Australian shiraz has an outstanding pedigree, and the Barossa Valley boasts some of the world’s greatest expressions of this remarkably complex and versatile wine.
As the cooler months are approaching, it is time to think about drinking Shiraz again. Shiraz is the most versatile of the noble red grapes; it is grown in all of Australia’s wine regions. Yet its character varies dramatically, depending on climate, rainfall and soil. For example, in the cooler regions of Victoria, Shiraz shows a very spicy, peppery taste. In the warm regions of South Australia, such as McLaren Vale or the Barossa, Shiraz is full bodied, with intense fruit characteristics.
The first Australian Shiraz vineyard was planted in the Hunter Valley by George Wyndham in the late 1820s, but the most famous Shiraz region today is the Barossa. Vines here date from the 1840s and are amongst the oldest in the world.
Australia’s two most treasured wines have their roots in the Barossa. The two key vineyards for Penfolds Grange, Koonanga Hill and Kalimna, are found in the subregion known as the Barossa Valley, and Henschke’s Hill of Grace vineyard is situated in the subregion of the Eden Valley.
It has recently become clear that the influence of the terroir (climate, rainfall and soil), even in the small area of the Barossa Valley (32km x 15km), creates wines of quite different expressions.
So, how do you find the kind of Barossa Shiraz you prefer? Where should you start your search? To keep it simple, the two most obvious characteristics of Shiraz are its fruit flavours and its tannin profile. Wines that come from the Valley Floor of the Barossa, grown on alluvial soils, tend to have comparatively soft tannins and lush fruit flavours, in particular plum. This would be typical for wines coming from the Lyndoch area and the Central Valley south of Tanunda. The wineries Schild, Grant Burge, Turkey Flat and Dutschke have major holdings in this area. In contrast, wines from the Northern Barossa, a flat and hot area, tend to be very full bodied, often with coarse tannins and high alcohol content. Penfolds, Barossa Valley Estate, and Ben Glaetzer make wines from here.
The Western Ridge is also a hot area, but hilly and with schisty soils. The Shiraz from here is extremely dark in colour, and the tannins are often quite silky. Torbreck has its home here, as does Hentley Farm and Seppeltsfield. East of the Barossa Valley is the Eden Valley, which is higher in altitude. Here, the Shiraz is vibrant and delicate, sometimes peppery. Henschke is the most famous winery in Eden Valley; others include Chris Ringland, Torzi Matthews, Fernfield and Poonawatta.
Of course, wine does not make itself. The winemaker has a major influence on the final product. Many wineries in the Barossa are small and family owned, often by the fifth or sixth generation. They can be quite flexible and innovative.
Times, they are a’changing
Three major trends have emerged in recent years. In the 1990s, the influential American wine writer Robert Parker fell in love with big alcoholic Barossa Shiraz. Many were awarded with 100 point reviews. This wine style is popular with many wine consumers but as average temperatures have been increasing, and experience has shown that some of these wines did not age well, a move into the opposite direction began. Many wineries are now picking grapes earlier to create more vitality, rather than weight, in their Shiraz. Spinifex and Head wines are typical for this new direction.
A second movement is a switch to biodynamic farming practises. This involves special soil treatment, no spraying with chemicals, and activities carried out based on the lunar calendar. The alleged benefits are a more true representation of the place where the grapes are grown, and in the wine, more delicate and vibrant fruit flavours. Kalleske and Henschke have been early proponents of this movement.
The third trend is again related to rising temperatures. To counteract this effect, many wineries are increasingly looking for fruit from the Eden Valley, which is cooler due to its higher elevation. For example, Torbreck’s Struie is a blend of Barossa Valley and Eden Valley Shiraz. John Duval sources much of his fruit from Eden Valley. This move is quite ironic because, historically, the Eden Valley was always considered the poor cousin of the Barossa Valley, often mentioned as an add-on, or forgotten altogether. Now it is right on trend.
The best way to explore the rich tapestry of the Barossa Shiraz variety is, of course, to visit the area. From the traditional cellar doors at Rockford and Charles Melton, the more modern St Hallett winery nearby and the boutique Artisans of the Barossa to the large Jacobs Creek and Wolf Blass outlets, there will be a favourite for everybody. Or follow my suggestion and visit historic Seppeltsfield in the morning, followed by a visit to Torbreck, where they may open a $200 bottle wine for you to taste, and finish at Hentley Farm’s award-winning restaurant for a long lunch, all within a 5km radius.
When to drink Shiraz
The other aspect about drinking Barossa Shiraz is the question of ageing. When should you open your bottle of wine? This comes down to personal taste, of course. Some very good wines, such as Grange or Hill of Grace, can age for decades. Generally speaking, wines with coarser tannins and a lot of new oak treatment need time settling down to integrate their components.
Many consumers want to drink their wine young to enjoy its fruit characteristics. They would be best served with wines from the Southern or Central part of the Barossa. As a general rule, I find drinking Barossa Shiraz at about seven years as the most rewarding time. Primary fruit is still very present, and the complexity of the wine has increased. Secondary characteristics, savoury and showing the oak treatment, start to come through. In order to enjoy the wine, then, proper storage conditions are a must.
If you wish to learn more about Barossa Shiraz, Thomas Girgensohn’s award- winning book, Barossa
Shiraz: Discovering The Tastes Of The Barossa’s Regions, Wakefield Press 2013, explores this much- celebrated grape variety. Visit www.booktopia.com.au to purchase.