This article is based on a tasting that was held at the Melbourne Wine and Food Festival Masterclass over the weekend of March 24-25 2007. The following is a transcript of the discussion lead by Andrew Caillard, MW.
The idea of this tasting is to show a progression of winemaking philosophy and the orientation of ultra-fine Australian Shiraz over the course of the last sixty years. Hence the wines are ordered in an historical sequence starting with Grange and ending with Clonakilla.
All the wines selected are included in Langton’s Classification of Australian Wine. It makes sense to pick wines from this list because the wines are all top performing Shirazes on the wine auction market. They all have a strong history or a market interest that gives them a right to be considered as beacons of the Australian Shiraz genre.
With only ten wines in this tasting there will be omissions, nonetheless this is a story worth telling. I will commence, briefly, with the Shiraz story from the early days to post-war Australia and the beginnings of Grange.
The origins of Shiraz are not completely known. Some say it comes from Southern Iran, others say it was brought to France and the Rhone valley by the Romans via Egypt. The stories do make sense because the city of Shiraz lies at an altitude of 1,600 metres and enjoys mild winters and moderate summers. The problem is that modern DNA testing makes Shiraz a native of the Rhone Valley.
Shiraz is really an Australian expression of the variety known in France as Syrah. It makes some of the great wines of the Rhone including Paul Jaboulet’s Hermitage La Chapelle and the principal component of the highly perfumed wines of Cote Rotie including Etienne Guigal’s La Landonne.
DNA testing by UC Davis California and Jean-Micel Boursiquot of France suggests Shiraz is a cross between Mondeuse Blanche and Dureza grapes. Dureza is from the northern Ardeche region west of the Rhone Valley. Mondeusa Blanche comes from the Savoie region and the earliest recorded plantings of Shiraz in France date back to 500BC.
(Petite Sirah – a cross breed between Peloursin and Shiraz and developed in the 1880s as a mildew resistant variety by Dr Durif –tends to produce dry, dark wines with lots of tannins, spice and black pepper. Phylloxera wiped out a lot of the grapes in the late 1890's and it wasn't till the 1970's that Californian Syrah was correctly identified as Petite Sirah. We have a core of plantings in the Rutherglen region.)
The origins of Shiraz in Australia start around 1832 when James Busby brought vine cuttings to Australia and planted them in the Botanic Gardens, at Camden and at Kirkton in the Hunter Valley.
“Scyras - an excellent grape and promises to be as equally valuable for red wines as verdelho is for white. This is the sort said to be chiefly cultivated on the celebrated hill of Hermitage. It is a very hardy plant, produces well and seems to be liable to no accident or disease.”
Actually it is a weed. Shiraz is a very vigorous early ripening variety. It produces large bunches of anywhere up to 130 berries per bunch. They are long and loose bunches with very good disease resistance.
The fledgling wine industry in the 19th century was involved in the Bordeaux exhibition of 1882 and met with some success, if not damned with faint praise. Some of the great 19th century Shiraz vineyards included Cawarra, Dalwood, Kirkton, Bebeah and Catawba in the Hunter, Wendouree in Clare Valley, Auldana vineyards in Adelaide, Great Western in Victoria. Silesian and English settlers arrived in the Barossa Valley and planted what is now some of the oldest Shiraz material in the world. At the turn of the century there were many Shiraz vineyards but the economic slump after the First World War saw many vineyards disappear.
Maurice O’Shea, one of the great blenders, is regarded as the father of the modern Australian wine industry. He was one of the first winemakers to see the potential of an Australian fine wine market based on the idea of place. There were of course others. Dan Tyrrell (Tyrrells), Colin Preece (Seppelts) and Roger Warren (Hardy’s) are others, but it was Maurice O’Sea who captured the imagination of the new middle class Australia.
I had originally thought to start this tasting with Wendouree Shiraz because it stands for the past as much as it does for the present. The wines remain almost in a 19th century time warp. It is an utterly profound wine style with sullen dark aromas and muscular tannins, but with and energy and freshness that brings it into contemporary times.
However I am going to start this discussion with Penfolds Grange because it is this wine more than any other that brought about a sea change in winemaking philosophy and began a genre which Australian’s could call their own. Max Schubert’s story of Grange is well known. Without Ray Beckwith – Penfolds in-house chemist/boffin – the story would simply not have happened. In a Eureka moment travelling to Adelaide in a train, Beckwith realized the profound connection between pH and wine stability. This discovery not only had a massive impact on the Australian wine industry but also through the rest of the wine world.
