Australian Shiraz

Shiraz is often thought of as the classic Australian red wine.

The red wine grape varietal is simply Syrah – which originates from the Rhône Valley in France – under a different name. Its new moniker came after its arrival in Australia and the name gradually morphed into its New World variant.

History

Australia, an iconic 'New World' wine nation
Australia, an iconic 'New World' wine nation
? Jonathan Reeve

The history of Shiraz in Australia dates back over two hundred years and the first cuttings are said to have been brought over by British pioneers John MacArthur, who was also key in the founding the Australian merino wool industry, and James Busby who was central to drawing up both the Declaration of the Independence and the Treaty of Waitangi in neighbouring New Zealand.

Some of the cuttings were delivered to MacArthur’s Camden Park Estate in Sydney, New South Wales in the early 1800s before they eventually made their way over to the Barossa where Shiraz established itself as one of the region’s key grape varieties. However, other travellers like Alexander Riley have also been credited with the grape’s arrival Down Under.

The early days of Australian Shiraz saw it predominantly used in blends with stablemates, Grenache, Cabernet Sauvignon and Mourvèdre. However, it was not until the mid-twentieth century, in 1959, when the Chief winemaker at Penfolds, Max Schubert – born in the outskirts of the Barossa but of German descent – made the wine estate’s first bin wine, Kalimna Bin 28 purely from Barossa Valley Shiraz which saw the grape varieties’ reputation took off.

Since then, the grape variety has made its mark across Australia with key wine regions emerging like McLaren Vale and the Yarra Valley among others, although the Barossa by far remains the most important (predominant?).

Tasting notes

In a nutshell: Australian Shiraz is typically full-bodied with heavy tannins and moderate acidity. The palate centres around a core of deep dark forest fruit with strong notes of black pepper. The perfect food pairing for barbequed meats.

In depth: Australian Shiraz typically focuses on intense forest and dark orchard fruit ranging from deep, dark black fruit like blackcurrants and black cherries to blue and even red fruit. The wines are also famous for having pronounced notes of black pepper and other spice like mint, liquorice and star anise, other notes of chocolate and tobacco can also be hugely prevalent.

Although famously full-bodied, styles from cooler parts of Australia can be more medium-bodied with higher acidity and fresher fruit. All styles tend to have bold fruit and spice at their core.

Shiraz vs Syrah

Although Shiraz and Syrah are technically the same grape variety originating from the Rh?ne Valley, the names imply slightly different wine styles. Shiraz is typically seen as a New World style with a focus on big ample bold fruit and spice with particular emphasis on black pepper. Shiraz is also synonymous with full-bodied wines from warmer climes with rich ripe fruit and big tannins.

In contrast, Syrah is more associated with a cooler-climate, old world style of wine-making with lighter, fresher fruit, higher acidity and spice that veers towards white pepper over black. Although both Shiraz and Syrah both imply different styles of wine, they are used inconsistently and there are no hard and fast rules. However, it can be assumed that for the most part an Australian Shiraz is going to be bigger, bolder and heavier than a French Syrah, although there are always exceptions.

Australia's key wine regions for producing Shiraz

Key Australian Shiraz-producing regions include the Barossa Valley, Eden Valley, Clare Valley, Heathcote, Hunter Valley, McLaren Vale, Yarra Valley, Grampians and Adelaide Hills, although there are likely smaller regions that exist that also produce high-quality Shiraz.

Adelaide Hills – South Australia

An Adelaide Hills vineyard in summer
An Adelaide Hills vineyard in summer

Although less famous for Shiraz than other wine regions like the Barossa Valley, what Adelaide Hills does offer is a cooler climate style of Shiraz than made elsewhere.

More akin to a Syrah, Adelaide Hills Shiraz is more medium-bodied and zingy with fresher fruit than other South Australian big hitters.

Barossa Valley – South Australia

Grenache bush vines in Barossa
Grenache bush vines in Barossa
? Jonathan Reeve

The Barossa Valley is perhaps Australia’s most famous, as well as most prolific, Shiraz-producing region. Shiraz from the Barossa tends to be full-bodied and rich; these are wines noted for their intense power. On the palate, dark fruits like blackberry and dried fruit are often prominent along with notes of chocolate and tobacco.

As well as a distinct earthiness, these wines often exhibit a meaty quality along with considerable spice, especially black pepper. Barossa Shiraz tends to be relatively high in alcohol and although there are significant tannins, these tend to be reasonably polished and provide a great structure for long-term aging. The Barossa offers some of the finest examples of Australian Shiraz.

Clare Valley – South Australia

A vineyard in the Clare Valley
A vineyard in the Clare Valley
? SAWIA

Although Clare Valley is better known for its white wines, namely Riesling, the Shiraz that is made is generally very well received.

Higher altitudes give the wines a fresh, refined quality and the wines are noted for having notes of aniseed alongside the dark spicy fruit.

Eden Valley – South Australia

Vineyards in Eden Valley
Vineyards in Eden Valley
? Wikimedia/Fairv8

The Eden Valley is not far from the Barossa, and like the Barossa, Eden Valley offers some top-quality Shiraz. As the Eden Valley tends to be at a higher altitude than the Barossa, the climate is naturally a touch cooler which translates in the fruit and the wines tend to have higher acidity and a fresher character.

Although the wines still have notes of dark bramble fruit like blackberry, the fruit tends to have sharper, greener notes with less sweetness than in the wines produced from the Barossa Valley floor. These wines can be extremely sophisticated and have great capacity to age as demonstrated by one of Australia’s most famous Shiraz, Henschke Hill of Grace made in the Eden Valley.

