Aussie Shiraz waives the rules

An old wine trade adage, probably of British origin, had it that four ‘noble’ wine-grape varieties – the red cabernet sauvignon and pinot noir; and the white chardonnay and riesling – were the source of all the world’s great wines.

Unshakeable faith in those varieties deified wines from the regions in which they originated. And the pantheon of great wines for a time looked immutable: Bordeaux reigned over all other cabernets; Burgundy and Champagne ruled pinot noir and chardonnay; the Rhine and Mosel Rivers defined riesling quality; and no other grape variety, let alone region, brooked a look into this elite group.

Then as a larger world embraced wine growing and drinking, brash new voices challenged the old orthodoxy; new world wines occasionally thumbed noses at the great names (remember Tyrrell’s Hunter Pinot Noir’s award at the Gault Milleau wine Olympics in Paris, 1976 – or Grange 1971’s triumph at the same event?

As the Americans enthusiastically embraced wines from the 1970s, new world chipping away at French mystique gathered momentum. And the British (by now a nation of model wine merchants rather than shop keepers) stayed one step ahead of the Americans in cheering wonderful new world wines along.

The ‘four noble varieties’ myth faded as minds were opened to the vastly expanded palate of wine flavours that emerged during the 1980s. Australian wines made their mark. First as ‘good value’ wines. ‘Bottled sunshine’ someone called them, resurrecting a term used for Lindemans wines in the 1920s.

Then the British noticed shiraz. Grange first. ‘The first growth of the southern hemisphere’ Hugh Johnson called it a decade ago. Then the list of good Australian shiraz grew. Australian wine was moving up-market and it was shiraz driving British recognition of our better wines.

By the early 1990s a steady stream of British retailers flowed through Australia, picking the eyes out of our rich, warm shiraz offerings. Domestic demand began picking up at about the same time. The Americans were perhaps a little behind the British in spotting Australian shiraz. Sure they knew it was ‘good value’ but it was not seen widely as a top-shelf variety. The ‘four noble varieties’ myth still held.

Then, BANG! Grange became ‘Parkerised’. American wine god/guru, Robert M. Parker likened Grange’s opulence and power to that of Chateau Petrus – Bordeaux’s most expensive red wine (perversely a merlot, not cabernet). Shortly afterwards, America’s influential ‘Wine Spectator’ magazine nominated Grange 1990 as its red wine of the year for 1995 – a first for an Australian wine. Not just Australia, but shiraz was gaining a new respect.

Then Australian shiraz won two new accolades. In 1996, Austrian glass manufacturer Georg Riedel launched a purpose-built shiraz glass by pitting the world’s top shiraz wines against one another in a blind tasting attended by 140 people. Australia’s Eileen Hardy Shiraz 1993 conquered in a field that included fancy names from France’s Rhone Valley – home of the shiraz grape.

Monsieur Chapoutier, a leading French producer was so impressed, he bought six cases on the spot, arranged swaps of his own wines for future vintages of Eileen Hardy, and now plans to make and market Australian reds for the French market dressed in dashing, over-the-top Australian-landscape labels, designed by Adelaide’s Barbara Harkness.

Mr Riedel’s release of a shiraz glass adds to the recognition of shiraz as a great grape variety. But it was small change in the evolving Australian-shiraz story when compared to the front cover of last June’s ‘Wine Spectator’.

The headline screamed ‘SHIRAZ Australia hits the big time’ over a monumental colour picture of three top Australian shirazes: Mount Langhi Ghiran 1994, Penfolds Grange 1990, and Henschke Mount Edelstone 1993.

Inside, Marvin R. Shanken editorialised, “To give you an idea of how good these hearty new red wines are, 14 out of 66 shirazes currently available in America scored 90 points or higher on Wine Spectator’s 100-point scale. Two of them scored higher than 95. Incredible scores like this don’t come along very often. We recommend that you buy some of our favorites and try them for yourselves.”

The editorial was backed by an extensive shiraz tasting and a cover story by Harvey Steiman, a principal of the magazine, who judged at the Sydney Wine Show in February 1996, then toured our wine growing areas.

The bottom line is that Americans now see shiraz “as a world-class grape worthy of collecting” and that Australian shiraz has moved to the top of the shopping list. Global recognition and the heady prices now being fetched by our leading shirazes suggests that a fifth ‘noble’ grape has arrived thanks largely to the determination and skill of Australian wine makers.