seemed swamped by tannin in youth, but over time the lovely elegance of Coonawarra came through. But this could take ten or more years.  Although the 2008 shows the bigger, riper side of Coonawarra, it’s not over ripe and the elegant structure is already emerging. I suspect it’ll really strut its origins and class within three or four years and drink well for decades. Thumbs up from all eight tasters.

Meerea Park Canberra District XYZ Shiraz 2008 $19–$22
Brothers Garth and Rhys Eather focus most of their winemaking on the lower Hunter, around Pokolbin. But the “failure of the 2008 Hunter Valley shiraz vintage forced us to look elsewhere for suitable fruit”, writes Garth. They found what they wanted at Murrumbateman.
On opening, the wine had the unpleasant pong of hydrogen sulphide, but this largely dissipated with decanting – leaving a tiny trace in the glass, picked up by some but not all of the tasters. The wine’s in the spicy, savoury Canberra mould and just a little raw at present. The fruit flavours seemed simple in comparison to the other two wines in the bracket – but hardly surprising given the price difference.

Coldstream Hills Yarra Valley Reserve Shiraz 2006 $36–$40
Like Penfolds, Coldstream Hills is part of the Foster’s wine group, though the wines are grown and made in different regions by different winemakers – Penfolds by Peter Gago, Coldstream Hills by Andrew Fleming.

This is a beautiful wine, showing the benefit of a few years’ bottle age and the lovely aromatic lift given by a touch of viognier co-fermented with the shiraz. The medium bodied palate is lively, buoyant, silk smooth and packed with ripe, cherry-like fruit flavour, and a spicy, savoury note. Pure class; loved by all tasters.

BRACKET 2

Tyrrell’s Vat 9 Hunter Valley Shiraz 2007 $45–$53
About a decade ago Tyrrell’s began installing 2,500-litre French oak casks to mature, and in the case of chardonnay, to ferment, their flagship wines. The move away from the more widely used 300–500 litre hogsheads and barriques, recognised the subtleness and keeping qualities of earlier wines matured in larger, old-oak vessels. Essentially, it was about providing an aerobic environment to stabilise and mature wine while reducing the overall impact of oak flavour. Hence, Vat 9, the company’s flagship red, now spends time in these large casks, old and new, before bottling.

The style used to be called Hunter “burgundy”– a salute to its supple, soft texture and earthy notes. Attentive modern winemaking delivers a Vat 9 of extraordinary dimension. It’s ripe and juicy with traditional soft tannins; but it’s tremendously bright and fresh with soft, tender tannins, a subtle, complex spicy bite from the oak and an underlying earthiness that marks it as Hunter, even in a masked tasting like ours.

It’s a distinctive and potentially very long-lived wine that should become finer and more ethereal over the decades. Pleasing to all tasters.

Best’s Bin O Great Western Shiraz 2006 $50–$55
Henry Best established a vineyard at Great Western, Victoria, in 1866. The Thomson family bought it in 1920 and fourth and fifth generation Viv and Ben Thomson today make Bin 0 Shiraz from four low yielding blocks planted between 1966 and 1994 using cuttings from older vines on the block, some dating from 1868.

In our tasting Bin 0 seemed brawny, wedged between Tyrrell’s gentle, soft Vat 9 and the highly aromatic, lingering, medium bodied Clonakilla O’Riada. It had the body and power of warm-grown shiraz; but a note of “mint” underlying the ripe, black cherry flavour suggested a cooler climate. The wine blossomed over time in the glass, displaying great power with elegance, and attracting heaps of discussion. I suspect it’ll cellar for decades.

Clonakilla Canberra District O’Riada Shiraz 2008 $36–$40
This delicious, fine-boned shiraz viognier is an offshoot of Clonakilla’s $75 flagship shiraz viognier. The wine comprises about 40 per cent of components “declassified” from the flagship blend plus material from three local growers favoured by winemaker Tim Kirk: Phil Williams of Hall and Long Rail Gully and Quarry Hill Vineyards of Murrumbateman.

I’ve seen enjoyed the wine over several meals now and in this masked tasting it once again showed class, in Clonakilla’s unique way. I noted its lifted, spicy, gorgeous aroma; lively, spicy, delicious flavours with a fine structure based on high acidity as well as fine-grained tannins.
Interestingly it didn’t please all tasters – one in particular preferred the rounder, softer wines to this more acidic style.

BRACKET 3

Craggy Range Hawkes Bay Block 14 Gimblett Gravels Syrah 2007 $28–$32
When we close our eyes and think of shiraz, New Zealand doesn’t normally come to mind. In general the climate there’s too cool to ripen shiraz. However, the Gimblett Gravels – a stony, well-drained part of the Hawke’s Bay region – produces some rippers, especially in warm seasons like 2007.

In our final bracket, featuring shiraz (aka syrah) from three countries, Craggy range showed the intense fragrance and pepperiness of its cool origins. And, like the Clonakilla wine before it, high acid and fine tannins seemed to accentuate the deep, juicy, delicious fruit flavours. It’s a wonderful wine, right out there on the coolest end of the shiraz spectrum. Well liked by the tasters.

Hermitage (Domaine des Martinelles) 2005 $72–$80
For almost two centuries Australians knew “hermitage” as a synonym for “shiraz”. But after we recognised “Hermitage” as a protected French name, we dropped the name from our labels – hence Grange Hermitage became Grange.

Hermitage, the hill on France’s Rhone Valley, grows shiraz and its powerful, long-lived reds once rated among the country’s finest. Although the status has slipped, our representative from this hot little hill, showed the legendary strength and backbone of the style – providing a great contrast to the New Zealand and Canberra wines either side of it in our tasting.

It’s powerful, but not in the style, say, of a big, bold, fruity Barossa wine – but in a more sinewy way: the flavours are strong, but not fleshy and backed by taut, firm tannins.

It’s a good, clean modern wine expressing the regional style – and enjoyed by all tasters.

Collector Canberra District Reserve Shiraz 2008 $45–$50
Alex McKay’s Collector Reserve 2008 won four trophies at the recent Sydney Royal Wine Show, topping Aussie greats like Vasse Felix Cabernet and Best’s Bin O Shiraz. Alex sourced the shiraz from the Kyeema Murrumbatemen Vineyard – and added a few buckets of the white variety, viognier, from Kyeema and Wayne and Jennie Fischer’s vineyard.

In our tasting we saw parallels with the Clonakilla wine in general structure and style: medium bodied and spicy with a backbone combining acid and fine tannins. But we noted, too, the distinctive stalky character derived from including whole-bunches (stalks and all) in the fermentation.

McKay says he worried at the time that he might have overdone the whole-bunch thing. However, though it’s apparent, it’s really seasoning in a superb, silky, sweet-fruited wine most of us ranked highly – one taster expressing a caveat on the stalkiness.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2010

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