While we’re gearing up for summer, our friends Down Under are welcoming the first harvest of the new decade. Once the grapes are picked and fermentation is under way, the winemakers slow down and, with the winter rains arriving, drink their prized shiraz with abandon. At least this is the romantic picture I would like to paint. Perhaps they are slogging down Foster’s or, preferably, Coopers.
Stateside, though rosé and white wines are in more demand now that the weather is changing, there is still plenty of room for red wines and Australian shiraz is one of the best to have with a barbecue.
Typical Australian shiraz is full-bodied with opulent fruit that is often marked by blueberries, boysenberries and cherries with vanilla, black pepper, mint and other herbal tones. There is variation, though, as the wines from the cooler regions near Melbourne and the Margaret River can be more restrained and less fruit-forward. Nonetheless, when the peeps think of Australian shiraz, it is usually the fruit bombs that come to mind.
There is nothing wrong with these wines so long as they are balanced. Balance meaning that there is enough acid and tannin to hold up the fruit. Syrah is not inherently a high-acid grape and when it is grown in warm areas like the Barossa Valley and McClaren Vale making a wine with high acidity is challenging. This makes tannin all the more important, but tannins need to be in proportion to the level of fruit.
The other big factor here is alcohol. Alcohol adds body to wines, but it can also make them seem too heavy and overshadow fruit and other aromas. So again, it is a matter of balance. Like zinfandel, syrah can withstand higher alcohol levels meaning, over 13.5 percent, however once the 15 percent mark is hit, it is hard not to notice the viscosity and hot character.
While I feel that there are many varieties of shiraz that are a bit clumsy, there are also a number that are very well made and provide plenty of enjoyment. Here are three:
Gemtree Shiraz Viognier, Bloodstone, 2008 (McClaren Vale): Family-owned, this biodynamic property makes several wines from shiraz. With 5 percent viognier, Bloodstone tips its hat to Cote Rotie. While you would not mistake this for the real thing, it has a tire-rubber smokiness that reminds me of some wines from the northern Rhone. Full-bodied with dried cherries, prunes and spice, it has the old world in mind, even with its abundance of fruit. Suggested retail: $17
Heartland Shiraz, 2008 (South Australia): Composed of Langhorne Creek and Limestone Coast fruit, this is juicy, tasty treat. Made by Ben Glaetzer of Glaetzer wines and the former winemaker at Tyrrells, it has chewy red fruits with a drop of spice and firm tannins. Suggested retail: $18
Hesketh Shiraz, The Usual Suspects, 2008 (McClaren Vale): Hesketh is a family-owned operation with little pretension. It aims to make wines with local personality at a fairly reasonable sum. This is not as easy as it may seem but Hesketh has pulled it off. The Usual Suspects shiraz does not have a shortage of fruit, but what stayed with me the most was the array of lunch-meat aromas that I smell in this wine. Oscar Mayer or Hebrew National, the wines smells quite a bit like bologna with blueberry jam and minerals. Crazy, eh? But give it a shot. Suggested retail: $22
Pamela S. Busch is the wine director and proprietor of CAV Wine Bar & Kitchen in San Francisco.