Australia is renowned for its Shiraz. Its chewy, spicy, in-your-face characteristics are much loved by fans of big red wines. But like every red wine grape, Shiraz is affected both by environmental conditions such as climate and soil and by the wine maker’s influence.
As any fan of Australian Shiraz will agree, there is no definitive “Aussie Shiraz” style. It is big and highly alcoholic, it has a deep red colour and its aromas and flavours are intense, but beyond those characteristics the Shiraz red wine grape can produce very different wines depending on the region and the wine maker.
Whilst there is no typical Australian Shiraz there are recognized regional characteristics. If you want to explore the vast range of Australia’s signature red wine style then look for the region on the label of bottles of Australian Shiraz. South Australia is arguably the heartland of Australian Shiraz. It produces almost half of all of Australia’s red wine and Shiraz is one of its most widely planted red wine grapes. There are many wine regions within South Australia but three of the most famous regions producing world class Shiraz wines are the Barossa Valley, McLaren Vale and the Clare Valley. These regions are home to some of the most famous names in Australian Shiraz – Penfolds Grange; Hardy’s Eileen Hardy; d’Arenberg’s Dead Arm; Jim Barry’s The Armagh; Tim Adam’s Aberfeldy; Rockford Basket Press and Wirra Wirra’s RSW.
However, despite these three regions all lying in the same Australian state and all being easily visited from South Australia’s capital city Adelaide, the Shiraz produced from their wineries is noticeably different. This is in large part due to the prevailing climatic conditions.
The Barossa Valley lies around 35 miles north east of Adelaide and follows the North Para river for around 20 miles, merging into the neighbouring Eden Valley region in the east. Summer in the Barossa Valley is hot and dry and many of the vines, especially the more recently planted, need irrigating to keep them supplied with water. This heat is at least partly responsible for producing the region’s typical young Shiraz style – full bodied, high in alcohol and a sun kissed character. However, the Barossa Valley is best known for its old vine Shiraz. The region has many Shiraz vines which were planted more than 100 years ago and cuttings of these old vines are regularly replanted. Yields are low and these vines produce the red wine grapes used to make the Barossa’s distinctive Shiraz style – rich, chewy and spicy with characteristics of dark chocolate and often with hints of creamy vanilla thanks to the trend of allowing the wine to end its fermentation in American oak barrels. Some of the best examples of Barossa Valley Shiraz come from producers such as Peter Lehmann, Langmeil, St Hallett, Turkey Flat, Rockford, Charles Melton and Grant Burge.
Further north from Adelaide is the Clare Valley, a region which is in fact a series of narrow valleys running north to south, all with very different soil types. The Clare Valley is perhaps best known for its Riesling but its producers manage to make the most of the extremes of conditions to produce some excellent Shiraz which can challenge the best in Australia. The Clare Valley lies at high altitude so it enjoys hot dry days and cool nights. Despite the heat and dryness most of the vineyards are not irrigated resulting in low yields and intense red wine. Clare Valley Shiraz is a noticeably more elegant red wine than that produced in the Barossa Valley. The cool nights help to preserve some acidity and the red wine has a finer structure and more pure black fruit characteristics. Wineries to look out for include Jim Barry, Tim Adams, Kilikanoon; O’Leary Walker and Skillogalee.
McLaren Vale is a short commute to the south of Adelaide, at the northern end of the Fleurieu Peninsula. The first vines were planted by John Reynell in 1838 at what is now Chateau Reynella, the headquarters of the famous long established wine company Thomas Hardy & Sons. McLaren Vale is on the coast with the Mount Lofty Ranges at its back giving conditions perfect for growing Shiraz grapes. Like the Clare Valley, soil conditions vary around the region so that a winery to the east of the region such as Kangarilla can produce a Shiraz which is more elegant and tart than the typical McLaren Vale style. The typical McLaren Vale Shiraz lies somewhere in between the typical Barossa and Clare styles. It is not quite as big as a Barossa Shiraz but not quite as refined and elegant as a Clare Shiraz, with characteristics of milk chocolate, mocha and warm earth. Wineries worth seeking out include Wirra Wirra, d’Arenberg, Chapel Hill, Shingleback and premium-level Hardy’s.
Image by Tam.