Avoid plonk, go with South Australia Shiraz
I spent 6 months in Australia. I was lucky enough to go wine tasting twice while doing a college study abroad program in Melbourne. Hell, I even spent my 21st birthday wine tasting in Yarra Valley (Thanks Lenore and Harley!). However, 12 years later, I realized I knew very little about Australian wines.
Let’s start with Australia's most produced varietal, Syrah, which obviously we love since it came from Rhone. Except they call it Shiraz, and the state of South Australia produces it very well. These world renown Shirazes can be found for under $30 with enough age on them to soften those tannins. What's not to love?
Australia began making wine in the 1700s back when it was a penal colony. However, the British, who first brought grapes, fortified the wine and sent it back to England to be sold as ‘tonic.’ The majority of producers continued down this path until the 1970s when table wine took off. Then Australia focused on mass production in areas that could actually grow grapes, which hugged the coastlines.
Finally, in the 1990s, Australian wine exports picked up and led to a frenzy of planting new varietals. They began experimenting with Italian and Spanish varietals, after hundreds of years of planting French and German.
Australians have a reputation of being beer drinkers; however, their love of wine is growing and their quality is increasing. They consume 5x per capita the wine they did 50 years ago. Today, 60% of their wine is exported, with China being the top importer.
In terms of production, South Australia grows 50% of the country's grapes, and is home to the country's most favorable grape growing conditions. In that regard, it is similar to California in the US. Yet, South Australia's production is significantly down from the 1950s, when it was responsible for 75% of grape production.
It is home to the most important wine regions and vine research organizations in Australia.
Wine growing within the state is fairly concentrated around the coast, like wine growing is across the country. Inland you still get your fair share of mass-produced wine with critters on the labels. Let's be honest, we've all drunk some of that in the past. But those wines are not the focus of this post.
Wines labeled with only the GI (Geographical Indication) Barossa can be made up of grapes from of both its sub-regions, Barossa Valley and Eden Valley. Nights are cool, but summers are hot and dry. Though Barossa is only slightly inland, this is still a continent ruled by a large central desert.
First plantings were unirrigated bushvines, which are well-suited to the climate and soil make-up. These vines can produce a heavily concentrated Shiraz.
Today, both sub-regions have their own style and are worth trying.
Barossa Valley is the most well-known region, featuring powerful and flavorful Shiraz. It’s only an hour north of South Australia’s capital, Adelaide. There are currently ~140 producers exporting all over the world.
There is strong German influence, as many of the settlers in the area came from what is present Poland. The area was first planted in the 1840s and focused on Riesling. However, the warm valley climate floor makes the region more suitable to red varietals, and that is the majority of what you will find in the region (Barossa Valley is also known for its Cabernet Sauvignons).
What makes Barossa particularly special is that it has the oldest remaining vines in the world. When the breakout happened in Europe, Barrosa Valley was fairly isolated and managed to stay Phylloxera free.There is a vineyard still producing wine from 170 year-old vines. They continue to monitor the spread phylloxera carefully, as many vineyards are ungrafted.
Wines are recognized by blackberry, dried currant, chocolate, tobacco, and black pepper. The Shiraz has big fruit flavor with powdery tannins, and high alcohol, possibly reaching 15.5% ABV. These wines can age very well. Penfolds Grange, perhaps Australia's most famous wine, comes from the Barrosa Valley.
This sub-region lives in a chain of hills on the east side of Barossa Valley. This extra elevation and being more inland equates to a cooler climate, which always increases acidity. Another fun fact on acidity—acidity increases the age worthiness of wine.
The Shirazes of Eden Valley are known to be the more elegant of the two Valleys. The wines often showcase a delicate fruit palate. They age well too.
Eden Valley is also known for its white wine. Many white varietals are grown here, and thus quality white blends are worth seeking out.
The first plantings in Mclaren Vale arrived in 1838. The Hardy and Seaview Wineries were established by 1850 and are still around today. There are 100 years old vines that are still producing. There has been a substantial increase in producers over the last few decades, with the current total count at 126 producers.
McLaren Vale wines are usually very high in alcohol. Mclaren Vale Shiraz is rarely less than 14.5% ABV and sometime greater than 15.5% ABV. Wineries claim they are not seeking such high alcohol, but patiently awaiting the right amount of flavor development.
Interestingly, quality McLaren Vale Shirazes generally showcase a dark chocolate flavor.
Lying within the Fleurieu region, the sub-region of McLaren Vale is a 45 min drive south of Adelaide. Being close to the coast, McLaren Vale enjoys a Mediterranean climate. This maritime climate is warm and dry, but temperate. However, it’s getting warmer and dryer thanks to climate change.
And we of course had to try a couple!
Hewitson, 2014 Ned and Henry’s Shiraz, Barrosa Valley, Australia, $28
To represent the world renown Barossa Valley Shiraz, we tasted a well-balanced wine full of flavor clusters. The nose has aromas of cheese and raspberry. Blueberry, red cherry, eucalyptus, green bell pepper, and black plum flavors covered our palate. The fermentation process and maturity of this wine brought flavors of mushroom, cedar, prune, vanilla, and dried cranberry. This wine came in at medium plus acid with peppery medium plus tannins. At 14% ABV, this wine had medium body. We enjoyed the medium plus leathery and vegetal finish, lasting 33 plus seconds.
Mitolo, 2015 Jester Shiraz, McLaren Vale, Australia $22
To represent the McLaren Vale region, we chose a slightly younger and tighter wine. We smelled blackberry and charred wood. We enjoyed flavors of blueberry, liquorice, black plum, and black pepper. Wine making techniques and time in bottle brought us dark chocolate, forest floor, wet leaves, and cloves. This medium acid wine pulled a punch with its medium plus earthy tannins. There was 14.5% ABV medium plus body that lasted for a medium finish leaving tobacco and fig to linger for 25 seconds.
Eden Trail, 2017 Shiraz, Eden Valley, Australia $25
As we let our taste buds travel to Eden Valley, we smelled eucalyptus and cedar. We tasted notes of blackberry, asparagus, liquorice and red cherry. The wine-making process and aging gives off resin, nutmeg, and dried cranberry. There was Medium plus acid complemented by medium plus leathery tannins. This medium plus body wine has an ABV of 14.5%. There is medium earthy finish that lasts for about 23 seconds.
Langmeil, 2011 Hangin’ Snakes, 96% Shiraz 4% Viognier, Barossa, Australia $20
For our blend representation of the entire Barrossa region, we went with a small amount of another Rhone varietal that often adds floral notes. On the nose, we perceived violet and grass. We tasted raspberry, blueberry, strawberry, black pepper, and black plum. The production with 11 years to develop gave us leather, dried blueberry, forest floor, coffee, earth, and flint. This medium acid wine boasted medium plus savory tannins. There was medium plus body with 14% ABV. The medium finish left the tertiary flavors in my mouth for about 27 seconds.
You don’t need to travel to the other side of the world to find great Shiraz at affordable prices. You only need to check out your local wine store to take your palate on a trip down under.
Sending high alcohol love,