Shiraz is a great starting red wine for the uninitiated wine drinker. It’s big. It’s confident. It has some huge flavours attached to it that make it such a pleasure to drink. It’s also one of the most-popular wines on the planet.
A good Shiraz is like an explosion of flavours, blackberries, blueberries, chocolate, coffee, and earthy flavours that meld together to create a wonderfully complex palate experience. Experiencing good Shiraz is like tasting a really good jam, it’s not sweet but more of an exploration of the developed fruit flavours. Depending on its origins you can get blue fruit, black fruit or red fruit. Sometimes you hit the jackpot and it's a joyous mix of the three. Evolved secondary characters such as tobacco, liquorice, anise, bacon fat and dried herbs as the wine evolves are quite common.
There is an old wives’ tale that refers to the town of Shiraz in Iran and says that Shiraz (the grape) origins are Shiraz (the Town) but it's actually not the case. It's just a happy coincidence that one of the most prolific non-drinking countries in the world has a town named after a lovely grape.
Shiraz is actually from Southern France which is really unsurprising because it is found it in most of the core Southern Rhone wines such as Cotes du Rhone and Châteauneuf-du-Pape.
One of the most famous wines from the Southern Rhone Valley is Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Shiraz is among the varieties that can be used to make Châteauneuf-du-Pape. And as you travel further up the Rhône Valley, there are different iterations of how people have grown and developed Shiraz. Each little appellation, as you travel further up the Northern Rhône Valley, has different styles of Shiraz that find their place in different hearts, so to speak. Stylistically speaking, there’s a lot of variety.
My favourite wine (Domaine Auguste Clape “Cornas”) comes from Cornas on the west bank of the Rhône River. Cornas is heavily exposed to the hot baking sun and the fruit develops rich flavours on the vine. Some people like Hermitage, others like St Joseph or Cote Rotie…there are many to choose from. There are all these little Appellations, each with a different microclimate that result in different expressions of the same grape that make for a wonderful study.
There is also a lot of Shiraz grown in Languedoc-Roussillon region which, once upon a time, was known as being the factory wine region of France. This was where industrial scale vineyards used to punch out high volume, cheap wine to satisfy the masses.
But, as times have changed, winemakers have gone to the Languedoc and started hand selecting vineyards and plots and entering into organics and biodynamics.
You still have these significant tracts of vineyards which are still producing the largest volumes of grapes in France. But, in between them, are these little plots that winemakers are selecting to experiment and create their own vineyards. The region is already producing wonderful wines and you see a lot of great Shiraz coming out of the Languedoc.
What makes a good Shiraz? Good fruit and great winemaking. And good vintage conditions also.
Shiraz is probably the best example of the adage that in a great vintage, everybody makes great wine and in a bad vintage, great wine makers make good wines.
2011 is probably the best example of this because it was such a poor vintage.
In the grand scheme of things, 2010 was a 10 out of 10 vintage in most regions around the country, and then 2011 was wet and cold. The average rating for 2011 was 5 or 6. So it was a big disappointment and a tough vintage. Not every winemaker got it right and a lot of winemakers chose not to make anything. But over time, some winemakers who did produce wines in 2011 are discovering that some of their better wines are “performing” really well over time (somewhat unexpectedly).
On the whole, most of the wines produced in 2011 were pretty disappointing, there were some good ones that are now coming into their own. You drink them and you say, “Oh my God. That was a really good one.” But the thing is, it’s taken nearly eight, nine years for that sort of fruit to mature.
Shiraz from average vintages tends to age better than Shiraz from top vintages. Although it’s a discussion for another day, wines from top vintage years also tend to get rated better by critics. A simplistic explanation would be: In top vintage rated years, generally speaking mother nature has been more “generous”, a combination of climate and terroir has combined to produce not just opulent fruit…but lots of it. The end result is going to be something quite expressive. Combine that with a great winemaker and the result will often be a wine that more than impressed critics. Everything is there, in balance and you don’t have to look very far to find it. Wines from top vintages are often better in their youth because primary fruit is the driver. As these wines age they are still amazing, but not as much as you would expect.
In wines from an average year, the elements that make for a great wine are more subtle. Beyond relying on great quality fruit (which is less expressive), wines from an average year rely on a combination of primary fruit but also the balance of alcohol, tannins and acids (which will ultimately drive the secondary characteristics in later life). As a result, wines from less than great/average years often perform better in later life. A little bit of bottle age is quite the tonic.
Penfolds Icon Wines from 2009 and 2007 are great examples of average year wines. In their early years they had the misfortune of being released very close to 2008 and 2010 (Penfolds St Henri and Penfolds Grange are the best examples which come to mind) and the resulting comparisons did them no favours. Having had the opportunity to taste these wines well after their release date, in my mind although the wines from 2008 and 2010 are still great wines. The wines from 2007 and 2009 continue to get better.
What really differentiates a good Shiraz from a bad one is the winemaker's knowledge and experience.
The experience of working with certain grape varieties, or specific grapes from particular vineyards on a regular basis, knowing and understanding them. Knowing how changes in the weather or other calamities impact those grapes and how to react. Having the knowledge to work a little bit of magic in the winery or take a back seat and let the wine do its thing. The goal is to make sure that the wine is of consistently good quality each year and often this often means doing less. No one thing makes for good Shiraz, but a good vintage + good fruit +a great winemaker is a winning combination.
Winemakers can either reduce production or just apply a little bit more care and attention to certain aspects of the winemaking process to make sure that, at every point, the wines coming through are the ones they expect to see in a bottle. It always really comes down to knowledge and experience.
It’s like with John West. They say he’s the best because of what he rejects rather than what he picks. It's the same with winemakers. Picking and rejecting the right fruit, knowing when to stand up and say, “You know what? This isn't working.”
Being a winemaker requires integrity. That's what determines a good Shiraz and a bad Shiraz. What are you actually willing to put in a bottle and call your own?
One Shiraz that’s really impressed me recently has been the Bondar Violet Hour Shiraz 2020. It’s a wine that immediately had me going, “Yes, please. Can I have some more? I’ll take a dozen.” It’s luxurious and velvety with a nice body and boasts layers of different fruit, black cherries, cocoa, coffee, blackberries, and hints of earth and liquorice.
The 2020 vintage was even recently rated 97 points by James Halliday and listed as one of the Top 100 Wines of 2021 in The Weekend Australian Magazine. I don’t think there is anyone this Shiraz wouldn’t make happy and for just $30 for a 97 point Shiraz, it’s a rarity.