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Be cool. Cool climate Shiraz

My father-in-law, Neville, is your typical knock-about Aussie bloke. A former brickie, he used to drive his Holden Kingswood ute to work and cruise the weekends in his white Torana LJ Sedan. He loves fishing, hunting and knocking back a couple of Tooheys New while charring some animal flesh on the barbecue.

But since his retirement a few years ago things have changed. He mostly spends his time drawing the jack rather than mixing the mortar, he has a flashy new Korean-built SUV to tow his caravan and he’s pretty much swapped the beers for red wine. When he started drinking vino his preferred drop was the big fruit-driven reds from South Australia: juicy, plummy, peppery and pretty big on the alcohol – perfect for his medium rare steak and snags.

Recently though, his palate seems to have matured and he asked me for a red with more elegance. I gave him a gorgeous Yarra Valley Pinot, but it wasn’t for him. “Tastes a bit posh,” he said. “A bit too watery.” Maybe I had aimed a bit high. What really caught his attention was a medium-bodied Shiraz from the Canberra District.

“Now this is pretty good,” he said, while putting on his glasses to read the label – always a positive sign. I didn’t get to have any more of that wine after he had poured another one for himself and his wife, and my wife, and one more for himself. Now, I’ve never really thought of Nev as a trend-setter. He’s happiest in t-shirt, shorts and those sandals with Velcro tabs, but apparently when it comes to Shiraz, he’s in fashion! Neville is part of a shift in the drinking public that is looking for more restraint and elegance in Australia’s most iconic red wine.

If the drinking public was thinking it, the critics confirmed it when in 2009, the judges at the Royal Melbourne Wine Show awarded the Jimmy Watson Trophy for the best young red wine in the country to a wine from the Canberra District: the Eden Road Wines ‘Long Road’ Hilltops Shiraz 2008. It made the wine world sit up and take notice.

Just to confirm this trend, this year’s Jimmy Watson winner was the Glaetzer-Dixon Mon Pere Shiraz 2010 from Tasmania. A Shiraz from Tasmania? It was unfathomable. The Jimmy Watson is an award that has almost exclusively gone to the Barossa or McLaren Vale or maybe the Hunter, but not the Canberra District and certainly not Tasmania!

Apparently it is not just a trend that is happening here in Australia. At the 2011 International Wine Challenge in London, Adelaide Hills winery Bird in Hand was awarded the trophy for the Best Australian Red Wine and the Best Australian Shiraz.

What is cool?

The common thread between all these award-winning wines is that they come from cool climate regions. There was something here that definitely needed investigating, so we thought we should do a State of Play tasting on cool climate Shiraz. First of all we had to define what a cool climate is as it is a phrase that is bandied about with almost gay abandon with little regard for the official meaning.

Perhaps the strongest definition comes from the International Cool Climate Wine Show. This annual event began in the Mornington Peninsula and has been running since the year 2000, so it has some pedigree. It defines cool climate wines as: Wines made from grapes grown either: south of latitude 37.5 degrees south, or north of latitude 37.5 degrees north or from a property in the Southern or Northern hemisphere which has an average January/July (whichever is applicable) temperature below 19ºCelsius, as confirmed by the nearest Bureau of Meterology site, or vineyard site above 800m in altitude.

Therefore Australian wine regions that automatically qualify as cool climate are: Tasmania, the Yarra Valley, Mornington Peninsula, and Western Australia’s Great Southern region. Then there are a few grey areas.

According to these criteria, the Adelaide Hills does not qualify as cool climate. Its elevation and latitude are well off and its average temperature in January is 19.1. However, most would agree that it is cool climate, and for the sake of point one of a degree, one must admit that this really does qualify as cool climate. Likewise the Canberra region and Orange in New South Wales should also be considered cool climate. There are some vineyards in these regions above 800 metres, but their average January temperature is around the 20 degree mark. But I challenge anyone to stand out in a vineyard on the slopes of Mount Canobolas in the middle of winter and dispute whether it is a cool climate.

