Shiraz shows the old and the new

Huon Hooke questions whether the hotter Australian regions such as Barossa Valley are capable of consistently producing wines of detail, especially as the seasons are trending warmer. (Photo: Barossa.com)

Despite changing fashions, plenty of red-wine enthusiasts still buy, cellar, drink and love older-generation Australia shirazes – the likes of Grant Burge Meshach, Elderton Command, St Hallett Old Block, the various Penfolds, Torbreck and Henschke offerings. Some of these wines were among the 200-odd new-release shirazes I’ve been working through over the past couple of weeks.

I find myself gravitating increasingly to wines of elegance and detail.

Good as they are, and much improved in their oak handling and balance in recent years, I find myself gravitating increasingly to wines of elegance and detail. And I question whether the hotter Australian regions such as Barossa Valley are capable of consistently producing wines of detail (or nuance, or complexity), especially as the seasons are trending warmer.

Vintages that follow hotter summers – such as 2013 in the Barossa – produce noticeably less-detailed shirazes. The heat tends to suck the aromatics out of the grapes. It also accelerates ripening, and hurried ripening results in less complexity in the grapes. The fruit is ripening under hotter conditions which again affects the complexity of aroma and flavour. These wines gain their complexity from age, but they can be straightforward when young, relying on richness and generosity to please drinkers.

I discussed this recently with Grant Burge chief winemaker Craig Stansborough, a man of great experience who has been doing the job at Grant Burge for 25 years. He agreed that the hotter seasons produce wines with less detail, but he was keen to point out just how much better the quality of barrels and the management of oak-maturation is these days compared to his early years in winemaking.

Back to the tasting. I have a love-hate relationship with stalky, whole-bunch fermented wines: too much is not pleasant, but there’s a balance that can be struck, where a proportion of whole-bunch adds greatly to complexity. The aromas are more lifted and captivating, the palate seems lighter and more appealingly textured, the tannins rounder and more supple. When you add this kind of technique to shiraz grown in a cooler region like the Yarra Valley, you can have something special.

Levantine Hill is a new-ish Yarra winery, which hit the ground running in terms of price. Its wines were expensive from the word go. Not all of them justified it, in my view. The latest Levantine Hill Syrah 2015 (AUD $80), is a ripper. The stemmy whole-bunch derived aromas are very obvious but the wine drinks beautifully. (It’s not just the stalks that are at work in whole-bunch ferments: the benefit comes at least as much from the effects of whole, i.e. uncrushed, berries in the fermentation.) This is a wine of which I can drink several glasses with great pleasure. But it’s as distant stylistically from a Meshach, Stonewell or Command as a budgerigar is from a sulphur-crested cockatoo. Both are native Australian birds, but there the similarity ends.

Will the collectors of Meshach and Torbreck ‘get’ this wine, I wonder? It’s not necessarily better, but different.

Vive la difference!

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