Brian Walsh, Octavius and the case for diverse shiraz styles

Judged by share of media voice, Australia’s fragrant, refined, cool-climate shiraz styles have the upper hand over the sturdy, ripe warm-climate styles.

Steadfastly, however, Australia’s wine investors and consumers continue to back the robust, ‘old fashioned’ warm-climate shirazes. Some might say that this is just the old guard doggedly sticking to the past, forever blind to the enlightenment.

Others, more reasonably, might say that, well, if winemakers grow shiraz in cool places like Canberra or Great Western or Mount Barker, the wines aren’t going to taste like those made in the warmer Clare, Barossa or McLaren Vale.

These reasonable people might also add that the longer history and greater production volumes in the warm areas probably explains, at least in part, why these robust reds still overwhelmingly dominate the secondary market (judged by Langton’s Classification, based on auction volumes and prices).

Yet another explanation might be that the majority of people simply favour big, ripe, warm shiraz flavours over the fragrant, savoury, refined styles from cooler areas.

Or perhaps, as a note from Yalumba Winemaker, Brian Walsh suggests, this is not a popularity competition at all. Brian writes, “What is important though is that we acknowledge that shiraz has many great manifestations in this country and the debate should be less about cool climate verus warm/hot climate and more about celebrating the differences between the styles, while interpreting and being true to the appropriate style for one’s region…”

Brian’s long, thoughtful note arrived with a sample bottle of Yalumba The Octavius 2002 (reviewed below) – an idiosyncratic wine that in 1988 marked Barossa-based Yalumba’s return to making solid reds after having lost direction for most of the eighties.

Octavius’s evolution — from a dense, overwhelmingly oaky style (hence the industry nickname ‘Oaktavius’) to the rich, ripe harmonious regional style of today – parallels the finessing of so many other warm climate Australian flagships.

Like Octavius, Peter Lehmann Stonewell, Grant Burge Meshach, Hardys Eileen Hardy and Tim Adams Aberfeldy – to name just a few – modified viticulture, winemaking and oak maturation over the past decade to produce increasingly graceful, harmonious styles – without losing the regional thumbprint.

While this finessing has been far from universal, it reflects a restlessness amongst our best and most influential winemakers. This is fuelled by both self-criticism and wider debate amongst winemakers and critics and often fanned by our wine show system.

Within this style debate, makers from our cooler areas have unquestionably helped to raise the bar. Wines of the calibre of Canberra’s Clonakilla Shiraz Viognier and Seppelt St Peters Shiraz are their own best argument for seamless, delicious, near perfection.

The best warm-climate shiraz makers acknowledge these – as they do the best of France’s Rhone Valley styles and see some attributes of these wines – if not the cool-grown fruit flavours – as desirable in their own wines.

But just as some cool-climate shiraz suffers from being too lean or just plain unripe, warm climate shiraz can move beyond plummy ripe fruit flavours to cloying porty or raisened flavours. And both, of course, can suffer from poor winemaking, particularly in the use of inappropriate oak.

As consumers, we’re fortunate to have such a spectrum of outstanding shiraz styles available in Australia. We’ve taken ownership of this French variety. And whether it’s a peppery Craiglee Sunbury, an earthy Brokenwood Graveyard Hunter, a fragrant, silky Clonakilla Canberra or a powerful, graceful Octavius Barossa, the drinking pleasure is immense.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2006 & 2007