Therefore some of the parameters, especially in Australia, still need to be defined. A recent cool climate wine show in Tasmania had the elevations at 500 metres, which seems more logical and perhaps we need to look at a combination of average temperatures across the whole year.

However the upshot is: regions where Australian Shiraz has an outstanding pedigree, i.e., Barossa, McLaren Vale and the Hunter Valley, are not cool climate regions.

All that jazz

It is perhaps the amazing success of Shiraz from these warmer regions that has hampered the progress of cool climate Shiraz. Winemakers in cool climates convinced themselves it would be pointless to pursue Shiraz as the Barossa, McLaren Vale and Hunter were already delivering outstanding wines custom-made for the tastes of the drinking public.

Scott McCarthy, winemaker at Helen’s Hill in the Yarra Valley, echoed these sentiments when he joined our Tasting Panel for this tasting, but added that things have changed.

“In the past, for us, the focus has been on Pinot and Chardonnay and looking for the best places to plant those,” he said. “Shiraz has always been there as a good workhorse to produce good wines, but no-one has really given it the same attention as they have some of the other varieties.

“But now we are looking at clones and root stocks and looking at actually planting it in the best part of the vineyard, not just the part that is left over from Pinot and Chardonnay.”

Scott is well credentialed to be the spokesperson for cool climate winemakers. He grew up in a vineyard and spent his first 10 years as a winemaker in the Barossa before experiencing vintages in the Napa and France (Loire Valley and Languedoc). During a four-vintage stint in Marlborough, New Zealand, Scott fell in love with cool climate winemaking and he continued that affair by settling back in Australia in the Yarra, where he makes Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Shiraz.

While winemakers like Scott are convinced of the future of cool climate Shiraz, critics have traditionally been sceptical. The purveying perception of Shiraz from these regions was of a wine that was green, stalky and under-ripe. That may have been somewhat true a decade ago, but as Scott explains, a better understanding of Shiraz in the vineyard, and in the winery, has allowed cool climate Shiraz to be far more expressive.

“My experience in the Yarra is that Shiraz is one variety that is made in the vineyard and probably the biggest decision that has to be made that influences the outcome of the wine is the day that you pick it.

“I believe there is only a day or two between really getting out of that green phase and when it is starting to get over-ripe. You have to work with the vineyards and taste the fruit over a period of time to know how each block is going to react, how quickly they ripen and when is the best time to pick each block,” Scott says, while also stressing the attention to detail that must be given to micro-climates, even in the same vineyard. “Instead of testing the whole vineyard as one block of Shiraz we have isolated different aspects. We know the cool, low-lying areas are going to ripen a little bit later and we make sure that we test them independently."

“You used to go out and pick your whole vineyard. Now it is literally one side of the hill to the other and we are talking a distance of just 50 metres and we will pick a week, two weeks later in some cases, just because the aspects are quite different. “We want to get it through that green spectrum – so we are looking for that tomato leaf character to go out of the juice and to get a ripe spectrum with those nice blueberry characters.”

The tasting

The Panel sat down to 40-odd wines from across a dozen cool climate regions. The results were outstanding. Nearly all the wines medalled and the overall scoring was very high.

Importantly, the tasting confirmed that these wines had busted the perception of having ‘green and stalky characters’. The key descriptors that came forth were of punchy red fruits and blueberry flavours, some spiciness and pepperiness as well as minerality and earthiness.

Furthermore there was a noticeable shift to a more graceful style of Shiraz. While most were medium-bodied, some were full-bodied and fruit-driven, but with an elegant core, great balance and an alcohol content of around 14 per cent. “Some of the traditional descriptors you look for in Shiraz – those big ripe plummy characters, strong tannins and big vanillin oak – they were not in the wines we looked at today,” commented Scott. “We were using descriptors like oyster shell, cassis and minerality; descriptors that lend themselves to be able to match to food.”

