Article By: Harvey Finkel
Syrah or shiraz as it’s called in Australia and some elsewheres, is bursting its erstwhile boundaries, and emerging all over the world’s wine scene. It remains, however, a dominant grape only in southern France and in Australia. Since I’ll be focusing on Australia today in response to a visit from Tony Hooper, Wyndham Estate’s lead winemaker, let’s say “shiraz”, but not call the whole thing off.
I doubt the grape will take offense. It has been called by many other names: scyras, petite syrah (but not petite sirah), balsamia, syracuse, hermitage, are some, which largely reflect theories and fancies of its origin. Current research and wisdom suggest that shiraz is native to the northern Rhône Valley, the love child of a tryst between dueza and mondeuse blanc.
Shiraz is easy to grow, and is relatively resistant to diseases and pests. It buds late, but does not ripen very late, both advantages in avoiding the effects of bad weather. It is sensitive to coulure, and likes warmth. Although it is productive, crop yields should be limited. Picking time is important. As we’ll see, in Australian hands shiraz is a most versatile grape, giving wines of almost any style, reminiscent of zinfandel in California. I have encountered Shirazes in the guises of sparkling wines, pinks, light fruity red fluff, world-class serious dry red wines, and Port knock-offs.
Shiraz now makes up one-quarter of all Australian wine grapes. Unlike elsewhere, France particularly, it is seldom respected in Australia, perhaps because of its ubiquity, perhaps because it is contained in so many cheap wines – the operation of a vinous Gresham’s law. But Shirazes are also some of Australia’s most revered wines, most famously Grange.
Shiraz first came to Australia, perhaps by way of South Africa, in the early 19th century. Most historians credit James Busby, who brought 4OO assorted vine cuttings from Europe in 1832. He had previously established the first plantings in Australia in 1826. George Wyndham, who established his Dalwood Estate in the lower Hunter Valley in 1828, may have planted shiraz, among others, as early as 183O. It eventually was planted in almost all of Australia’s wine-growing areas, becoming the “workhorse grape”. It often has been blended with cabernet sauvignon.
When Wyndham, a native of Wiltshire, England, brought 6OO vine cuttings and his Belgian bride to the banks of the Hunter River, it must have seemed like the deserted end of the world. Five years after planting in 183O, his newly released wines were received with great praise. By mid-century, he was exporting to England and India. On Wyndam’s death in 187O, the wine estate passed to son John, one of thirteen children, but gradually passed out of the family by the end of the century. The Dalwood Estate, however, was renamed Wyndham Estate in 197O, the centennial of the founder’s death. Orlando acquired Wyndham in 199O. Wyndham Estate is now owned by the very large international drinks conglomerate Pernod Ricard.
Winemaker Tony Hooper has been at Wyndam Estate in the Hunter Valley for ten years. He became interested in winemaking and in brewing beer while in high school, before he could drink legally. He earned his degree in oenology at the esteemed Roseworthy Agricultural College, then gained experience in vineyards and wineries in Australia and New Zealand. He and his colleagues produce one-million cases of wine annually, half of which is Shiraz.
I tasted Wyndham’s entire spectrum of Shiraz with Tony – all five wines were Shiraz. Except for the single-sourced Black Cluster, the wines, in the usual Australian manner, originate from multiregional sources. In the future, we may be seeing proportionately more French oak in the Show Reserve and Black Cluster. The wines are all fine exemplars of their classes, and are more than fairly priced.
BIN 555 SPARKLING NONVINTAGE
From vineyards in southeastern Australia. Second fermentation by Charmat method. A startlingly dark purple/red. Fruity, off-dry. Reminds of a heavier, more fizzy Brachetto. Try with chocolate. Less than $1O
BIN 5O5 ROSÉ 2OO6
Sourced mostly from South Australia. Selective use of larger berries. Attractive coral pink. A nice picnic wine. Off-dry. Clean, and without Jell-O smell and taste. Has finish. $1O
BIN 555 2OO5
Grapes from southeastern Australia. Largest seller in Australia and New Zealand. Matured in 3OO-liter used oak. Bit of spice. The message is plenty of ready-to-drink ripe fruit. Good with barbecues and the like. $1O
SHOW RESERVE 2OO4
Predominantly from selected parcels in the Langhorne Creek area of South Australia and the Hunter Valley. New and one-year-old oak barrels for up to 18 months. Smells of fine deep, dark fruit and American oak. Lovely wine, with good fruit and finish, acid balance and just tannins. $12 to $18
BLACK CLUSTER HUNTER VALLEY 2OO3
From an old, low-yield, single block in the Lower Hunter. Selected lots all along its life, both before and after its 18 months in mixed-age American oak. Deeper yet and more reserved than the foregoing. Appealing American oak apparent. Very good structure and very long finish. Will age gracefully and durably. $16 to $25