Coonawarra – South Australia

The famous Terra Rossa, Coonawarra
The famous Terra Rossa, Coonawarra
? SAWIA

The Coonawarra region is better known as a prolific producer of top-quality Cabernet Sauvignon than Shiraz, however, the Shiraz made here is noted for its excellence. The wines tend to be medium-bodied and often showcase bright, intense plummy fruit along with the typical notes of black pepper spice and chocolate.

Grampians – Victoria

The Grampians, Victoria, Australia
The Grampians, Victoria, Australia
? Wikimedia/Diliff

Less well-known than other top Australian Shiraz regions, the Grampians region does, however, produce some top examples especially from some of the older, more historical wineries.

Many of the wines exhibit a strong pepper character along with the bold fruit.

Heathcote – Victoria

Shiraz Vineyards in Heathcote
Shiraz Vineyards in Heathcote
? Heathcote Winery

Heathcote has become an important wine region for high-quality Australian Shiraz.

The wines are often even more powerful and intense in style than those of the Barossa with densely-packed black fruit and spice, however, they are not without sophistication and some of the best examples are highly complex with great capacity to age.

Hunter Valley – New South Wales

Vines at Brokenwood, Hunter Valley
Vines at Brokenwood, Hunter Valley
? Jonathan Reeve

Although the Hunter Valley is more known for its Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz is also produced here, and it tends to be more moderate in style than the wines of the Hunter Valley.

In general, the wines are medium-bodied offering firm, refined fruit alongside moderate alcohol and tannin.

McLaren Vale – South Australia

The view over mcLaren Vale
The view over mcLaren Vale
? SAWIA

Like the Barossa, McLaren Vale is another key Australian wine region for Shiraz. The wines made here tend to be rich, intense and full-bodied and brimming with inky black fruit with the addition of blue fruit like blueberries.

Along with the fruit, there can also be strong hints of chocolate along with the usual black pepper and tobacco spice.

Yarra Valley – Victoria

Vines growing in the Yarra Valley
Vines growing in the Yarra Valley
? Wikimedia/Henry Burrows

Like other cooler-style wine regions, the Yarra Valley offers a more European style of Shiraz, so much so, it is often marketed as Syrah.

The wines tend to exhibit a fresher, more elegant flavor profile and showcase rich red and black fruit balanced by zingy acidity. The wines often have the typical notes of spice, often veering towards white pepper.

Blends

In Australia, Shiraz is often used as a blending component with other grapes.

Australian Cabernet Shiraz

Perhaps, most quintessentially Australian is the blending of Shiraz with Cabernet Sauvignon which is often labelled as Cabernet Shiraz.

At its core, it is a mash-up between Bordeaux and Rh?ne Valley styles and the best examples can be very good indeed as Cabernet offers a sophisticated structure while Shiraz provides the lush, ripe fruit. The resulting wines tend to be full-bodied with dark brambly cassis fruit and notes of black pepper and tobacco.

Excellent examples are made in Coonawarra and the Barossa, although the trend for Cabernet Shiraz wines has declined since its heyday in the 1970s. Many Australian Cabernet Shiraz blends tend to be dismissed as lower-rung wines, however, other examples like the famous Penfolds Grange showcase the blend at its very best.

Australian GSM

The Grenache – Syrah – Mourvèdre blend namely originates from Châteauneuf-du-Pape and the surrounding appellations in the Southern Rh?ne. Known colloquially as a GSM blend, the combination of Shiraz, Grenache and Mourvèdre has gained popularity in Australia.

This blending style is popular in both the Barossa and McLaren Vale and some excellent wines are made. Penfolds, Seppeltsfield, Torbreck and Grant Burge all produce popular examples of the blend.

Sparkling Shiraz

Arguably the most extraordinary – and uniquely Australian – style of Shiraz is its sparkling form. Sparkling Shiraz is a proud Australian creation and it is most often drunk during the silly season over Christmas lunch.

This style of wine was first produced over a hundred years ago in Victoria, since then, however, the style is now made country-wide with various producers like Jacob's Creek, Seppelt and The Black Chook all offering popular expressions of the style.




Frequently Asked Questions

Australian Shiraz is typically made in a dry style, although entry-level brands may have slightly more residual sugar left in them than other more premium wines. The strong fruit character found in Australian Shiraz is not a result of residual sugar.

Australian Shiraz typically has notes of black, blue and red forest fruit like black currant, blueberry and raspberry as well as orchard fruit like dark cherry and plum.

There are also commonly undercurrents of chocolate, coffee, black pepper, tobacco, menthol, cedar and eucalyptus as well as other herbs and spice.

Food pairings that typically go well with Australian Shiraz are barbequed, grilled and roasted meats like beef and lamb. Braised vegetables and strong, hard cheeses can also make successful pairings.

Syrah is often known as Shiraz in Australia to indicate a slightly different style of wine. Although Syrah and Shiraz are the same grape variety, Syrah typically indicates a cool-climate more subtle style of wine, while Shiraz indicates a bigger and bolder warm-climate style. Historically, Shiraz refers to the wine produced around the city of Shiraz in the south of Iran.

Both have strong fruit and spice notes, with Syrah typically having softer fruit and notes of white pepper, while Shiraz has richer fruit and notes of black pepper.

The Barossa Valley in South Australia is home to a collection of old Shiraz vines planted on their own roots from pre-phylloxera cuttings, brought to Australia from France in the 1830s. Today, these are referred to as 'Heritage' clones and are highly-valued genetic resource. After decades of cultivation, these vines have evolved in response to their environmental conditions to an ideal genetic predisposition for vine health, bunch composition and vine balance.  

 


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