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Spotlight on Shiraz

It’s difficult to believe, but there was a time before Australian wine was synonymous with Shiraz. It can be argued that if it wasn’t for the international fame surrounding Penfolds Grange, those outside of Australia may not have ever heard of Shiraz. In an era before Australian Shiraz became a global sensation, the grape was known primarily as Syrah and the wines of the Northern Rhone the sole international benchmark. Much has happened in the intervening years to bring Shiraz to worldwide attention. So does a divide still exist between the traditional and modern? Between the Old World and the New World? Or have the battle lines now shifted?

A brief modern history of Shiraz

Prior to the 1970’s, well before Australia became renowned for its bold Shiraz styles, Syrah from the Northern Rhone was the only international benchmark. The legendary wines of Hermitage in particular were renowned for their structure, immense concentration and capacity to age. At that time there were only very small plantings of Syrah in France, limited to a small number of Northern Rhone appellations.

Australia’s first cuttings were brought over by James Busby and planted in the Hunter valley during the 1830’s and the Barossa in the 1840’s. However, for many years Shiraz in Australia remained under the radar, used primarily to produce fortified wines. The fame garnered by Penfolds Grange changed everything, providing a catalyst for a new wave of wines that would captivate both Australian wine drinkers and those in export markets.

The Rise of Shiraz & the Cult Wine Scene

Following Wine Spectator’s pronouncement of Penfolds Grange 1990 as wine of the year, Shiraz in Australia suddenly became very fashionable and desirable.  Wineries that had for many years quietly produced Shiraz rapidly found their wines very much in demand.

A heady combination of fashion together with the lure of Parker points gave rise to a cult wine scene which reached its zenith in 2000. Although a number of ‘flash-in-the pan’ wines were created solely to garner high scores and command high prices both here and in the US, there were also a number of top producers with established track-records who carried on producing top notch Shiraz and Shiraz blends many from precious old-vines. Over the years, these wines from the likes of Rockford, Henschke, Brokenwood, Clonakilla, Chris Ringland, Clarendon Hills, Wendouree and  many others  have been recognized in the Langton’s Classification of Australian Wine.  The Rockford school in particular inspired a whole generation of winemakers to return to traditional vinification methods, creating a new wave of Shiraz styles. The use of open fermenters, experimentation with ferment temperatures, and basket pressing among other things has revolutionised the way Shiraz is made today.

Shiraz The Globetrotter

During the 1990’s and 2000’s Australian Shiraz particularly those from the Barossa Valley and McLaren Vale was the darling of export markets. Buoyed by this success, global Syrah plantings expanded and now Syrah can be found from Hawkes Bay to Santa Barbara County, Mendoza to Tuscany. Over the past 25 years, flying winemakers have shared their expertise with their overseas counterparts and in the process have gained inspiration from the top Syrah wines of the world.  The result is a confluence of styles. Elegant cool-climate Syrahs are now being produced from Adelaide Hills to Hawkes Bay and rich bold warm climate styles are emerging in Chile and South Africa.

Today, the divide between the traditional and the modern is no longer so stark. Instead the battle lines have shifted elsewhere; between multi-regional Shiraz, and regional/sub-regional styles. Between wines made to express the grape and those made to express a particular site. Between cool-climate and warm-climate styles. One thing is for certain, there have never been so many superb Syrah styles being produced as there are today. The world of Shiraz still offers much to discover.

Andrea Pritzker

ABN: 13 133 179 656
© Langton's Fine Wine
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