If Australia owns any one wine grape variety, it’s shiraz. We grow around 40,000 hectares of it. Our shiraz vineyards cluster either side of the 4,000 kilometres from east to west coast, through 16 degrees of latitude (from south-eastern Queensland (27 degrees) to southern Tasmania (43 degrees) and from near sea level to 700 or 800 metres above it.
We’ve grown shiraz successfully for over 200 years and, in several regions, vines planted in the mid-to-late nineteenth century still produce beautiful fruit.
A diversity of climates, soils plus viticultural and winemaking approaches produces an equivalent diversity of shiraz styles, ranging from fragrant, light to medium styles in cooler areas to thunder-in-the brain blockbusters from hot areas.
At a recent Chateau Shanahan masked tasting we compared three of these contrasting styles – two from warm climates (Barossa and Hunter valleys) and one from the cooler Canberra district. I selected each specifically for individuality and perceived leadership in its style.
The experienced tasting group saw nothing but three glasses in front of them. Their brief: in front of you are three Australian wines of the same variety but from three different vintages and three different regions. What is the variety? What are the style differences? What regions could they be from? Are these as good as Aussie shiraz gets?
The group has been tasting wine systematically for more than 20 years. They quickly nailed the variety, albeit with a couple of false starts, no doubt caused by the amazing style variations.
With only the senses as a guide, the group looked for clues: surely wine number one’s deep colour and strong flavours pointed to a warm area. Yes, indeed.
Wine two – now that’s an enigma: the colour’s pale to medium and it’s medium bodied, but it’s also savoury and strong with tight tannins. Put this in the too-hard basket for a moment. Well, no, said one taster, I think the lighter colour and body suggest a cool climate. Wrong, but good reasoning and not the first time someone’s seen this particular wine this way.
Wine three’s medium depth and vivid colour pointed to youth (this must be the youngest of the three), and its fragrant, floral, spicy aroma and medium body said ‘cool climate’. Yes, indeed.
So after a few minutes, we had wine one in a warm climate, wine three in a cool climate and wine two unresolved. We explored the options for number two, and found ourselves in the Hunter Valley. What other hot area grows shiraz with cool-climate characteristics? Nowhere else.
We’d not yet nailed the other two wines to specific regions. But the same guy who’d suggested cool climate for the Hunter wine, said I think number three’s Clonakilla Canberra Shiraz Viognier. Spot on. It’s a distinctive wine, long familiar to our Canberra-based tasting group.
After mentally exploring Australian warm climate shiraz styles, we eventually placed wine number one in the Barossa – and it must be said the sheer dimension and beauty of the wine surprised several of the tasters.
Discussion then moved to what remarkably beautiful and unique wines we had in front of us. Food being served, we relaxed and savoured the magnificence in our glasses.
Our conclusion: the three easily sit among Australia’s very top shirazes. Although a comparative newcomer, our favourite wine of the night, John Duval Eligo 2015, rightfully claims a longer pedigree than the label alone suggests.
John Duval worked for Penfolds for decades and in the mid eighties succeeded Don Ditter as chief winemaker, a role he retained until 2002. Responsible for making all of Penfolds reds, including Grange, Duval also created Penfolds RWT, a wine that still stands as one of the greatest of all Barossa shirazes.
Duval’s deep knowledge of Barossa vineyards and exceptional winemaking skills produced the wine that topped our little tasting.
Vineyards: John Duval writes, ‘Eligo represents the best of my 2015 vintage and is sourced from some excellent vineyards in the Barossa Valley and Eden Valley regions’. (The more elevated, cooler Eden Valley adjoins the Barossa Valley’s eastern boundary. The two regions together form the greater Barossa Zone).
Winemaking: Fermentation with submerged cap in small stainless steel tanks. Some batches on skin up to two weeks. Maturation, 20 months in French oak hogsheads (300-litres) – 55% new, the rest two, three and four-year old.
Tasting note: Deep red–black colour with crimson rim; full, ripe, plummy varietal aroma with spicy, charry oak; full, ripe palate with intense black-cherry like fruit flavours deeply meshed with sympathetic oak and persistent, fine tannins; a wine of rare dimension – intense, ripe and firm, but elegant and refined. This was the group favourite.
Vineyards: Pokolbin, lower Hunter Valley: 1892 Eight-Acres block,1968 Contours block, 1968 Weinkellar east block. Average vine age 66 years. All vineyards dry grown in similar soils: red volcanic clay over limestone.
Winemaking: All fruit handpicked, de-stemmed but not crushed; fermentation in open-top stainless steel vats. Maturation in new French oak 2,700-litre casks until April 2017.
Tasting note: Pale to medium colour, with youthful crimson rim; wedged between the Duval and Clonakilla wines, Vat 9 showed contrasting savoury, earthy characters on a taut, comparatively austere palate, with an underlying core of sweet fruit. The group rated this second of the three shirazes. Paradoxically the group drank more of the Vat 9 than of either of the other two wines. Was it really the favourite? Or were we simply probing its idiosyncrasies?
Vineyards: Clonakilla Euroka Park and T&L vineyards, Murrumbateman, New South Wales. (The Canberra District includes vineyards in both the Australian Capital Territory and neighbouring NSW).
Grape varieties:Mostly shiraz, co-fermented with the white variety viognier (about 6% of the total).
Winemaking: Fermentation in open vats (20–30 per cent whole bunches, the rest de-stemmed and pumped to the fermenter, resulting in a mix of crushed and whole berries); cold soaking for several days as a spontaneous fermentation begins. Plunging machines break up the caps of skins and grapes three times a day at peak ferment, then daily as the ferment slows down. The 2017 remained on skins for three weeks post-ferment before being pressed off into 225-litre French oak barriques, one third new, for 12 months’ maturation.
Tasting note: Medium, vibrant crimson colour; fragrant, floral and vibrant aroma and a matching deep, spicy, luscious palate; a wine of supple elegance, with a fine, persistent tannic structure and notable length. The group loved this wine, but on the night paid more attention to the Duval and Tyrrell wines.
Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2018