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Uncorking Australia's Seductive Shiraz
by Eunice Fried

The harvest was to begin in six weeks, and on this hot summer day in January, as I looked out from my terrace in Australia's Barossa Valley, I thought of a wry conversation earlier that afternoon concerning an American television crew so in need of shots of the Napa Valley in summer that they had come to Australian wine country in January. Now, gazing across the acres of vineyards and beyond, fields of blond grasses with a lone wind-bent tree silhouetted on a distant hillock, I felt for a moment that I could indeed be looking at Napa in July, with however, one major difference. For all of its beauty, Napa's vista is not as sweeping. In the Barossa Valley the land and the sky are so vast, they seem to go on forever.

And so, for its part, does the red Shiraz grape. The day before, a group of winemakers and I had been tasting and talking about Shiraz. "We can make the best Shiraz in the world here, better than we'll ever make Cabernet or Merlot," one winemaker said. "Well, we've been growing Shiraz since the 1840's. That's a pretty simple message; it does well here." "But you know, we don't really do that much work on new red varietals." "Why should we? We've got Shiraz. It's a classic. It's the best of our past."

Australia's past began in 1788 when the first ship arrived from England carrying both prisoners and vine cuttings. The prisoners settled the continent's first penal colony in what is now Sydney. Most of the vines, however, died in the subtropical climate. Some 40 years later, John Busby, considered the father of Australian wine, returned from a trip to France and Spain with cuttings of several grape varieties including Shiraz. After losing those he planted in Sydney, he carried the rest to the Hunter Valley, about 120 miles north of the city. There, they thrived and none better than Shiraz.

Shiraz is the great Syrah grape of France's Rhone Valley, but Australia renamed it, probably for the city of Shiraz in Iran where the grape is thought to have originated around 600 B.C. France and Iran aside, it found a natural home in Australia. Today, Shiraz is the most planted wine grape in the country with 63,250 acres in vines, and it accounts for 38 percent of all red wines.

While the Shiraz grape has always done well in Australia, the country's wine history is not an unbroken line of progress. After a significant beginning in the nineteenth century, politics, laws, wars and the Great Depression caused that line to take a detour, often along roads awash with cheap, fortified wines and rough-edged table wines. It was not until the 1960's that the wines from Down Under began to climb up on top and about 20 years more before they burst upon the American scene, reconceived and reborn, enticing wine consumers with their star, the Shiraz.

Australia's wine world is clustered mainly in two areas—a wide swath in the southeastern part of the island that includes the states of New South Wales, South Australia, Victoria, Tasmania and to a minor degree, the southern part of Queensland and the Australian Capital Territory; and a more contained area in the southwestern corner of the state of Western Australia. Within these states, there are well over 30 different wine regions (Hunter Valley, Barossa, Adelaide Hills, McLaren Vale and Goulburn Valley, to name a few). And within these regions, there are more than 1,100 wineries. Of those, nearly 70 percent produce Shiraz.

With such a range of regions and thus, soils and climates, Shiraz shows different facets of its personality depending on where it is grown. As a general rule, cooler climates produce wines with pronounced pepperiness and spice mingled with berry fruit. Warmer climates tend to show blackberry and plum laced into its spicy, earthy characteristics. Warmer still and the wine will likely take on hints of stewed plums with perhaps a bit of anise and chocolate. Over all, the cooler the climate, the more intense the color, the more focused the flavor of the Shiraz.

It is not unusual to find Australian wines that are blends of Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon to help soften that grape's tannic austerity. Shiraz is also blended with other reds, Grenache and Merlot, particularly. But Shiraz's suppleness and structure and rich aromas can be fully appreciated only when its name is the sole grape on the label. Some are made from the grapes of one region. Others are blends of Shiraz from a number of regions; such a label may read, for example, Southeastern Australia rather than one specific region. Here, listed below, are a few of the many Shiraz now available in the United States.

Shiraz - $10 and Under

Jacob's Creek 1998, Orlando Wines, South Eastern Australia ($9)
With its light spice, fruit and dash of pepper, this is a good buy ready to drink now.

Lindeman's Bin 50 1998, South Eastern Australia ($9)
Mildly spicy and earthy with plum-like aromas and medium body, this is a young wine to enjoy now and will probably age nicely for a year or two.

McPherson 1999, South Eastern Australia ($10)
A light, uncomplicated, fruity young Shiraz that is meant to be consumed now.

Shiraz - $14 to $20
(Most Shiraz, including some of the finest, fall within this price range.)

Preece 1997, Victoria ($15)
Bearing the name of its first winemaker, this Michelton wine has an aroma of light pepper and soft vanilla and is silky and round in the mouth with the taste of ripe cherries. Preece will age well for about four, five years. A lovely wine.

Owen's Estate 1998, South Eastern Australia ($15)
An aromatic wine that mingles berry flavors and pepper with a hint of aniseed and mint. In the mouth it is smooth with soft fruit flavors and good structure.