Max Schubert’s and Ray Beckwith’s wine-making philosophies and innovations percolated throughout the industry. Some were their 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:
1. Major advances in yeast technology and paper chromatography.
2. The understanding and use of pH in controlling bacterial spoilage.
3. The use of headed down/submerged cap fermentation and the technique of rack and return.
4. Cold fermentation practices.
5. The use of American oak as a maturation vessel.
6. And perhaps most critically – the use of partial barrel fermentation.
Grange, named after the 1830s built Grange cottage at Magill, has not hugely changed since the trials, errors and in-house political shenanigans of the 1950s. Essentially the philosophy of wine-making remains intact.
Penfolds came out of a fortified wine culture and so not surprisingly the idea of multi vineyard blends and house style was already quite entrenched. But Max Schubert knew about single vineyards. Single vineyard parcels of fruit have always been as subset of Grange. His original plan was to use Cabernet but the overall quality during the 1950s and availability was not reliable. However he did start using a Cabernet component in 1953, even extending to making an experimental Grange Cabernet.
However Max instinctively preferred warmer vineyard sites and took fruit from various single vineyards around Adelaide including Magill, Morphett Vale (John Duval’s family property) and Modbury. The Kalimna Vineyard in the Barossa was also an early favourite to the extent that it has became the mother lode of Grange. Max was not a great fan of Coonawarra and it was not until the early 1960s – through the success of Penfolds experimental show wine 1962 Bin 60A Coonawarra Cabernet Kalimna Shiraz – that Coonawarra components featured in Grange.
Max Schubert – a smoker – liked the ripe spectrum of Shiraz flavours for Grange and looked for fruit with intensity, ripe tannin structure, concentration and buoyancy. His objective was to produce “a big full bodied wine containing maximum extraction of all the components of grape material.”
Fermentation under headed down boards aided him in this goal. The intense colour, smell and richness of the young wine were, as he used to say, almost “ethereal”. The wine was then taken off skins and transferred at the very tail end of fermentation into brand new American oak hogsheads. The final fermentation in oak – known as barrel fermentation – effectively marries or intertwines the oak into the wine and vice versa. The wine is then matured in oak for around 18-20 months before bottling.
What you are seeing in front of you is a polished version of this technique. You are seeing tremendous opulence of fruit and a meaty complexity – that meatiness on the aromas is essentially the woop and warp of oak and fruit. The palate has a buoyancy and concentration with ripe chocolaty tannins. The 1990 is a really classical vintage.
Interestingly John Duval tweaked the pHs and brought brighter wines from the 1986 vintage. Peter Gago, the current chief winemaker, continues a tradition of holding the baton but also experimenting and keeping Grange at the forefront of Australian Shiraz.
Penfolds was run like a military operation with a clear hierarchy. Not surprisingly. For commercial reasons many of these techniques, including Ray Beckwith’s ground breaking science, were kept under strict wraps. But during the 1960s – after the initial complaints about Grange being a dry port style (a criticism often leveled at the current crop of cult wines) – the technology and philosophies were broadcast largely through technical interchange at wine shows or through comradeship.
One of the vectors of technical exchange was Wolf Blass who observed the genesis of Grange. He not only applied similar techniques to his own fledgling wines but pretty much talked about it to his friend up at Keyneton – Cyril Henschke one of the early pioneers of the boutique wines scene.
2002 Henschke Hill of Grace
The Hill of Grace vineyard was established in the 1860s. Many of the vines are now over 140 years old and represent some of the oldest genetic Shiraz material in the world. The vineyard was not universally revered in its early days. It was something of a workhorse with a common garden variety. Indeed it was quite a scrappy vineyard. If you have tasted the early vintages of Hill of Grace they are something of a hit and miss affair. Without three phase power and state of the art equipment the wines and the winery were quite rudimentary. Yet towards the end of the 1960s you can see a palpable change of style and the application of winemaking techniques pioneered by Schubert.
The big transformation happened in 1978 when Stephen and Prue Henschke started to apply their acquired experience and technology to viticulture and winemaking. There is an extraordinary leap in quality around this time. By 1986 there is a massive coming of age not only for this wine but right across the ultra-fine Australian wine board.
