Ultra-fine Australian Shiraz and its rich tapestry of guises have captured the imagination of a generation of wine investors. The sheer diversity of style and regional definition make Australian Shiraz a modern spice, highly valued for its perfume, power and seductive palate structure. Langton's Shiraz Australia II Auction comprises the best Australian Shiraz and is offered in barrel sized lots or rare bottle format. This is a great opportunity to purchase superb examples of this genre.
In the early 1980s valuable (and many old) Australian Shiraz vineyards were pulled out because of lack of market interest. The movement to cool climate viticulture and wine made the Barossa, of all places, look rather irrelevant. However this trend reversed dramatically with the internationalisation of the Australian wine market and renewed enthusiasm of local buyers. In the early 1990s the use of the word Hermitage, an Australian synonym for Shiraz (but also a French wine region), was discontinued by producers. From today’s perspective Shiraz is the strongest bow in Australia’s wine armoury. The extraordinary diversity of quality and the sheer universal enjoyment of Australian Shiraz have propelled a significant number of wines onto the market.
As early as 1830, James Busby, an early pioneer, observed “had New South Wales been settled by the French the inhabitants would have regaled their palates and invigorated their bodies with this first of the blessings which nature bestows.”
It was in fact James Busby, after travelling around France and Spain, who gave his collection of 678 varieties to the British Authorities. This collection was planted in the Botanic Gardens in Sydney. Extensive sections were propagated and sent to the Botanic Gardens in Adelaide and to Busby’s parent’s property in the Hunter Valley.
This material is probably the original genetic source of many Australian vineyards, although some believe Shiraz was brought out earlier. Indeed historians think it may have been Gregory Blaxland who was responsible for the identification of Shiraz as early as 1816. However it is difficult to pinpoint exactly when it came into Australia. It was common practice for example for settlers to bring cuttings to Australia in the early days from South Africa.
What is certain is that Australia can boast some of the oldest plantings of Shiraz in the world – largely because of the cataclysmic disaster of phylloxera in Europe. A single patch of Tyrrell’s vines was planted in 1879 in the Hunter Valley. Henschke’s Hill of Grace Vineyard was planted in the 1860s and is some of the oldest genetic material known. Indeed most of the plantings of Shiraz in Australia stem from the extraordinary material brought out by our forefathers and improved upon over the years through selection. Curiously there aren’t many clones being used. The main ones are 1654, PT23 and 1125. In fact Southcorp have just planted a new vineyard in the Barossa and are doing their own trials because there just isn’t a body of information.
In 2001 Penfolds celebrated 50 vintages of Grange; in many respects a celebration of half a century of the modern Australian wine industry. While there are other winemakers who made important contributions - Maurice O’Shea, Colin Preece and others - it is Schubert’s legacy that is so palpable. His winemaking philosophies and innovations percolated throughout the industry. Some of these were his own ideas; others were borrowed and improved upon.
The techniques employed in the research and development of Grange are astonishing.
Max Schubert and his team pioneered major advances in yeast technology - and with Ray Beckwith - paper chromatography, the understanding and use of pH in controlling bacterial spoilage, the use of headed down/submerged cap fermentation and the technique of rack and return, cold fermentation practices, the use of American oak as a maturation vessel, and perhaps most critically - the use of partial barrel fermentation.
These techniques - once kept under strict wraps - are now employed extensively within the Australian wine industry. Some of Australia’s other great wines can also trace their winemaking origins to Grange. Brokenwood Graveyard Shiraz, Henschke Hill of Grace and Wolf Blass Black Label are all examples. Even regional style - specifically the Barossa Valley’s Shirazes - have been highly influenced by the work of Max Schubert and his team. Today the diversity of Shiraz in Australia is quite extraordinary, comprising traditional styles such as Tyrrell’s Vat 9 to more radical/innovative wines such as Torbreck Descendant Shiraz-Viognier.
The most important Australian Shiraz on the secondary market is Penfolds Bin 95 Grange. It accounts for a very large percentage of turnover on account of it established market presence and overall bottle values. The occasional sale of a complete Grange Set now around AUD$200,000 also helps. Its reputation, however, is built on quality. The wines are incredibly opulent with immense concentration and power. These wines develop beautifully in the bottle although the most memorable experiences are with well-cellared vintages with at least 15 years bottle age. The 1955 is now very difficult to find and justify opening. The 1963 and 1966 are drinking well but are becoming scarce these days. The 1971 is also very expensive. Even the 1986 vintage has increased in value by 25% in the last 18 months. Anyone wishing to enjoy an old Grange need go no further than buying less recognized vintages or bottles that may not be in mint condition. Bottles with poor label condition but good levels often suggest a damp cellar. The market discounts these wines by as much as 50%!
I am very excited about the integrity and diversity of Barossa Shiraz that embraces the Eden Valley and the Barossa Valley. These wines spearhead Australia’s international reputation. The region has a wonderful and unique heritage that adds further appeal to the wines. The extraordinary generosity of spirit found in the Barossa somehow envelops the aromas and flavours.