Wine Selectors Tasting Panelist Christian Gaffey was equally impressed with the elegance displayed across these wines in the tasting. “There was one wine today that was described as ‘Burgundy-like’, which for Shiraz is somewhat unheard of,” he said. “Not that Burgundy is the be all and end all, but for it to be compared to a wine of finesse like a Pinot Noir versus your classic 15 per cent Shiraz, means a lot, especially if you want to match it to food.”

Regionality and diversity

The top 20 scoring wines contained a great spread of wines from different regions. Five were from the Yarra, four from Adelaide Hills, three each from the Canberra District and Mornington Peninsula, two from West Australia’s Great Southern region, one each from Great Western, the Grampians and Tasmania.

Within those wines there was an amazing diversity. While wines from certain regions had similar benchmark characters, each wine had its own life and there were amazing differences between wines from the same region, from vineyards within a stone’s throw from each other.

“It really is a celebration of the differences you can get with cool climate Shiraz,” remarked Scott. “I think the biggest thing with cool climate Shiraz is the ability to show the terroir – the sense of place with the wines, which you don’t always see in some of the warmer climates.”

Combined with a sense of grace and elegance, it is this diversity in the wines that suggests that cool climate Shiraz is a great food-matching wine. The Shiraz from the Yarra versus Mornington and Pyrenees are all very different so they should lend themselves to a greater variety of food than classic Aussie Shiraz matched with steak.

Aging potential and the future

Perhaps the most surprising result to come out of this tasting was the superb natural acid balance these wines displayed. This acid lends itself to the minerality character displayed in these wines and, more importantly, suggests superb aging potential. This was confirmed by the fact that towards the end of the tasting the Panel was giving very high marks to all the wines that had a bit of age to them. If that is any indication of what is going to happen over time, then in 10 years time we are going to have some sensational back stocks of cool climate Shiraz.

Furthermore, the wine that had the most acid was from Tasmania, which suggests the cooler the climate, the better. “Tassie is going to be a tough place to grow Shiraz consistently,” remarked Christian. “But we have known through the years that sometimes it is the inconsistent places that produce the best wines in the good years.”

Finally, as cool climate Shiraz is a fairly recent endeavour, most of the wines are from vines with an average age of 15 years or younger. We know that generally the older Shiraz vines get, the better the fruit they produce. These vines are still in their teenage years, so as they mature we can expect to see some world-beating examples of cool climate Australian Shiraz.

I can hear Neville firing up the barbie now.

Check out Wine Selectors great range of Shiraz today.