Much of the success of Hill of Grace is the management of light and shade in the vineyard. The trials and errors, research and plain backbreaking work has paid dividends. Hill of Grace is perhaps the most famous vineyard address in Australia. The work conducted by Prue Henschke and Dr Patrick Iland on pH and its relationship with colour and tannin development is top notch science. Indeed Prue Henschke shows clearly that both season and the human factor play a vital role in the character and articulation of vineyard site.
The Hill of Grace Vineyard is quite elevated. It does get fairly hot over summer and autumn but it enjoys much cooler nights than the Barossa floor, a partial explanation for the pure fruit characters and more elegant structure in the wine. The grapes are picked on flavour essentially, but what Prue looks for is heavy shrivel like that of a deflated balloon and lignification – which gives a good indication of tannins ripeness.
Vinification is pretty much the traditional Barossa way – which is to say partially a derivative of the Penfolds way of making wine in traditional concrete open vats of yesteryear but converted with headed down boards. After vinification the wine is racked of its skins and barrel fermentation takes place in oak.
Henschke has realized over the years that the powerful aromatic American oak doesn’t sit so well with the overall weight and volume of its Hill of Grace Shiraz. More and more new French oak is now used. So what you have in front of you is a wine that has evolved in a completely different way to Grange, yet mirrors the brave new world of Australian Shiraz. Hill of Grace is at once all about vineyard site, but also about wine making philosophy. Through the exemplary 2002 vintage you can see the wine doesn’t have the physical power of Grange, but it has an energy, a beautiful purity of fruit and a strong evocation of place with its pure blackberry pastille liquorice aromas, underlying savoury complexity and fine ripe loose knit tannins. Indeed this may arguably be one of the finest Hill of Graces every made.
2004 Brokenwood Graveyard Vineyard
The Hunter Valley was once a boiling point for Australian Shiraz. The work of Maurice O’Shea, the Tyrrell’s and others captured the hearts and minds of the fledgling fine wine consumer. The Old Paddock and Old Hill Shirazes and Lindemans Bin 1590 and Bin 3100 from 1959 and 1965 just show how amazingly complex and evocative Hunter Shirazes can be.
The reason why I have moved now to Brokenwood is because during the 1980s it too adopted the use of headed down boards (but in steel tanks), barrel fermentation and the use of American oak. It completely changed the course of this wine’s direction as well. It’s coming of age was also the 1986 vintage. It is a great wine on the same scale as the Bin 3100. As a young wine you will find it quite elemental with ginger notes and blackberry aniseed notes. You can again see opulence and richness here but a very distinct idea of place with its lacy sweet tannins and gamey/meaty nuances. In the end the vineyard character shines through. Good winemaking allows a more profound articulation of vineyard site.
Brokenwood Graveyard Vineyard Shiraz shows what the Hunter is capable of. It is a source of wonder why most other Hunter Shirazes do not perform at this level. Is it because winemakers are too into themselves and have lost a connection with their place?
2004 Jasper Hill Emily’s Paddock Shiraz Cabernet Franc
We now move down to Jasper Hill at Heathcote in Victoria. This seems the next logical progression because of the Penfolds link and because of the overall weight of the wine and the progression towards regional difference.
The Emily’s and Georgia’s vineyard – named after Rona and Elva’s daughters – are planted with Penfolds cuttings of Shiraz. Not much is known about the clonal performance of Shiraz but obviously Penfolds has enjoyed a pretty good reputation.
The vineyard is also on an elevated site and in a relatively continental type climate – that is hot days and cool nights. The vineyards are not irrigated and the approach is totally organic. Indeed the overall philosophy is low input.
Emily’s Paddock is actually a Shiraz/Cabernet Franc. The latter brings a broom stick to the wine, a freshness and energy with intense blackberry/gamey/menthol aromas, very firm gravelly tannins and plenty of savoury oak. There is a sinewy quality to the wine which balances out the volume of fruit.
The wine is made completely differently from the preceding wines and in perhaps a more laissez faire way. Pumping over and hand plunging is regularly employed rather than using headed down boards to extract colour, flavour and tannin more gently. The wine is then matured in both used and French oak for 14 months. The alcohols on Jasper Hill have gradually moved up over recent years as a result of more efficient yeasts, viticulture and outside climate factors. Curiously it epitomizes the movement towards cool climate type wines yet the overall style suggests something quite different.
Jasper Hill Emily’s Paddock is a wine which not only leads the way for Victorian small winemakers but also paved the way for the cult wine scene.