The most important Barossa Shirazes are the beautifully perfumed and symmetrical Henschke Hill of Grace, the opulently structured Peter Lehmann Stonewell Shiraz and the ethereal classic Rockford Basket Press Shiraz. This triptych encapsulates the pure fruit definition of the Eden Valley, the woven richness and texture of fruit and oak, and the intrinsic fruit qualities of Barossa Valley Shiraz. The impossibly small Three Rivers is in a league of its own. Perched on the edge of the Eden Valley and the Barossa it seems to combine all those elements into one. Barossa Valley Estates E&E Black Pepper, Henschke Mount Edelstone, Yalumba Octavius and Elderton Command make up a very strong second row. Bethany GR Reserve, Charles Melton, St Hallett Old Block, Turkey Flat and the very convincing Glaetzer follow. The immensely concentrated and impressive Veritas Hanisch Vineyard and Heyson Vineyard are so compressed with fruit they are almost like essence. In the same mould Torbreck Run Rig – lionized by US critics – has leapt into the collective hearts and minds of wine enthusiasts. The extraordinarily decadent and supple Torbreck Descendant Shiraz-Viognier is so extravagantly exotic and sublime it could blow your mind away, the most sensitive souls may need to avoid this one. Greenock Creek’s Roennfeldt Road and Apricot Block are highly individual and have a strong following from devotees. However my experience with these wines is quite limited. In more recent times I have become extremely impressed by Dutschke Oscar Semmler and St Jakobi Shiraz, both of which show strong regional provenance and deft winemaking. Penfolds RWT Shiraz – with only a few vintages under its belt – is a classic Penfolds wine and will no doubt eventually find its way into the firmament, but it is a pity the marketers could only come up with an abbreviation for Red Wine Trial. This newcomer could have been named in honour of Max Schubert who had such a profound influence on Penfolds and the Barossa. Finally Kaesler Old Bastard and Langmeil Freedom - based on prime fruit - are worth noting as up and coming labels.
McLaren Vale Shiraz has largely been overshadowed by the extraordinary rise in prominence of the Barossa. However in recent years it has captured the hearts and minds of collectors throughout the world. The auction staples have been Coriole Lloyd Reserve and Hardy’s Eileen Hardy that draws fruit from this area. The 1990s saw McLaren Vale grow in prominence. D’Arenberg’s Dead Arm and Rosemount Balmoral have fared extremely well over recent years and both are convincing styles. Clarendon Hills – an outsider for a long time – has brought an enormous amount of kudos to the region through the success of its Astralis and Piggott Range Shiraz. The wines are still not quite mainstream but they do show the tantalizing prospects of sub-regional definition. Noon Winery has also embellished McLaren Vale’s reputation, although it’s Reserve Shiraz is a Langhorne Creek wine. This wine has performed outstandingly at auction – many of Noon’s clientele have taken advantage of the low cellar door values. Fox Creek – a wine that took the market by storm on the back of positive US reviews – attracts strong support from the market. The Reserve – once a cult wine – is becoming an emerging performer and has plenty of fruit power, opulence and balance. Chapel Hill makes a classic McLaren Vale Shiraz style but is an erratic performer. Pirramimma is an old label but has never managed to attract huge interest on the market, although I have always enjoyed these honest wines. Pertaringa, an unfamiliar name in the secondary market, is also making interesting wine.
The Clare Valley is making muscular and solid Shirazes. The tannins are quite strong, sometimes extremely firm, as typified by the wondrously individual Wendouree Shiraz and Shiraz blends. Tim Adams Aberfeldy is a very intensely flavoured Shiraz with similar tannin structures but a more opulent curtain of fruit. It has a very good emerging following. Leasingham Classic Clare – a crowd pleaser with softer and fleshier flavours - is tremendously well regarded for its good value. Jim Barry’s The Armagh is an extraordinarily plush style, drenched in fruit and massively concentrated. It is a highly successful performer. Lengs and Cooter – really on the fringe of the cult wine scene – is also making a very convincing regional Reserve Shiraz. The elegantly structured but highly convincing Mitchell Peppertree Shiraz is a ludicrously undervalued wine and perennial under achiever at auction. Mount Horrock Shiraz has yet to fire on the market but certainly it has plenty of potential.
