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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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All Pizzazz - South Australian Shiraz
Words by Nick Ryan on 18 Aug 2015
It's a good and appropriate time to undertake a tasting of good ol’ South Australian Shiraz. While Pinot Noir is strapped tight to the rocket of rapidly ascending popularity and wine lists across Australia overflow with so-called ‘alternative’ varieties, the fact remains more bottles of Shiraz are consumed across the country than any other red variety and of those bottles the majority trace their origins to South Australian dirt. A good reason for the variety’s ubiquity is its ability to grow well in just about every wine region in the country and to present a different angle on its varietal character in each of those places. It really is our national barometer of terroir, the control that gives our experiments in regionality their context. When it gives us medium-bodied savouriness we’re in the Hunter, when it’s exuberantly spiced we’re in Canberra or central Victoria. When it’s all that and more we’re in South Australia. The results of a large tasting of South Australian Shiraz throwing up 30-odd top pointed wines offers a great opportunity to assess where the variety is at – they don’t call them State of Play tastings for nothing – and the results have presented some juicy food for thought. Some key observations follow. The Barossa is still king If we include the higher, cooler and bonier vineyards of the Eden Valley along with those down on the Valley floor, then the Barossa has produced almost half of the top pointed wines in the tasting. That shouldn’t really surprise us, after all the Barossa has always been South Australia’s Shiraz heartland. But what’s really exciting is the diversity of styles across the wines that performed well. “Ten years ago you could be forgiven for thinking Barossa Shiraz was pretty much all the same,” says senior Red Winemaker at Yalumba, Kevin Glastonbury. “A lot of the Barossa’s best wines were blended from across the region and made to a certain style, but now there’s a much greater focus on capturing what’s special about great single vineyards.” That’s got to be a good thing considering the Barossa has some of the greatest viticultural resources on the planet, including some wizened, deep-rooted old vineyards that date back to the early days of the South Australian colony. Zooming in closer on the Barossa’s viticultural map has also given a deeper understanding of sub-regionality across the Barossa. Glastonbury is well placed to comment on this development, having had a significant hand in two high-pointed wines in the tasting, each one representing a different approach to Barossa Shiraz Yalumba’s 2010 Paradox Shiraz is an outstanding example of this new way of thinking about Barossa Shiraz. Its vineyard sourcing is drawn from a narrow band across the northern Barossa, primarily around Kalimna, Ebenezer and up towards Moppa Springs, and the winemaking is carefully controlled to express the character of this corner of the region. “We want something that’s really savoury and supple rather than hefty and sweet fruited,” he explains. “We also back right off on the new oak and use old French puncheons.” Glastonbury is also a big fan of the distinctly different fruit that comes of vineyards up in the Eden Valley. “The nature of the place allows us to apply a few winemaking techniques that work well with that finer fruit. We’ve started to do things like a bit of whole bunch fermentation in some Octavius parcels and it really adds an extra dimension to the style.” The Barossa is clearly in a golden age South Australian Shiraz is becoming cool and getting high. Anyone labouring under the out-dated impression that South Australian Shiraz is all big flesh and brute power should look to the impressive number of top pointed wines in the tasting coming from the Limestone Coast and Adelaide Hills. Wines from Zema, Wynns and Brands help us realise there’s more to Coonawarra than just Cabernet Sauvignon and remind us that the famous terra rossa soils can produce outstanding, fine framed and elegant Shiraz. It’s particularly exciting to see a wine from Wrattonbully – Coonawarra’s near neighbour to the north – a region that really has the capacity to produce a fragrantly spicy Shiraz style. If this tasting took place a decade ago, we’d be surprised to see a single entrant from the cool, elevated vineyards of the Adelaide Hills, but in 2015 we have five breaking into the Top 30. Where many saw Pinot Noir as the future star when vineyards began to take root in the Adelaide Hills, it’s been Shiraz that has performed best. The Hills offers a huge diversity of sites for growing Shiraz and canny winemakers have harnessed this diversity to produce some of the most impressive cool climate Shiraz in the country.  Clare is the real dark horse One of the really significant elements of this tasting has been the strong performance of the Clare Valley. Clare attracts most attention for its Riesling, and while Shiraz lovers might look closer to Adelaide for their red wine thrills, it’s clear that the distinctive, consistent and exceedingly delicious Clare Shiraz style is something very special. Andrew Mitchell has been making Shiraz in Clare for four decades and his Mitchell Wines ‘McNicol’ Shiraz 2005 was the highest pointed wine of the tasting. “When we first started this place most people in Clare used Shiraz for making port,” he says. “ Even when table wines started taking off in the 70s, the market really wanted Cabernet, but I’ve always known Clare Shiraz was something pretty special. “Clare Shiraz can give you power, intensity, depth and length, but does it all with great balance and a kind of elegance that I think defines the regional style. “And it ages really well too. That’s why we release the McNicol with bottle age. I want people to experience just how beautiful these wines can be when mature.” There is such a wide range of Shiraz styles scattered throughout the top wines in this tasting that we can safely say there’s a South Australian Shiraz to suit just about any palate. The key word in discussing these results is ‘diversity’. The one obvious conclusion to be drawn from these results is that to talk of South Australian Shiraz as one homogenous thing is unjust. There is such a wide range of Shiraz styles scattered throughout the top wines in this tasting that we can safely say there’s a South Australian Shiraz to suit just about any palate. Click here see the Wine Selectors range of Shiraz