I am not sure that Heathcote is yet a classic wine region but Jasper Hill certainly captured the hearts and minds of a new generation of winemakers seeking difference and interest in their wines. It also showed that the search for optimum vineyard sites is not over.
1998 Rockford Basket Press Shiraz
Rockford stands for everything I love about fine Australian wine.
Jasper Hill’s star rose at the same time as the trend of cool climate wine. At the same time during the 1980s the Barossa began to struggle. Indeed some well known figures suggested this region would not survive. How utterly wrong and self serving they were.
During the early to mid 1980s the market was obsessed with cool climate wines exemplified by the likes of Knights Shiraz. No one really cared about warm climate Shiraz. One of the great creative minds of the Barossa, Robert O’Callaghan, saw a link between heritage and fine wine. Articulation of vineyards must go hand in hand with a respect for culture and people of the Barossa. While that great man of wine Peter Lehmann kept many growers in business during the bleak years, it was probably Robert who led the Barossans out of the wilderness. His Basket Press is not a powerful wine but it has the richness and heat of the Barossa.
The philosophy of winemaking harks back to yesteryear and connects deeply with vineyard origin and the perfumed and seductive Shirazes of the central and northern districts of the Barossa. O’Callaghan sources from around Kalimna, Ebenezer, Moppa springs and the Eden valley. This is very much a multi-vineyard site wine but absolutely Barossa down to its bootstraps.
This is a quintessential hand made wine, again using traditional open vats but far less oak than one would ever guess, around 10-15%. It is effectively a maturation style which evokes the landscape of the Barossa.
The use of basket presses is a common sight around the Barossa. It is O’Callaghan’s love of machinery and the retro fitting of his winery with modern versions of early 20th century equipment that had the wine industry redefining some of the ways it handled its fruit. While the marketing of old vine was compelling, it was the intrinsic sense of heritage that moved the Barossa back into the big time confirming its place as Australia’s great wine region.
Here is a wine that represents the physical side of winemaking and a feeling of place. Its lovely paneforte raspberry aromas with cedar nuances, sweet richness of fruit and looseknit chocolaty tannins say much about its origins as about the people behind the wines. It is a maturation style of Shiraz that stays in oak for up to 24 months before being bottled. This wine shows all the great things about a great Barossa year. It has richness, power and concentration. It is so utterly Barossa yet so different from say Henschke Mount Edelstone or Peter Lehmann Stonewell. This is what the idea of ‘sense of place’ is all about. Indeed O’Callaghan’s Rockford is something of a winemaker’s university. Its long term but recently departed winemaker Chris Ringland has a phenomenal following with his Three Rivers (now called Chris Ringland) Shiraz and Dave Powell of the incredibly successful Torbreck was a groundling winemaker here some years ago.
We next come to Clarendon Hills Astralis which is probably the first international Australian cult wine. During the 1950s d’Arenberg was probably Australia’s first cult wine, but it is Calredndon Hills that has set the Australian Shiraz wine scene at a cracking pace, pushing forward the idea of single vineyard identity and personality and pushing the mainstream away at arms length.
2004 Clarendon Hills Astralis (‘pertaining to the stars’)
Clarendon Hills in McLaren Vale is a bloody interesting wine. It represents the sort of Shiraz activism which is both brave and compelling.
Astralis breaks the mould. And that takes a tremendous amount of courage, confidence and will. Here is a wine that has shown the way for hundreds of new winemakers. It is not a show wine but a conversation type wine.
This single vineyard wine is made from mature vines generally around 35-75 years. The winemaking is completely laissez faire. It is a bit more like Japser Hill and relies heavily on the intrinsic value of vineyard personality and keeping handling down to a minimum. The wine is matured in 100% new French Barriques for 18 months.
Have a look at this wine and think back at how wine show judges would have seen this wine in the early 1990s. It does not belong to the overly concentrated or blockbuster paradigm. It is a wine which shows less can mean more.
This is a cult wine that completely changed the way that the outside world looked at Australian Shiraz. Its success has lead to an entire industry subset – initially dependant on Robert Parker Jr. scores but many are now enjoying mainstream success. Clarendon Hills Astralis – rated at Outstanding in Langton’s Classification – shows how the market has completely embraced this wine.
This is a lovely looking wine with complex liquorice/plum/meaty/vanillin aromas with touches of chamomile and earthy bitumen notes. It is a changing kaleidoscope of aromas and flavours with lovely dry slinky tannins and underlying savoury oak.
