SHIRAZ IS AUSTRALIA’S MOST IMPORTANT GRAPE VARIETY – AND HAS BEEN FOR OVER 180 YEARS.
The key to its success is mainly shiraz’s versatility and willingness to reside in a wide variety of climates, from cool sites like the Great Southern, Grampian and Canberra districts to the temperate climes of the Clare Valley, Heathcote and Mudgee. Shiraz also thrives in our warmest regions like the Hunter & Barossa Valleys and McLaren Vale. Tasmania is the only state without any significant plantings of shiraz. That said, the much lauded Jimmy Watson Memorial Trophy of 2011 went to the 2010 Glaetzer Dixon Mon Pere Syrah – much to the embarrassment of the Barossa boys that year.
But not only is shiraz viticulturally versatile, but it clearly reflects the dirt in which it’s grown, with an incredible range of flavours and styles — from the rich earthy flavours of Hunter shiraz to the litheframed, pepper-and-spice styles of the Frankland River area.
The traditional home of shiraz is the northern Rhône — its epicentre the famous hill of Hermitage where James Busby collected his seminal vine cuttings in December 1831. Busby’s plantings at Kirkton Park in the Upper Hunter spawned the remarkable legacy that has seen shiraz/syrah planted across the nation. The shiraz/syrah confusion has now been settled with DNA evidence proving they are the same grape variety. The research dates syrah back a millennia with its birthplace near Lyon. The myth that shiraz/syrah came from the Persian (now Iranian) city of Shiraz has now been laid to rest.
Nowadays shiraz generally flies solo in Australia, however historically it was often paired with cabernet sauvignon. The premise given was that shiraz gave rich, juicy flavours while the cabernet sauvignon gave structure, power and length. The introduction of merlot to Australia in the 1980’s saw cabernet sauvignon merlot replace the traditional ‘cab shiraz’ blends, although Penfold’s Bin 389 and Yalumba ‘The Signature’ still carry the flag.
Shiraz is also grown in the southern Rhône, and is one of the thirteen acknowledged varieties of the Cote du Rhône (and more celebrated, Châteauneuf du Pape) appellation(s). However, grenache is king in the warmer sites of the southern Rhône. Australian wine makers follow a similar path with their GSM blends (grenache, shiraz, mourvèdre), sometimes swapping the dominant grape to make a SGM or even MSG. Whatever the blend these lush, plush reds make perfect partners to pies, pizza, pasta or anything off the barbecue.
Shiraz takes on a sophisticated guise when a splash of viognier is added – a la Cote Rotie, one of the revered appellations of the northern Rhône. The local icon is Clonakilla, with Tim Kirk creating a whole new genre of shiraz with his slinky, subtle, spicy-laden take on the variety. Just 5-10% viognier is all that’s necessary — the results are astonishing.
Shiraz will remain at the top, not because we all love dense, warm blooded, high octane styles but because of its adaptability to different climates, different soils and most importantly to different winemaking philosophies. Viva la difference — be it shiraz or syrah.