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State of Play: Cool Climate Shiraz

For many years, the dominant language of Australian Shiraz was that of the Barossa Valley. It told a tale of rich, ripe flavours, high alcohol and abundant oak. Today, the dialect of our most popular grape has become more diverse, communicating the more nuanced aspects of the various sites on which it’s grown.

As winemaker Leigh Ratzmer from Wicks Estate in the Adelaide Hills describes, "Overall, the Shiraz variety has shown how truly adaptive it can be, and given a deft touch, it resonates a sense of place few varieties can match."

Leigh is one of the growing number of Australian winemakers choosing to craft Shiraz from cool climate fruit, with exceptional results. Of the eight Trophy winners at the 2019 Great Australian Shiraz Challenge, seven were from cool climates, compared to 10 years earlier when the Barossa dominated.

The dominance of Barossan Shiraz was in large part due to the influence of American critic Robert Parker, who loved big, bold styles. But at the same time as Australian winemakers stopped chasing his points, they also started placing more importance on site selection and cool climate regions really started to come into their own.

Australia's cool climate regions are many, but to name a few, include the Adelaide Hills, Eden Valley, Coonawarra, Tasmania, Great Southern, Tumbarumba, Orange, Canberra, Yarra Valley, Mornington Peninsula, Beechworth, and Pyrenees. Even Queensland has a cool region in the Granite Belt.

In a word

The vocabulary of cool climate Shiraz is filled with terms like spicy, floral, herbaceous, raspberry, liquorice, capsicum and white pepper. Quite the contrast to the warm climate vernacular with its words like juicy, ripe plums, rich chocolate and black pepper.

Although they speak different languages, is one style more representative of its home than the other?

While Leigh champions Shiraz in general as being capable of communicating place, others argue that cool climate examples are better conduits for terroir.

As Robert Hawkings, executive chairman and winemaker at Indigo Vineyards in Victoria’s Beechworth region, says, "Cool climate Shiraz usually is far more representative of terroir than warm climate styles where the juicy fruit characters tend to lead the way."

Fellow Victorian Andrew Koerner, chief winemaker and CEO of Blue Pyrenees Estate, agrees, saying, "Yes I do think it is easier to see terroir in cool to moderate sites versus warm climate."

In fact, a cool climate was one of the criteria Rob stipulated when searching for the perfect Shiraz site. "That means an area where, while it gets hot during the day, it cools down at night," he explains.

After a year of searching, they settled on a Beechworth property with the ideal elevation to provide cool conditions, along with a proven pedigree for "producing fabulous wines," Rob says, as well as secure water and the right soils.

Leigh also describes a multitude of factors contributing to site selection, including a gentle slope and soils that allow for low to moderate vigour.

Then there’s altitude, he explains. "In the cooler climes of the Adelaide Hills, the ideal aspect or growing orientation of the vineyard changes with altitude. The higher the vineyard, the more crucial a northerly aspect becomes in order to promote desirable ripeness levels."

ripe for the picking

Achieving ripeness is a challenge when growing cool climate Shiraz, with Andrew saying it can be tough, "Finding ripe, concentrated Shiraz characters at our preferred 13.0–13.5 per cent alcohol."

For Rob, it’s a race against time. "The main challenge is getting the fruit to the perfect ripeness before the cold March weather comes to shut down the vines."

In fact, under-ripeness was one of the main criticisms of cool climate Shiraz in its early days, but now, a better understanding of the style in both the vineyard and the winery has seen its acclaim skyrocket.

Having chosen their perfect sites, these winemakers have witnessed the unique attributes they bring to their Shiraz. As Andrew describes, "Our regional character in Shiraz comes through as Chinese Five Spice-like notes, so cinnamon, cloves, cardamom, fennel and peppercorns."

While for Leigh, what happens in the winery adds to the uniqueness. "I really try to foster the finer aromatics, and I encourage a high percentage of whole berries into ferment. This tends to allow generous fruit lift and soft, approachable tannins. The ever-present cool climate spice elements add complexity and a subtlety that adds interest."

Given Australia’s cool climate Shiraz plantings are relatively young, it’s taken time for the vines to mature and an evolution in the wine style to occur.

As Leigh explains, "As the vines have aged, the biggest difference we have witnessed is a greater presence of natural tannins and acidity in the finished wines. Colour and the bright fruit flavours have tended to hold slightly better and therefore the wines retain their youthfulness longer."

The grapes for the Blue Pyrenees Section One Shiraz come from vines that are now over 40 years, which Andrew says provides several benefits.