While it was completely new at the time it is interesting to see how lines have become blurred over recent years as winemakers improve their wines and borrow ideas.
2000 Noon Reserve Shiraz
Noon Reserve Shiraz – a Langhorne Creek wine – follows along the same pathway. It is another cult wine which had Parker saying “life is too short not to taste the wines of Drew Noon”. The wine is included in this tasting because I find it profoundly interesting. It is both a new type of wine yet harks back to the wines of yesterday. It is incredibly modern yet incredibly old fashioned. The wine is made in fairly rudimentary wine making facilities with small open vats, gently pressed off with basket presses and matured in new and old American and French oak. What I find really interesting is the tannin quality in this wine. They are incredibly muscular and reminiscent of the same fruit quality as Wendouree and Tim Adams Aberfeldy. I wonder whether the vines share a similar heritage.
The wines have an energy and brightness that is quite extraordinary and a whacking alcohol level, proving that high alcohol does not mean the wine is out of balance. It has beautiful ripe blackberry liquorice chocolate aromas and rich opulent fruit. There is plenty of volume and heat but there is also a really powerful tannins structure that gives it wonderful length and presence.
1999 Plantagenet Shiraz
I chose Plantagenet because it is a beacon of quality in Western Australia and a lovely foil to the opulent Shirazes of South Australia. Cooler spectrum of fruit with white pepper and aniseed, lacy fine tannins and some blueberry notes. Here is an example of a wine that is far more minerally. These are wines that are not opulent but still have a density and generosity of fruit and still evoke a distinct feeling of place. This wine was matured in new and old French oak for a period of roughly 16-18 months. These are not wines to put down in the cellar for decades but they do have a lovely weight and balance
2000 Craiglee Shiraz
Craiglee in Sunbury also encapsulates the idea of less is more. This is a particularly interesting producer as the vineyard is planted on an old 19th century vineyard site. The old timers certainly knew where to plant their vines, making sure that they were not overly exposed to frost and where the fruit could ripen well.
An old cache of Craiglee Shiraz discovered during the 1970s prompted Pat Carmody to replant the vineyard. Here is a wine that borrows from the old and the new. The wine is fermented in open cement fermenters. To add complexity some of the fruit, but not all of it, is barrel fermented and maturation takes place in both old and new American and French oak for a period of around 12-18 months.
If you look at this winemaking regime, it harks back to what Schubert and Henschke were doing in the early days yet the wine is intrinsically different. It’s a much more tightly structured style – more aromatic with much stronger harder old fashioned tannins yet has a perfume and an elegance that is both compelling and evocative of place.
2005 Clonakilla Shiraz Viognier
That yearning for perfume and a desire to be different takes us to our final destination. Tim Kirk represents a generation of thinking winemakers. In fact he is something of a Renaissance man with a tendency to look at the wine industry as his pastoral turf. His love of Rhone wines and those of the Cote Rotie in particular have profoundly impacted on the evolution of Shiraz in Australia.
We must acknowledge Bailey Carrodus of Yarra Yering who perhaps pioneered the Shiraz Viognier genre. His Yarra Yering Dry Red No 2 was a hugely impactful wine on the secondary market. Tim Kirk acknowledges Carrodus as a mentor.
But it is the happenstance of vineyard site and the right varieties that have allowed Shiraz Viognier to reach its zenith in the small south facing 12 acre vineyard located at Murrumbateman near Canberra. Here is an example where the wheel takes a sudden turn. Where the fruit is now leading the wood and where a lightness of touch brings a minerally quality to the wine.
This is a wine developed through trial and error, through experiments with pre-fermentation macerations, varietal blending options, running wild sometimes uncontrolled fermentations, whole bunch fermentation and new oak maturation.
I love this wine with its intense pepper apricot aromas, sweet fruit, slinky dry tannins and minerally palate. It is so incredibly perfumed with an incredible lightness and freshness. Yet it has the concentration and the power to build further strength and complexity with aging.
The compelling co-fermenting relationship between Shiraz and Viognier was already known, but it had never been perfected in Australia. This is an example of Australian ingenuity at its very best. One can’t help thinking about Max Schubert’s most famous quote about the way forward for Australian wine.
“We must not be afraid to put into effect the strength of our own convictions, continue to use our imagination in winemaking generally and be prepared to experiment in order to gain something extra, different and unique in the world of wine.”
Andrew Caillard, MW
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