Big reds are OK, too

Australian winemakers seem to be copping bit of stick from some quarters for making inky, oaky, alcoholic shiraz – ‘caricatures’ some say, of wines that taste awful young and grow worse with age.

But let’s not confuse these over-ripe, over-oaked, sometimes artificially concentrated reds with our very powerful, balanced, warm-climate styles. Many of these are made to age gracefully for decades – and it takes a bit of stuffing to emerge in good nick after twenty or thirty years in the cellar.

And robust wines like this, by definition, don’t always have the drink-now appeal of the vast majority of wines made for early consumption. They’re usually balanced, but sheer concentration of fruit flavour and a high tannin load can be a little daunting.

The best of these, generally released after four or five years’ bottle age, still show a youthful crimson around the rim and a near opaque red/black centre, with solid fruit and tannin to match. At this stage they’re impressive, if a little raw.

Move on a decade or two and the colour tones down to a vibrant red, perhaps with a touch of brown and the aroma and flavour show wonderful, warm, aged characters along with the still-sweet fruit. And by now the tannins have softened and oak character merged into the single ‘winey’ flavour.

At many tastings and dinners over the years aged, robust Aussie reds have emerged beautifully after ten, twenty, thirty and even fifty years in the cellar.

At a single tasting a little over a year ago, Grange 1983, once so dense and tannic, led the following list of robust, mellowing and deeply fruity shirazes: Grange 1991, Jim Barry Clare Valley The Armagh 1990, Penfolds St Henri 1991, Peter Lehmann Barossa Valley Stonewell 1991 and 1994, Orlando Lawson’s Padthaway 1992, Yalumba Octavius 1993, Henschke Hill of Grace Eden Valley 1994 and Tim Adams Clare Valley The Aberfeldy 1994.

We might call these warm climate shirazes the old guard – established and time proven, but now being joined by increasing numbers of supple, elegant cool-climate styles exemplified by Canberra’s Clonakilla Shiraz Viognier of Murrumbateman.

The successful spread of shiraz into cooler areas – notably the Canberra District and southern Victoria – doesn’t spell the end of the old styles. It just means greater diversity for drinkers and probably provides further impetus for warm climate producers to fine tune oak handling and other winemaking inputs – something that’s been ongoing anyway.

While the market demands mainly drink-now reds, the best of the new wave, like Clonakilla, possess the huge fruit intensity and structure for long-term ageing. But they also have the seductive perfume, subtle oak and soft structure to appeal now – virtues that the warm climate long-cellaring reds seldom reveal.

That’s partly because different climates will, thankfully, produce different wine styles from the same grape variety. A Barossa grower cannot emulate a Canberra style and vice versa.

This diversity is important for drinkers and healthy for the wine industry. What we have to hope for is that the current trend for critics to promote elegance and refinement and slam robustness doesn’t turn the heads of winemakers away from proven regional styles.

The danger for drinkers when new enthusiasms emerge is that enthusiasm can be contagious, sometimes for no good reason. I’ve tasted many talked-up, ‘elegant’ cool climate shirazes to be simply feeble, and unripe at that. And that hurts when you’ve paid $25 or $30 a bottle.

I find, too, that’s there’s not a lot of joy in many me-too shiraz-viognier blends. The best, like Clonakilla, are wonderful. But some seem to be going through the motions. What you get, all too often, is shiraz that tastes more like syrup than wine – a far cry from the seductive fragrance and silky texture achieved with that blend by Clonakilla and a few others.

For sure, let’s curb the excesses of oak, alcohol and tannin. But when it comes to our top end, warm climate reds with proven long term cellaring ability, let’s not cave in to whim or fashion. Twenty-year reds need power and structure. Informed drinkers know that and don’t want to see them focus grouped into feebleness.

Quite apart from the long-lived, more robust styles, there’s a generosity and lovableness to the earlier-drinking shirazes from warm areas like the Barossa, Clare and McLaren Vale. Indeed, Australia’s export success to the USA rides on these delicious styles. And, in truth, that’s where most domestic emphasis lies, too.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2007