Whites of delight
Words by Mark Hughes on 6 Aug 2015
Ahhh summer. There aren’t many things better than kicking back on a warm sunny afternoon and enjoying a chilled glass of white wine. More often than not that wine will be a Classic Dry White. For those of you who don’t know, this is actually a blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon (SBS or more commonly, SSB). Did that surprise you? After all, it is the most popular white blend in the country and it has been for ages. Yep. Years, and I am talking decades, before Sauv Blanc cast its spell on us, we were downing this crisp, refreshing white by the bucket load. We still do and probably will long into the future. What really got me thinking is the reason why it is so popular. I mean, we produce world class Semillon in Australia, but (shamefully) we hardly drink it. We also deliver pretty good Sauv Blanc, but for some reason most of us prefer to buy it from across the ditch. Blend these two varieties together, however, and its like Harry Potter has grown up to become a winemaker and put a spell on all the bottles of SSB to make them insanely appealing to the drinking public. Bubble bubble, little toil, no trouble Technically speaking, I can understand why you would blend these two varieties. You take the lazy grassy aromas and tropical flavour of Sauvignon Blanc and smarten it up with the structure and mouthfeel of Semillon. It’s like an overweight teenager with nice skin making use of a season pass to the gym. Conversely, and this is perhaps a reason given by those who can’t take to the super zingy freshness of young Semillon, it softens the acidic nature of Sem and endows it with a subtle fruit-punch appeal. Value-wise, it is also very appealing. Most SSBs on the market are somewhere between $15 and $25. And while it is not the first choice match for most dishes, it goes pretty well with a range foods, especially summery fare such as seafood, salads and mezze plates. Add all that up, and SSBs seem like a pretty handsome proposition. Must be those hours in the gym! A bit of history While Australia has taken SSBs to its vinous heart since the 1980s, this classic white blend has actually been produced for donkeys in the south-west of France, namely Bordeaux and Bergerac. More often than not it is as the crisp, dry white that we are familiar with, but the French also blend Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc to make the sweet dessert wine, Sauternes. Western Australia’s Margaret River virtually owns the Classic Dry White category in this country, which again, is a bit strange seeing the region isn’t really noted for producing either Semillon or Sauvignon Blanc in their own right. But, as you probably know by now, when talking about wine in this country, two plus two doesn’t always equal four. So what gives here? Well, two things (or more if you adhere to my mathematics from above). The Margaret River region was the first to really latch onto the SSB blend. It became popular at cellar door and other producers in the region saw it as their ‘bread and butter’ wine, and jumped on board. When the region started selling their wine to the rest of the country, Margs had already established a reputation for producing refreshing and attractively priced Classic Dry White. They have been running with it ever since. But as we found out in this tasting, there are other regions starting to cotton on. The magic of Margaret The second reason is best answered by Kim Horton, senior winemaker at Willow Bridge Estate in Margaret River. “You would think that by looking at the Semillons from the eastern seaboard, that as a variety it would be the least likely to sit with Sauvignon Blanc in a blend,” levels Kim. “However the weather conditions in Western Australia’s south allow clean and longer ripening of Semillon. The Semillon aromatics are very herbaceous and grassy, but also, depending on the climate, quite lemon dominant or veering towards watermelon and guava. In short, what one variety lacks, the other can assist.” The Tasting and the results For this State of Play tasting we looked at SSBs from across the country. Naturally, the majority of the wines entered were from the Margaret River region, and they dominated the Top 30, with 19 wines. Five of the other top scorers were from other Western Australian regions, namely Great Southern and Frankland River. Of these WA wines, most have Sauvignon Blanc as the dominant partner in the blend. An interesting observation from this tasting was the subtle use of oak which brings a bit of structure to the mid-palate, particularly of the Sauv Blanc dominant wines. This added complexity broadens SSB’s food matching abilities and shows the blend has an exciting future away from its ‘simplistic’ label. The most surprising result was that two of the three top scoring wines were not from WA! The Drayton’s 2013 Semillon Sauvignon Blanc was top of the pops, wowing the judges with its savoury nose and fantastic