Shiraz – ubiquitous, varied and lovely

To the old adage “a wine’s first duty is to be red” Australians might add that it should also be shiraz. A blinkered view, perhaps. But there’s no denying the diversity and sheer richness and drinking pleasure delivered by the shiraz grape in Australia.

The judges at this year’s National Wine Show, held at Natex in early November, seemed to think so. And at the exhibitors’ tasting preceding the presentation of trophies last Friday, shiraz, to me, was the highlight of the 1700 wine smorgasbord spread out on trestle tables in the Coorong Pavilion.

There were dozens of shirazes sprinkled through the various classes – medal winners from other wine shows – present in Canberra for the final, peak event of the year, judged by six Australian and three visiting judges under Chairman, James Halliday.

In class 40 (1994 and older shirazes) the judges awarded medals to 25 of the 28 wines – an extraordinary strike rate of 6 gold, 11 silver and 8 bronze medals.

Class 40 included shirazes from 11 regions across New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia. Though the judges rated Yalumba ‘The Octavius’ 1993 (Barossa Valley) top of the class with 56 points out of 60, five other gold medalists sat on 55.5 points.

On another day, in other circumstances any of those, or indeed several of the silver and bronze medalists might have pushed to the front.

Wynns Coonawarra Estate Michael Shiraz 1993, for instance, carried off the trophies in Sydney earlier in the year, only to be trumped by Octavius in Canberra.

Just as it did in Sydney, the $18 a bottle Seppelts Chalambar Shiraz 1994 (central Victoria) won gold in Canberra, thumbing its nose at the similarly pointed $70 Wynns Michael and $43 Yalumba Octavius.

That opens up the whole question of style, personal preference and value for money. Forget any notion that the judges have defined quality once and for all!

At this quality level, regional and wine making idiosyncrasies shine through in every wine. The Octavius, for example (named after the very small oak casks – octaves – in which it is matured) shows concentrated Barossa shiraz character very strongly overlaid with oak. Love it or hate it, it’s distinctive.

Wynns Michael, too, shows quite strong oak aromas and flavours, underpinned by Coonawarra’s luxurious, deep, sweet berry flavours. The difference between Michael and Octavius is so marked you can easily identify one from the other at a sniff.

If I were to pick just one shiraz from class 40 for long-term cellaring, it would be Wynns Michael. But for drinking now, I’d head straight for silver-medalist Peter Lehmann Stonewell Shiraz 1991. What a glorious Barossa red.

Or, another value-for-money selection, already gracing a dusty corner of Chateau Shanahan, Penfolds Coonawarra Bin 128 1993, a silver medal winner, retails for around $15 but appears on special for $11.99. That’s value.

The Canberra judges marked Bin128 just half a point behind the already legendary Eileen Hardy Shiraz 1993, and on a par with Henschke Mount Edelstone 1993.

The magnificent, earthy McWilliams Maurice O’Shea 1991 (Hunter Valley) just scraped in for a bronze – overshadowed by its more sumptuous Victorian and South Australian competitors.

In class 37 (dry red, firm finish) Orlando Lawson’s Vineyard Padthaway Shiraz 1991 took on a distinguished field, mainly of cabernet sauvignons, to win top gold and a trophy as the best table wine in museum classes.

Fortunately, there’s more Lawson’s 1991 on retail shelves than in the museum. 1991 is the current release of this single-vineyard wine which first appeared in the 1985 vintage.

Lawson’s vineyard sits on the eastern side of the Padthaway-Coonawarra road, on an elevated site where sand appears to have drifted in from the east to cover the terra rossa soils and limestone that typify most of Padthaway and Coonawarra.

With wine maker Philip Laffer, I recently tasted a sequence of Lawson’s from 1990 to 1996. It’s an evolving wine style, showing considerable wine maker induced variations from year to year as the Orlando team learns how best to deal with this remarkable vineyard.

The common thread is a remarkable fruit richness and supple, smoothness – characteristics multiplied in the exceptional 1991 vintage. Senior judge, Brian Croser later commented that Lawson’s 1991 was a controversial wine. Some judges disliked the level of winemaking influence in the aroma and flavour; others loved it.

But then, great wines are often controversial. More on shiraz and the wine show next week.