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Cabernet: Custom-made for a change
Words by Mark Hughes on 15 May 2016
In Europe, Cabernet Sauvignon is considered King of wines. In Australia it seems to sit in the shadow of Shiraz . But a greater understanding of the varietal by producers and key changes in the weather signal an exciting future for this regal wine. Of all the great wine regions in the world, it is Bordeaux that commands the most respect. Home to esteemed names such as Château Montrose, Château Latour, Château Lafite Rothschild, the wines of Bordeaux have a sense of royalty about them. It is here where Cabernet reigns supreme – dark and brooding with flavours ranging from chocolate, cigar box and tobacco, its broad tannin structure allows it to age far more than any other wine. It is the stuff legend. In Australia, the thick-skinned grape varietal has been planted in virtually every wine region across Australia, however, it doesn’t always produce the goods. It struggles when it’s too cold and gets too jammy when it is too hot. Naturally, regions whose climes resemble the maritime climate of Bordeaux, with its warm days and cool nights, produce our best. Traditionally, that has been Coonawarra in South Australia and, more recently, the Western Australian wine regions of Margaret River and Great Southern . Certainly, these were the regions that shone in our Cabernet tasting with more than half the wines in the Top 30 produced in these three regions. “The potential to make world class Cabernet from Margaret River and the Great Southern is amazing and it’s only just getting started,” says Richard Burch from Howard Park, whose Abercrombie Cabernet Sauvignon 2012 topped the tasting. “Western Australia is a relatively young wine region with vines only planted in the 1970s. But when you put together the benign weather and growing conditions, the gradual accumulation of vine age, and the continuing discovery of the best individual sites for Cabernet in Western Australia, the future looks exciting.” The Bordeaux of South Australia Before Western Australia came onto the wine scene, it was Coonawarra that held the mantle as Australia’s premier Cabernet region. For many, it still is. Remarkably similar to Bordeaux in its maritime climate, the region’s famous terra rossa soils were thought to be a hindrance to producing great Cabernet, but as Paul Gordon, senior winemaker at Leconfield points out, it has imparted Cabernet from this region with a unique flavour profile and the climate allows for consistently good vintages. “That strip of terra rossa soil that sits thinly over limestone. 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McLaren Vale, Langhorne Creek , Eden Valley , Barossa Valley and Clare Valley can produce wines with strong varietal characters. “There is very strong potential to make great Cabernet in Clare,” says Sevenhill winemaker Liz Heidenreich. “Cabernet vines thrive on the cool nights and warm days we see in the Clare ripening period. The best wines come from years when the crop level is not too high, the canopies are full and healthy, allowing grapes to ripen for longer into the season, and when we have long, even summers. Paul Smith, winemaker at Wirra Wirra in McLaren Vale, also believes canopy management is paramount in the production of great Cabernet, while also highlighting the importance of winemaking nous. “The vine canopy has to provide dappled light to the fruit, the window of picking for beautiful fragrant Cabernet is short, while handling through ferment and oak selection will expose some winemakers,” says Paul. 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All Pizzazz - South Australian Shiraz
Words by Nick Ryan on 18 Aug 2015
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Who gets the gong for Semillon?
Words by Ralph Kyte-Powell on 12 Aug 2015
Let me take you back in time. Way back. Pre- Sauvignon Blanc . Back in the years B.C. (before Chardonnay ), when only two white wine types vied for the crown of Australia’s best. For a large part of the twentieth century, Australia’s two greatest white table wines were Semillon and Riesling . Riesling thrived in Australian wine’s heartland of South Australia, and the old wine country of the Hunter Valley in New South Wales was the source of the nation’s best Semillon. Confusingly, Hunter Semillon was known for many years as ‘Hunter River Riesling’, and the true Riesling grown in South Oz was called ‘Rhine Riesling,’ but those who knew them would never mix them up, and now, thankfully, they enjoy their real names. Both wine types bore distinctly Australian signatures, but Hunter Semillon went further – it was unique in the world. Nowhere else was Semillon made unblended into a high-quality, light, low-alcohol, dry white wine like this. 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While the Hunter Valley version was a thoroughbred, South Australian Semillon was a workhorse used for bottled table wines, bulk wines, fortifieds, sweet styles, distillation, and anything else a winemaker could think of. In the Barossa , where for obscure reasons it was sometimes known as Madeira, straight Semillon enjoyed some popularity, but the style made for many years was more about strength and big, broad flavours than finesse, and in recent decades oak barrels have crept into the equation, making it into a sort of big, fat Chardonnay substitute, and often wiping out any fruit character that existed in the wine. For many in the Hunter, and for most of that region’s fans in the Hunter’s traditional markets, South Australian Semillon only existed as an everyday drop, a component to cut back Sauvignon Blanc’s exuberance in a blend, or a curio not to be taken seriously, never a throughbred like the Hunter version. But things were changing in the rolling country around Nuriootpa, Angaston and Lyndoch. A new type of Barossa Semillon was gradually emerging that started attracting the attention of wine drinkers across the nation. The Barossa boys and girls started easing off on the oak or ditching it altogether, they started harvesting their Semillon earlier, they selected fruit with more care, cropping levels were more tightly controlled, technique improved, special plots of vines identified. The Barossa’s aim of improving the region’s Semillon started to bear fruit. It hasn’t exactly shaken sales of Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay, but many consumers have been won over by these new wines, commentators have received them very positively, and they are winning more plaudits on the wine show circuit. At the Sydney International Wine Show in 2010 the Trophy for best White Table Wine of Competition was won by Peter Lehmann Margaret Barossa Semillon 2004. Hunter winemakers sat up and took notice. 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Two Blues Sauvignon Blanc 2014
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