"The wines from the Section One Shiraz have become naturally more concentrated with age, due to less crop (average) and better consistency due
to good reserves of carbohydrates in the old vine trunks that withstand the variable seasonal conditions better than young vines."

age before beauty

Vine age has also added to the ageing ability of cool climate Shiraz. As Andrew explains, "Balanced wines from mature vines also age better (in balance) than wines waiting for some part of the wine’s structure to soften or integrate."

While Rob describes, "I opened a 2008 Indigo Shiraz recently. It had aged beautifully and being under screwcap, it had retained a lovely freshness."

Cool climate styles have turned the world's impression of Australian Shiraz on its head. Passionate winemakers like Leigh, Andrew and Rob have proven we're multi-lingual when it comes to this expressive red, now able to tell a story bursting with regional characters.

By Rowlee Syrah 2019
Orange, RRP $35

Rowlee Single Vineyard Wines are soley committed to the Orange region where they hand harvest the grapes for their small batch wines. Their red-purple coloured Syrah allures with blackberry, plum, dried herb, peppery spice and sweet charry oak aromas. The palate shows good fruit power yet retains elegance with a deep core of black fruit characters and attractive spice complexity, bright acidity, smokey oak and lingering tannin drive.

Cumulus Estate Wines Soaring Shiraz 2016
Orange, RRP $28

Cumulus' 508-hectare, high-altitude vineyard is one of the largest single-estate properties in NSW, continuously rolling above and below an altitude of 600 metres. Lifted dark berry, plum, peppery spice and cedar oak precede a palate that's terrifically textural, plush, juicy and layered yet medium weight, with a deep core of dark fruit, elegant tannin foundation and a liquorice layer.

Blue Pyrenees Estate Section One Shiraz 2016
Pyrenees, RRP $36

This Shiraz is sourced from 'Section One' of the Blue Pyrenees vineyards – home to vines that are over 40 years old. The result is an inky red black coloured Shiraz with a nose of cola, liquorice, black bean, Christmas cake and vanilla aromas. Richly spiced with concentrated black fruit characters, the palate has a muscular tannin foundation, bright acidity and a gently powerful finish. Drinking well.

Mount Avoca Estate Old Vine Shiraz 2018
Pyrenees, RRP $40

The old vines that produced this Shiraz were planted on Mount Avoca's Pyrenees site in 1971. Deep dark red in the glass, it's a Shiraz that exudes aromas of blackberry, blueberry, plum and cedar oak. Full-flavoured with maximum dark fruit saturation, it presents blackberry jam, tapenade, bay leaf and peppery spice, deep yet soft tannins, juicy acidity and a very rich finish.

Best's Great Western Bin No. 0 Shiraz 2017
Grampians, RRP $85

Bin No. 0 is made to be age worthy and has been the undisputed icon of the Great Western Shiraz style for many decades. It is internationally acclaimed as one of Australia’s great Shiraz wines. The 2017 vintage is a full-flavoured expression in a medium-bodied and beautifully elegant frame with prominent yet well-judged toasty oak driving the masses of dark fruit with hints of black olive, white pepper and bay leaf.

Indigo B Block Shiraz 2019
Beechworth, RRP $30

It took a year for the Indigo Wine Company to find their vineyard site in the foothills of the Victorian Alps and what a location it's turned out to be.
The proof is in this Shiraz with its jubey, grapey dark fruit freshness and lift. Its sweet purple fruit core shows as fresh plum, cherry and blueberry depth, with fine yet deep tannins and subtle background oak. Very fresh and dangerously drinkable.

Helen & Joey Inara Shiraz 2019
Yarra Valley, RRP $25

While Helen & Joey's logo might have a mythical theme, the quality of their cool climate Shiraz is firmly cemented in reality. A deep purple colour, it shows dark cherry, blackberry, plum and five spice aromas. Medium weight yet packed with flavour, the palate has a deep core of black and blue fruits, attractive savoury elements, bright red berry-like acidity and lovely cedar oak in the background. A deliciously modern cool climate style.

Hirsch Hill Estate Reserve Shiraz 2017
Yarra Valley, RRP $40

Hirsch Hill Estate is home to an interesting mix of racehorse breeding and winemaking – both endeavours they pursue with passion. This shines through in their 2017 Shiraz with its aromas of black cherry, blackberry, pepper and smokey oak. Rich and generous with charming dark fruit, loads of cool climate spice, savoury tannin depth and drive and supporting oak.