mouthfeel. While the Grosset 2015 Semillon Sauvignon Blanc earned its spot on the podium with its thrillingly elegant purity and ripe fruit characters. The most notable feature of these wines, as with most of the other standouts from the eastern seaboard, was the fact that the Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc were sourced from different regions. For instance, for the Grosset, the Sem was Clare Valley , the Sauv Blanc from the Adelaide Hills . “For me, the perfect SSB blend must be from two regions,” says Clare Valley winemaker Jeffrey Grosset. “Semillon from a mild climate with plenty of sunshine to achieve a generous citrus and structured palate, and Sauvignon Blanc from a cooler climate, such as the Adelaide Hills, where it can achieve tropical gooseberry-like flavours. To produce a blend from one region alone is unlikely to achieve the depth of flavour and balance.” The sentiment is shared by Edgar Vales, winemaker at Drayton’s, who sees a real future for SSB in the Hunter. “There is a synergy that exists between the two varieties,” says Edgar. “Particularly with Hunter Sem blended with Sauv Blanc from cooler regions such as Orange , Adelaide Hills or Tasmania .” While you can expect to see the emergence of new names in the SSB category, the Margaret River region will continue to shine. 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Biodynamic – going beyond organic
Words by Jackie Macdonald on 5 Apr 2016
If someone told you that filling a cow’s horn with dung and planting it at a certain phase of the moon would help your vines to grow, you’d probably think they were bonkers. Far out it may indeed sound, but this is one of the central steps in biodynamics, a form of organic viticulture that’s being embraced by an increasing number of Australian wineries. While it might sound like a theory cooked up by modern hippies, biodynamics actually has its origins in Europe over 90 years ago. Let’s set the scene. It’s 1924 in Silesia, Germany (now part of Poland) and a group of farmers has gathered to hear a series of lectures by Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner. The farmers are looking for an alternative to chemical fertilisers, which they believe have caused extensive damage to their soil and brought poor health to their livestock and crops. Steiner proves sympathetic as he reveals a system of agriculture that shuns chemicals and treats the farm as an individual, self-contained entity. Rather than focus on the health of individual plants, Steiner’s system teaches that good health requires that the entire eco-system in which the plant exists be thriving. This includes the other plants, the soil, the animals and even the humans who are working the land. The system he describes he calls biodynamics. By taking away all artificial fertilisers, herbicides and pesticides, Steiner presented one of the earliest models of organic farming. However, it’s the next steps that really separate biodynamics from organics (and it’s at this point that I imagine some of the listening farmers’ eyebrows began to rise). Steiner claims that for this environment to truly blossom, a series of field and compost preparations needs to be added. These preparations, nine in total, are man-made solutions, derived from nature, that are labelled 500 through to 508. To the conventional farmer, these preparations may appear somewhat far-fetched. For example, ‘500’ is made by filling cow horns with cow manure, which are then buried over winter to be recovered in spring. A teaspoon of the manure is then mixed with up to 60 litres of water, which is stirred for an hour, whirled in different directions every second minute. ‘501’ also requires a cow horn, this time filled with crushed quartz. It is buried over summer and dug up late in autumn, then mixed the same way as 500. Stretching his credibility even further in the eyes of the pragmatic farmer, Steiner brings a spirituality to his teachings by suggesting the growth cycles of the farm are influenced by astrological forces. Decisions such as when to spray the preparations, when to weed and when to pick should all be made according to a calendar that details the phases of the moon and stars. “Hocus-pocus!” you may very well cry. Not so, according to the ever-increasing number of wine producers in Australia and internationally who have embraced biodynamics. Choosing an environmentally sustainable approach to viticulture is obviously to be applauded in these times of climate crisis. However, talk to biodynamic producers and you’ll find that superior wine quality is the number one motivation for being biodynamic. At South Australia’s Cape Jaffa, the Hooper family has been using biodynamic principles for many years and their conviction in its effectiveness is complete. “We believe that cultivating the vines in this way is what allows them to achieve balance within their environment. Achieve balance, and the vines are able to fully express themselves – leading to a wine that bares a true and remarkable resemblance to its environment,” says Derek Hooper. The Buttery family of Gemtree in McLaren Vale are also converts. Since their biodynamic beginnings in 2007 they say they can now “see a noticeable difference in the health of our vineyard and quality of our fruit.” A fellow McLaren Vale winemaker, David Paxton of Paxton wines says, “Biodynamics is the most advanced form of organic farming. It uses natural preparations and composts to bring the soil and the vine into balance, resulting in exceptionally pure and expressive fruit.” The proof is in the tasting, however, so next time you’re looking for a new wine to try, why not put biodynamics to the test and see if you can taste the natural difference?
Two Blues Sauvignon Blanc 2014
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