Barossa Shiraz – Australia’s most important wine

It would be impossible for me to name my favourite wine, let alone favourite Australian wine. But if I had to leave Australia and were able to take a single case of one wine style it would be Barossa Shiraz (with probably a few bottles of Clare Riesling smuggled along).

Other areas can produce great Shiraz too (like Western Australia and especially Heathcote in Central Victoria) but the Barossa produces a distinctive style, and has produced a great range of great Shiraz for many many years.

Sure I moan about the rapidly escalating prices for Barossa Shiraz but I understand how international demand is growing. People ouside of Australia who hear about Australian Shiraz and buy a bottle will rarely be disappointed. Like New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, while they vary in quality, you pretty well always get something distinctive and easy to appreciate. Usually sumptuously rich and full bodied. Some are like vinous ‘chocolate milkshakes’, partly due to creamy vanillan American oak treatment. Maybe not something that you would want to drink everyday, but you’d think every wine store in the world would want to carry at least a few brands. And that’s what’s driving the prices up. Fortunately they’ve also been planting a lot of Shiraz in the Barossa Valley.

At its worst shiraz from the Barossa is a soft wine with 13%+ alcohol, some nasty added tartaric acid and a bit of fake wood (eg from oak chips) flavour, ie a fake tasting commercial concoction. Australia unfortunately does manage to produce quite a bit of red wine like this, mostly not from the Barossa (instead usually simply labelled “South Eastern Australia” a wine region that that covers all the grape growing areas of Australia except Western Australia).

I reckon there are 3 main styles:

1) There is an old fashioned style of Barossa Shiraz that can be quite rich and even tannic balanced by quite a bit of added acid. The best are usually from old non-irrigated vines. I don’t find these wines very approachable when young. When older they pick up quite a bit of leathery flavour (and a greasepaint character), but the limey added acid flavours can take a long time (sometimes forever) to disappear. And these wines tend to throw a crust (and often early). I don’t really like these wines, even the really serious ones like Saltram’s No.1 Barossa Shiraz. Penfold’s Grange Hermitage sort of falls into this category, though Grange really has a distinctive style of its own. I haven’t tried any of Henschke’s Hill of Grace or Mount Edelstone for years (they are so expensive now) but I recall that they were in this style, I’m pretty sure they add a lot of acid ().

2) Then there is a more fruit driven modern style. I say fruit driven but they often have a lot of sweetish American oak, and some of these really are chocolate milkshakes. The best are gorgeous rich wines though, capable of standing up to hot chilli foods. Elderton have been pretty consistent in making a good quality example. Maybe the quality dropped off a bit in the late 1990s but so did the price. The 2002 is certainly on form. Grant Burge has also substantially improved the quality of his well priced Miamba and Filsell wines.

3) Finally, there is a range of new wave Barossa Shiraz. The best of these wines are more elegant, built for aging yet with no more tannin, but better acids. Some are using French oak, others the additon of a tiny amount of Viogner. Needless to say there is a lot of variation as the experimentation continues. It’s great to see that the innovation continues in the Barossa, at least the higher prices are encouraging investment. Examples include Turkey Flat, Winter Creek.

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One thought on “Barossa Shiraz – Australia’s most important wine

  1. The comments on Barossa shiraz are well summarised and an invaluable insight for those unfamiliar with the style. Reviewing Byron’s notes certainly help to explain why Barossa shiraz is an example of Australia’s most important wine styles.

    I would like to add some notes of discussion for those in favour of variations on a theme.

    Barossa Shiraz can be ligitmately criticised for producing too many ‘me too’ wines. Often the style of one producer mirrors the next with reputation, and subsequently price, being the main distinguishing feature between two examples.

    Secondly, some notable modern examples of Barossa shiraz carry too much ‘Brett’ (Brettanomyces- a spoilage yeast) on the nose and palate. ‘Brett’ is often encouraged in a small component of a final blend so the winemaker can mix in some of this wine to add ‘character’ to the final wine. The ‘character’ of ‘Brett’ is due to incomplete barrel filling during a wine’s maturation, and the air pocket at the top of the barrel encourages the growth of microorganisms, of which ‘Brett’ is one.

    Of course, the measure of ‘too much Brett’ is strictly subjective. However, when the characters of ‘Brett’ range from ‘sweaty’ and ‘mousey’ through to ‘wet dog’ and ‘band-aid’, the measure of what is acceptable must surely be “not much”.

    Despite the obvious contradiction in my claim of too little variation in Barossa wine, before criticising those espousing variation, the question really is-

    “Does the expression of a wine fault illustrate a variation to the style of Barossa shiraz?” AND

    “Is the sacrifice of regional character in such a windely recognised style a good thing for Barossa shiraz?”

    Any other comments/disputes/questions?

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