Hutton Vale Farm Shiraz 2014
Eden Valley, RRP $75

A portion of the fruit for this Shiraz comes from Hutton Vale Farm's old dry grown vines, with the dry conditions keeping the variety's natural vigour in check. The result is a wine filled with dense chocolatey fruit aromas with black olive and pepper spice. It has a rich palate of plum and mulberry with sweet toasty oak in a concentrated and chocolatey style with savoury spice and herb complexity. Deluxe and powerful yet vital and fresh.

St Hallett Mattschoss Shiraz 2016
Eden Valley, RRP $55

With an elevation of 489 metres, Mattschoss is St Hallett's highest Eden Valley vineyard and this wine showcases the fruits of their labour on this special site. It displays aromas of blackberry, plum, stalky spice, beef stock and vanillin oak. Powerful and generous with a rich core of black fruit, savoury tannins, dried herb and charcuterie complexity and a long, ripe finish.

Catlin Black Label Syrah 2015
Adelaide Hills, RRP $40

Darryl Catlin honed his winemaking craft over more than a decade at Shaw and Smith, gaining an intricate knowledge of the local vineyards from where he now sources his own label. In his 2015 Syrah, cherry, blackberry, liquorice, white pepper, wood smoke and stalky spice aromas lead to a refined yet complex palate with a savoury mix of black and purple fruit, attractive spice, subtle tobacco and herb notes, fresh acidity and well-judged vanillin oak.

Wicks Estate Shiraz 2017
Adelaide Hills, RRP $25

With gun winemaker Leigh Ratzmer at the helm, assisted by Ben Kendrick, and with the input of the legendary Tim Knappstein, Wicks Estate produces stellar drops, including this Shiraz. It has a nose of graphite, wood smoke, plum and dark cherry, while the powerful palate shows masses of black fruit, kitchen spice and toasty oak. A savoury expression with fine yet deep tannins and mouth-watering acidity.

Jack Estate Shiraz 2015
Coonawarra, RRP $22

Jack Estate take great pride in the fact that every step of their grape growing and winemaking processes is "full of vital energy" – a fact that shines through in this vibrant, deep red coloured Shiraz. Opening with a perfumed nose of blackberry, red cherry, charred wood and black tea aromas, it's a muscular wine with bold red and black fruit characters, black pepper and dried herb notes, charry
oak and fine tannin poise.

Berrigan Shiraz 2018
Mount Benson, RRP $25

Berrigan is one of the Limestone Coast's most highly awarded wineries and their 2018 Shiraz won the Champion Shiraz Trophy at the 2019 Australian Small Winemakers Show. Deep red purple in appearance, it allures with aromas of blackberry, plum, pepper and tea. Mid weight yet flavoursome with a poised core of black and purple fruit, attractive peppery spice complexity, fine tannin foundation and charry oak in support.

Cape Jaffa En Soleil Shiraz 2018
Wrattonbully, RRP $39

With a soil profile similar to that of its Coonawarra neighbour, Wrattonbully excels in Shiraz production, and Cape Jaffa is on the money with this youthful expression. Ripe dark berry fruit lift shows on the nose along with hints of black pepper, black olive and coconut. It's intense with vibrant plummy fruit, mulberry and raspberry, chocolate and espresso complexity, savoury oak seasoning and white pepper notes on the dry finish.

Ad Hoc Middle of Everywhere Shiraz 2017
Great Southern, RRP $21

Larry Cherubino sources the fruit for his Ad Hoc range from the Western Australian region best suited to the variety, which for this Shiraz was Great Southern. It opens with decadent aromas of dark fruit, cedar and new leather, while the palate is deluxe, full-bodied and plush with masses of dark cherry, plum and espresso. Complex and seamless with deep yet silken tannins.

Swinney Syrah 2018
Great Southern, RRP $40

Winner of a Gold medal and a Trophy for Best West Australian Shiraz at the 2019 Great Australian Shiraz Challenge, Swinney's 2018 Syrah – another Great Southern beauty – has a nose resplendent in aromas of dark currant, cassis and cedar. The full-bodied palate features a generous mix of red and black fruit characters along with savoury spice and white pepper notes, ripe tannins and toasty coconut oak on the long, savoury finish.

Wignalls Shiraz 2018
Great Southern, RRP $29

Wignalls chose the Great Southern sub-region of Albany to establish their vineyards because of its similarity to the growing conditions of Burgundy. Deep purple coloured, it features aromas of dark berries, baked earth, spice, black olive and pot pourri. It really opens up in the glass revealing dark cherry, blood orange and mulberry with black tea, Italian bitters and graphite, smokey oak and a complete, layered finish.

Two Blues Sauvignon Blanc 2014
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