Jim Chatto, Pepper Tree Wines, NSW

Jim Chatto, Pepper Tree Wines, NSW

Name: Jim Chatto

Shiraz by any other name

Shiraz, Syrah, Hermitage, Marsanne Noir, Sirac, Sirene, Sereine, Syrac, Syra, Shiras, Hignin Noir, Candive, Balsamina, Entounerein, Antourenien Noir1… Whatever name it carries there is one thing for sure - there is vastly more interpretations of style than synonyms for the adaptable grape we call Shiraz.

Historical rhetoric suggests that the variety Shiraz originated in the ancient city of Shiraz (the city of flowers, wine and poetry) in what is now Iran. However, modern DNA profiling at the UCLA Davis in 2001, places it as indigenous to France's Northern Rhone Valley, being a genetic cross between Dureza and Mondeuse Blanc2.

The Rhone

The Northern Rhone is considered the Holy Grail for Shiraz, producing supple, yet intense wines of great balance and length. The best wines display sweet berry fruits and exquisite spice framed by ripe tannins and a persistent, mineral like texture. They possess great complexity without being complicated.

Styles vary markedly between producers and regions along the northern Rhone- where it is the sole red varietal planted. The regions which give the Rhone and Syrah its fame are: Hermitage; Côte Rotie; Cornas; Crozes-Hermitage and St Joseph. Located around the hill of Hermitage itself, these regions lie to the north, south, east and west, respectively.

Shiraz in Australia

The first Shiraz came to Australia with the viticultural pioneer James Busby in 1832, taken as cuttings from the hill of Hermitage itself, planted first in Sydney then the Hunter Valley, before exploding across the country4.

Up until the 1950s the Australian wine industry was largely based around fortified wines. Shiraz, with its ability to ripen to high sugar levels with intensely sweet fruit and deep colour, was perfectly suited to fortified production.

Most early Australian Shiraz was made into Port style wines. Shiraz grown for table wine was often labelled as Hermitage, named after the region in the Rhone, a practice still common in the latter half of last century.

Since such humble beginnings Shiraz has become arguably Australia's most important red variety. Plantings in Australia reached 40,508ha by 2005, representing 42% of all red wine grapes picked. By hectare Shiraz is Australia's number one grape variety, accounting for 24% of all (winegrape) vineyard area3 and could be considered as Australia's vinous calling card.

Shiraz in Australia is unchallenged in its ability to perform across a wide range of climatic and soil type variables. From the sumptuously full bodied flavour packed wines produced in the Barossa, Clare and McLaren Vale; through the savoury medium bodied classics of the Hunter and the intense spicy styles of the Limestone Coast; to the aromatic spicy cool climate styles from Victoria, Canberra and WA to name a few.

New World threats

While Shiraz has been an export stronghold for Australia there is an ever-closing gap. New players such as the USA, South Africa, New Zealand, Argentina and Chile are all vying for a piece of Australia's international success with Shiraz.

Recent US plantings of the ENTAV (Establishment National Technique pour l'Amelioration de la Viticulture) clones5 are giving rise to some serious Syrah wines particularly in the cooler parts of California. Argentina and Chile are also hot on Australia's tail producing some excellent Shiraz at worrying prices.

In order to stay ahead of these and other emerging Shiraz producers, Australian producers need to give careful attention to both the quality and the identity of their Shiraz.

The Future

The market for Shiraz both domestically and overseas is rapidly becoming more sophisticated. On the domestic front, the wine industry and most importantly the consumers, appear to be falling over themselves to celebrate the stylistic and regional differences in Australian Shiraz. Gone are the days of one region owning the blueprint. It is now an open book, defined purely by quality, making for a very exciting and progressive time for Shiraz in Australia.

The full article can be found in the May/June issue of the Wine Industry Journal - out soon!

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