Plantgenet "Omrah" 1998, Western Australia and McLaren Vale ($17)
Deep colored with a pretty aroma that mixes a bit of spice and vanilla and a trace of plums, this is a well-made wine that is soft and silky and brimming with fruit flavors.

d'Artenberg The Footbolt Old Vine 1998, McLaren Vale ($18)
Named after Footbolt, a prize race horse of the 1890's and made from d'Artenberg's oldest Shiraz vines, this is a spicy wine with cherry fruit, soft and lovely with a lingering, slightly peppery finish. Its structure and balance should help it age nicely for at least two or three years more.

Mitchelton 1997, Goulburn Valley, Central Victoria ($17)
Deep cherry red in color and reminiscent of cherries in the aroma, smooth as fine silk, spicy and earthy, Mitchelton is supple enough to be enjoyed in its youth and should also age beautifully for another five or more years.

Tim Adams 1997, Clare Valley ($19.50)
A deep-hued wine that is all blackberries and spice with whiffs of floral aromas and a long, lingering aftertaste. A rich and beautiful wine, it is appealing now and will continue to age well for some years.

Richard Hamilton Old Vines Reserve 1997, McLaren Vale ($19.50)
The product of 100 year-old vines, this is an elegant, intense, deep flavored wine with a texture that is liquid satin. An exquisite example of pure Shiraz characteristics. Savor it now, age it a while; either time, it will give pleasure.

Over $20

Mitchelton Print 1996, Victoria ($50)
If there is just one Shiraz for which you are willing to pay a high price, let it be Print. It is intensely deep and complex, fascinating and multi-layered, rich, velvety and spicy with traces of cinnamon, vanilla, pepper, fruits and berries. It has everything a fine wine needs to age long and well. Ten or more years from now, Print 1996 will still give pleasure.

Can we be sure a well-made Shiraz will live a long life? I wondered too until last week when I opened both the 1985 and 1982 Taltarni, a winery in Victoria, fearful that I may have held them too long. Big, sturdy, dark complex, rich, assertive wines, I realized that I may have opened them too soon.

Article Resources

Over five million cases of Australian wines have been imported into the United States in the past year. Some of the best places to buy them are:

New York

Astor Wines & Spirits
12 Astor Place
New York, NY 10003
Tel: 212/674-7500

Park Avenue Liquor Shop
292 Madison Avenue
New York, NY 10017
Tel: 212/685-2442

And just outside New York City

Zachy's Wine and Liquors
16 East Parkway
Scarsdale, NY 10583
Tel: 914/723-0241

Chicago

Sam's Wine Warehouse
1720 N. Marcey Street
Chicago, IL 60614
Tel: 312/664-4394

Wine Discount Center
1826 N. Elston
Chicago, IL 60622
Tel: 773/489-3454

Los Angeles

Wally's
2107 Westwood Boulevard
West Los Angeles, CA 90025
Tel: 310/475-0606

San Francisco

The Jug Shop
1567 Pacific Avenue
San Francisco, CA 94109
Tel: 415/885-2922

If you go . . .
Places To Stay, Places To Eat

(Calls from the U.S. begin with 011 61)

Adelaide Hills, South Australia

Bridgewater Mill at Petaluma Winery
Considered one of the country's best restaurants, located in an 1860 flour mill.
Spring Gully Road
Piccadilly SA 5151
Tel: 08 8339 4122

Grand Mercure Hotel Mount Lofty House
Old stone boutique hotel next to Mount Lofty Summit. Restaurant on premises.
74 Summit Road
Crafers 5152
Tel: 08 8339 6777

Magill Estate Restaurant
The original Penfolds winery, founded in 1844 and now a restaurant with tours through the historic cellars.
78 Penfolds Road
Magill, SA 5072
Tel: 08 8301 5551

Barossa Valley, South Australia

The Lodge Country House
Small country residence. Dinner and breakfast served.
Main Road
Seppeltsfield 5360
Tel: 08 8562 8277
E-mail: thelodge@dove.net.au

Vintner's Bar and Grill
A dining landmark that specializes in Barossa's local food products.
Nuriootpa Road
Angaston
Tel: 08 8564 2488

The Hunter Valley, New South Wales

Casuarina Restaurant and Country Inn
Excellent restaurant and private cottages.
Hermitage Road
Pokolbin 2321
Tel: 02 4998 7888
E-mail: casuarina@bigpond.com

Hunter Resort Country Estate
Has fine restaurant, wine school and on-site winery as well as ballooning and all sports.
Hermitage Road
Pokolbin 2320
Tel: 02 4998 7777
E-mail: resort@huntervalley.com.au

Peppers Guest House
In quiet garden setting. Has a fine restaurant.
Ekerts Road
Pokolbin 2320
Tel: 02 4998 7596
E-mail: guesthouse@peppers.com.au

Peppers Convent
A former convent situated in landscaped gardens and vineyard. Short walk to the acclaimed Robert's Restaurant.
Halls Road
Pokolbin 2320
Tel: 02 4998 7784
E-mail: convent@peppers.com.au

McClaren Vale, South Australia

McLarens on the Lake
30-room resort in colonial buildings on lake, surrounded by gardens. Restaurant on premises.
Kangarilla Road
McLaren Vale 5171
Tel: 08 8323 8911

Reservations for these inns and resorts as well as wine tours and wine schools can be made in the US through:

Australian Travel Headquarters
4255 Martingale Way, Suite C
Newport Beach, CA 92660
Tel: 800/546-2155

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