Article By: Harvey Finkel, MD
Bill Hardy, scion of the eponymic family of the Hardy Wine Company, visited Massachusetts recently, bearing samples of Hardy's way with Shiraz, the Australian term for Syrah. We'll get into those specifics after consideration of the genre.
Syrah is the great black grape of the northern Rhone, most notably Cote Rotie, Hermitage, Cornas, St. Joseph, et al. Its origin has been a matter of debate, no doubt largely engendered by its name in Oz. Shiraz is an ancient city in southeastern Iran, an area once known for its wine production, also the home town of Omar Khayyam. One theory had the vine, native to Shiraz, brought to Marseille by Greek inhabitants of coastal western Asia Minor, thence up the Rhone River. Hardy believes that "shiraz" comes from an Australian slurring of one of the old synonyms of syrah, perhaps scyras. A second story had the vine's origin in Egypt, and its carrier the Romans, by way of Siracusa. Syrah was already well established in the Rhone Valley by Roman times.
Romantically satisfying though these classically flavored legends may be, it is currently believed that the syrah originated right in the northern Rhone Valley, possibly evolving from a vine called allobrogica cultivated by a Gallic tribe, the Allobroges, and selected from wild vines for its quality, unusual tarry flavor, and putative medicinal powers. DNA "fingerprinting" at UC Davis has suggested that syrah's parents could be dureza and mondeuse blanche.
After something of an up-and-down career, syrah has spread exuberantly throughout the red wine-growing world. In southern France, it is blended with Grenache, Mourvedre, Cinsault, and, more recently, Cabernet Sauvignon; in California, with Petite Sirah and Zinfandel; elsewhere, with locally grown red wines. Even in its native northern Rhone, a drop of Marsanne and Roussanne may be slipped into Hemitage and Viognier into Cote Rotie. Syrah is often known as Balsamia in Argentina, where it may be blended with Malbec. Of course, Syrah's most notorious metastasis was the 19th century practice of fancy Bordeaux chateaux' adding Hermitage to strengthen, say, an effete Lafite.
Syrah's emerging global popularity is easily explained. It is productive and disease resistant, although it is sensitive to coulure. Late budding avoids spring frost damage, yet ripening is not too late. Its wine marries well with oak, lives long, and, if not overcropped or picked too early or too late, is noble and complex.
Syrah, which we'd best now start to call shiraz, is not a recent immigrant to Australia. With other varieties, it was brought from France in 1832 by James Busby, often called the father of winegrowing in Australia and New Zealand. It is now grown all over Australia, covering a quarter of the continent's 16O,OOO hectares of vineyards and is not always respected. The grape and wine were once termed "Hermitage" in the Hunter Valley. Much like zinfandel in California, shiraz in Australia is used to make wine at every price level, of every style - sparkling red aperitif, fluff, world class dry reds, even respectable ringers for Port. Like the Bordelais of a bygone era, Australians like to blend Shiraz with Cabernet Sauvignon. Shiraz will reflect its terroir. Particularly distinctive growing regions include the Hunter Valley, Barossa Valley, Claire Valley, Eden Valley, McLaren Vale, Coonawarra, Padthaway, and cooler areas of Victoria.
Hardy's, one of the major established Australian producers, was founded by Thomas Hardy in 1853. He emigrated as a 2O-year-old from England's Devon to South Australia, which had been settled in 1836. He is not known to have been related to Thomas Hardy, the eminent novelist and poet from Dorset. The Hardy family owned the company until 1992, when, as BRL Hardy, it became a public corporation. In 2OO3, the Hardy Wine Company became a division of Constellation, the drinks giant. Along the way, Hardy's partnered with or acquired several other brands, usually maintaining their individual labels and characters, as we shall see when we taste the Shirazes.
BILL HARDY, the great, great grandson of the founding Thomas, was a red-winemaker, trained at the University of Bordeaux, and is now the group enologist. He led the tasting of six selected and distinctive wines, introduced by a Hardys Sparkling Shiraz. Red sparkling wine is always a surprise. This is off-dry, balanced, inexpensive. Hardy's produces about 4O different Shirazes, from different sites, sold at different prices.
TINTARA McLAREN VALE 2OO3
Tintara (from the Aboriginal for the constellation Orion) founded in 1861, acquired by Hardy 1876, located on the coast 25km south of Adelaide, has moderate climate, which Bill Hardy says gives a rounder wine. Gentle basket press used by this and the next, and some others. American and French oak. Still closed. Well-textured tannins. Oak well integrated. Plum fruit, good finish. A good buy. The 2OO2 Reserve is long, reserved, possessed impeccable fruit.
CHATEAU REYNELLA McLAREN VALE SHIRAZ 2OO3 Founded in 1838; oldest winery in South Australia. Acquired by Hardy in 1982. Sandy soil. Late ripening grapes yield graceful wine with varietal character. This wine has fine bouquet, is intense, balanced, long - very impressive, but not very expensive.
EMU WINE COMPANY FRANKLAND RIVER 2OO4 Founded as English negociant in 186Os; planted in Australia in mid 2Oth century; acquired by Hardy 1976 - label recently used for miscellanea. This product of Western Australia is not complex, but tastes of ripe, sweet dark plums, and finishes well.
LEASINGHAM CLASSIC CLARE 2OO2
Leasingham, established 1893, bought in 1988 from HJ Heinz, who had previously acquired the property. Located 16Okm north of Adelaide, at 45O meters. Cool continental climate, shallow soil. Riesling does well here. A cool year. Matured in French oak. Bright berry nose and mouth, with good acid and length. Young yet. A 1996 magnum is ripe, juicy, balanced, long.
BAROSSA VALLEY ESTATE E&E BLACK PEPPER 2OO2 Established in 1984 as a joint venture of Hardy's and German family growers. All Hardy's in 1996. "E&E" derived from the names of two major growers. The last cooperative wine venture in Australia. American oak. Rich juicy fruit accented by black peppercorns (especially pungent in cool vintages). Expensive. The less expensive Ebenezer 1996 (Ebenezer is a town) smells of mocha, and seems lighter and simpler than the other wines.
HARDYS EILEEN HARDY 2OOO
A characteristic of Australian wine blending, an amalgam of sources from various locations, the best that Hardy can do each year if good enough. Eileen Hardy was Bill's grandmother, an important figure in the company's history. Oak and ripe fruit nicely balanced. Sweet, suave, concentrated, very long. Expensive. A magnum of the 1996 Eileen Hardy tastes of juicy cherries, has long finish, and seems high in alcohol.
ONE CLEARLY HAS WIDE AND ATTRACTIVE CHOICES among Hardy shirazes, in style, sources and prices.