Coonawarra is also a major Shiraz region. Indeed Woodleys Treasure Chest Series produced during the late 1940s and the 1950s began a tradition of Australian wine collecting. I am amazed that no one has resurrected these wonderful labels. Most of the Treasure Chest wines are curios these days although occasionally there are reports of life! Cabernet Sauvignon has really taken a pre-eminent position in this region – for very good reason. However the Shirazes are excellent too and can be a welcome change to the strongly flavoured and opulent wines further to the north. One of the most famous wines produced in Coonawarra was the 1955 Wynns Coonawarra Michael Hermitage (Shiraz) – a wine that enjoyed an illustrious Australian Wine Show record. Wynn’s revived the name in 1990 as a foil to its John Riddoch label. The first few vintages were a success at auction, but the market recoiled from the Wine Show oriented, but over-wrought wine style. The 1998 vintage is a great improvement and could bring this wine back into focus once again. Katnook Estate has also recently produced an essence of Coonawarra Shiraz called Prodigy. However when compared with its excellent standard Shiraz it is difficult to be convinced that extra stuffing equals extra quality. Bowen Estate, Penley Estate, Punters Corner and Zema Estate all produce well-rounded flavoursome Shirazes. Majella has particularly captured the high ground (if one can call it that in Coonawarra) in recent times – making wines of excellent fruit definition and superb palate structure.
Padthaway has become a very important source of Shiraz, especially for larger wine companies. Hardy’s Eileen Hardy Shiraz uses material from this region. Orlando Lawson’s Shiraz – with its strong choco-mint aromas and palate richness – is a very convincing style.
Victoria adds further diversity to Australia’s rich gene pool of Shiraz. The most enlightening Shirazes come from around Central Victoria. The combination of vineyard site and producer is very important. Jasper Hill, Mount Langi Ghiran and Seppelt Great Western are the most impressively reliable wines each offering highly individual, often superb Shirazes. Jasper Hill’s wonderfully evocative Emily’s Paddock Shiraz Cabernet Franc and Georgia’s Paddock Shiraz have a strong following at auction. The wines are superbly concentrated and beautifully balanced. Mount Langi Ghiran Langi Shiraz is a more elegant style, but delivers a very strong punch in better vintages. Indeed it can be one of Victoria’s greatest wines. Seppelt Great Western is fabulously consistent combining both cooler regional expression and opulence. In recent times I have been incredibly impressed by the fabulous palate structure and flavours of Mitchelton Print Shiraz. Across the river Tahbilk is making very interesting Shirazes. The 1860 vines has long been an auction staple and has an awesome heritage. The wines are frankly up and down but the 1999 is simply wonderful. The Reserve 1933 Vines Shiraz is also worth seeking out. Craiglee Shiraz from Sunbury is a cool expression of Shiraz with plenty of white pepper characters. It has plenty of support from the punters – especially in Victoria.
The 1997 Wild Duck Creek’s Duck Muck Shiraz - a production of just a few barrels - drew acclamations from Robert Parker Jr. and propelled Wild Duck Creek onto the cult wine market. It is just incredible that a wine of this calibre could demand over AUD$1400 a bottle at the height of the cult wine boom. Other producers making an impact on the secondary market are Bannockburn in Geelong and Mornington Peninsula’s Paringa Estate.
It is more difficult to pin down regional style in Western Australia. There are plenty of well-made wines in this State, but in the end the producer’s name is most important. Heading the list is Vasse Felix, based in Margaret River. The Shiraz style is plump and savoury with plenty of flavour length. Cape Mentelle’s Shiraz has been a secondary market staple for many years. The style is in evolution with clear fruit and fine tannin structures. Graylyn Estate in the Margaret River has potential. Howard Park is making forays with this variety especially with its new Scotsdale and Leston labels – both of which show plenty of potential. The 2001 Leston Vineyard Shiraz, entirely from Margaret River, shows opulence and resonance, reflecting the huge potential of this vineyard site. Plantagenet Shiraz in the Lower Great Southern has now been around for many years and has a very loyal following.
In New South Wales Brokenwood Graveyard Vineyard Shiraz is by far the most important Shiraz on the market. The wine has really shown its spurs in the last decade. The 1986 vintage – like the 1965 Lindemans Bin 3100 Hermitage – shows what the Hunter can do in a good year. Over the years the consistency has been remarkable. It would be easy to recognize Graveyard Vineyard as one of the top 10 Shirazes in Australia. It is, however, extraordinary with so much heritage and early promise that the Hunter has been incapable of exciting the market. Tyrrell’s Vat 9 is a perfectly good fruit driven and maturation style that draws a moderate level of support - but what other Hunter Shiraz is worth shouting about? Mudgee’s Huntington Estate makes a Reserve Shiraz which is very traditional in style, but could perform well in the future. The most exciting new entrant on the secondary market is Clonakilla Shiraz-Viognier from the Canberra District, an entirely convincing wine style with plenty of perfume and fruit richness.
The lots in Shiraz Australia II comprise some of the very best expressions of Australian Shiraz including the opulently structured Shirazes of the Barossa, the beautifully weft and perfumed Shirazes of Central Victoria and the elegantly proportioned wines of the Margaret River. The auction also includes a collection of the extraordinarily rare Seppelt Centenary Para Liqueur 1878 to 1903 – one of the greatest wine curios of the world – and the first time offered at auction as a collection of 25 vintages.
Andrew Caillard MW
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