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Australian Shiraz - The grape and its varietals

Grape Varieties

There's a story that at the Vienna International Exhibition of 1873 the judges were tasting the red Hermitage wines from Australia. After the second bottle was tasted they judges began to mutter out loud 'this can't be Australian Wine, it's too good, it must be French'. This may have been the first recorded moment when Europeans were surprised at the quality of Australian wines, but it wasn't the last.

There's a story that at the Vienna International Exhibition of 1873 the judges were tasting the red Hermitage wines from Australia. After the second bottle was tasted they judges began to mutter out loud 'this can't be Australian Wine, it's too good, it must be French'. This may have been the first recorded moment when Europeans were surprised at the quality of Australian wines, but it wasn't the last.

The Hermitage they were drinking was, of course, Shiraz. It's just an old Australian term for the grape that has dominated the industry there for so long. The legendary Penfolds's Grange was called Grange Hermitage until 1990 when the 'Hermitage' was dropped, but the wine is made as ever it was from Shiraz grapes. It's possible that 'Hermitage' was adopted as a synonym in Australia for Shiraz as a kind of an homage to the northern Rhone hills of Hermitage, where the grapes ancestral origins lie.

Shiraz has a long history of cultivation in Australia and still today it's the most widely planted grape variety in Australia. But its history hasn't been one long success story. Back in the 1980s the Cabernet Sauvignon was at the peak of its popularity and Shiraz was so out of fashion that the wines hardly sold and many vineyards were uprooted and replaced with the upstart Cabernet. It took the export market to begin its revival. Just as consumers around the world were discovering the intense drinkability of the Shiraz, growers in the Barossa valley were uprooting their vines. Thankfully the demand created from abroad stopped the trend and the Shiraz has gained its place as Australia's major red grape.

Like most grapes different characteristics are highlighted in different climactic conditions. In the warmest regions, like the Barossa Valley, it produces big, robust wines that are powerful and rich in flavour. In places like Coonawarra and Margaret River, where the climate is slightly cooler, the wines are more medium-bodied but with intensity and elegance. In the cooler regions, like the Yarra Valley and Canberra, the grape produces a much tauter wine, one in which the spiciness and the pepperiness can predominate.

Because the Shiraz produces such a deep red wine with intense berry flavours, it responds well to oaking. In the best wineries the wine is matured in new American oak barrels, which imparts tannin and hints of vanilla - a mix that at its best can be remarkable. In the cooler climates subtler French oak barrels are used and the resulting wines are more elegant than robust. The cheapest, but least effective, way to oak the wines is to add oak chippings to the fermenting must.

Suggested wine

Lindemans Bin 50 Shiraz 2000

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