Barossa Chapters: Shiraz
Barossa has a 175-year old tradition of producing Australia’s finest Shiraz. Barossa Shiraz ranges from the famous and collectable to the friendly and approachable: from the traditional low-yielding, dry-grown style laden with ripe fruit, tannin and oak – wines that age for at least 20 years – through to a finer, medium-bodied style, picked at lower ripeness, with less exposure to oak, that is more fragrant and floral in composition.
Barossa Shiraz. The name summons up a sensory adventure of colors – violet to inky black, flavours that are a little licorice-tinged with some dark chocolate and plums, and textures that are always generous, full bodied, warm and earthy, with fine silky tannins and an acid structure to ensure longevity.
Shiraz is the most widely planted grape variety in Australia and Barossa can rightfully claim to be its spiritual home.
Australia’s rarest and most collectable wines are all Shiraz and they all come from here – Penfolds Grange, Henschke Hill of Grace and Torbreck The Laird to name a few. Barossa Shiraz also dominates the Langton’s Wine Classification, Australia’s objective endorsement of quality, with cult wines such as Rockford Basket Press and Chris Ringland Shiraz.
Before it reached thoroughbred status Barossa Shiraz was a workhorse, used to provide the richness and colour and flavor in vintage and tawny “ports”.
Then came a modern evolution – Penfolds Chief Winemaker Max Schubert returned from a fact finding trip to Bordeaux where he learnt about ageing Cabernet in French Oak. There was very little of either in Australia so he made his first Grange using Shiraz aged in American oak…and invented a style that would continue for the next 70 years.
That type of necessity has always been the mother of invention in the Barossa. Shiraz-Cabernet blends, often referred to as ‘claret’, were a dominant part of the wine landscape from the late 1800s and can claim to be one of Australia’s only unique wine styles – given that France’s appellation d'origine controlee system outlawed such multi-varietal blending in 1919. In Australia, filling the trademark hole in Cabernet’s mid palate with a little Shiraz richness, seemed eminently sensible!
In the 1990s a few far-sighted visionaries realised the treasure trove of the region’s old pre-phylloxera Shiraz vines and started paying growers handsomely for this previously worthless fruit. So a new Barossa Shiraz emerged: basket pressed out of these old, low yielding vines it was dark, concentrated, rich and – most importantly – rare.
World-wide demand made some winemakers chase higher and higher levels of concentration, oak and alcohol but that was a short term aberration – by the early 2000s Barossa Shiraz had settled into a more balanced expression of place, its robustness offset more by French oak than American and its alcohol levels hovering around 14°Baume.
Now Barossa Shiraz ranges from the famous and collectable to the friendly and approachable…and everything in between. It is in blends that showcase its workhorse brothers Grenache and Mataro; it finds it way into an aromatic partnership with Viognier and adds body and texture to Tempranillo and Touriga to Malbec, Sangiovese…and occasionally even benefits from a splash of Riesling.
The energy amongst winemakers and grapegrowers to stretch the boundaries of Shiraz remains as driven as it was a century ago, with an extraordinary diversity of new flavours and textures from sub-regional single vineyards.
Even after 175 years the best Barossa Shiraz remains to be imagined and created.
“Paul Jaboulet came out from the Rhone Valley in France. I put on my 1962 Hill of Grace and he put on his 1962 La Chapelle. What was amazing was how similar the wines looked and what they matured into. Our wine was from vines that were over 100 years old, and his wine was from vines that were probably only about 40 years old. So the Old World was new and the New World was old!” Stephen Henschke