I love Australia, because it shows you what California would look like if the South had won the Civil War. You get so few good counterfactuals in history. And I love Australian people. What is there to say about the nation that has given us Tony Abbot and Rupert Murdoch, Iggy Azalea and Nick Kyrgios? Perhaps only that we shouldn’t hold it against other prison rehabilitation programmes.
And I love Australian wine. Or at least I did, once. I think everyone loves Australian wine at one point or another in their wine journey. It helps to think of it as the measles of the wine world. Get it early, and it’s anodyne; all you remember is you went around red-faced for a while. Sadly, however, some people encounter it at a more mature age, and you can see the complications all over their blogs.
And, of course, I love Oz Shiraz, the Australian wine of Australian wine. I love it mostly because it’s the easiest wine to identify blind. You don’t need to taste it, sniff it, or even see it. All you need to do is to take a good look up and down at the person who brought it and go “yup, Australian Shiraz”.
The above might only be poking some not-entirely-undeserved fun at our Antipodean friends but, in my case at least, they conceal an uncomfortable truth. In my mind, I am as adventurous and open-minded a wine drinker as I was when I first started. I am always up to exploring new regions, new varieties, and new styles. But my glass recycling says otherwise. I buy fewer new things than I used to. I still try stuff here and there (I get around, to the extent that I can), but when it comes to my own purchases, not so much. My reflexive defence is that I have exchanged wide and shallow for narrow and deep, a welcome by-product of maturity. But sometimes I worry: is it true that these days I know what I like? Or is it simply that I like what I know?
And what do I do with the rest of the great wide world of wine outside my comfort zone? I guess I deal with it in convenient shorthands (at best) or lazy stereotypes (at worst). Every New Year’s Eve I make a resolution to revisit this variety or that region. But when it comes time to fill that online shopping cart, Chianti will win over Chilean Pinot Noir every time.
So this year, I thought enough is enough: I would break the pattern. To keep myself in line, and give me an incentive, I committed to writing about it. Naturally, showing up at a couple of tastings, sniffing/spitting a couple of dozen wines, and then pontificating about it sounded like the easy way out, but I wasn’t after a newspaper column here – I wanted to learn. And I wanted to reengage with things I thought I knew with the enthusiasm of a novice (Why, what are you now? – Ed.)
I needed some ground rules. Firstly, I would buy the wines myself. It felt unfair asking importers and producers to contribute to my own education, but it would also liberate me from the shackles of professionalism and, if warranted, I could write things like “smells like it was used as an AirBnB by an incontinent rabbit”. I would taste the wines individually, at a leisurely pace, then have them with dinner. I am not after benchmarking and objectivity (whatever that is), but after learning and enjoying. And I would try to get a representative idea of the current state of play. I would start with what is easily available and go progressively geekier. All I needed was a region or variety to begin. So, I thought, which is the thing that I really, really never buy for myself?
Australian Shiraz jumped to attention before my mind even finished the question. I gulped. Sounded like a challenge. Here, then, are my six weeks of drinking Oz Shiraz.
Okay, let’s start this easy. Where does the average UK drinker go for wine? Well, to the aisle between the bog rolls and the dog food of course. My local Waitrose stocks a few Australian Shiraz(es?). I usually pass them by and go “haha, who buys that”. Well, turns out, today, me.
Naturally, I start with Penfolds, Ballard’s High Rise in wine producer form. Seeing Koonunga Hill on the shelf makes me think of student parties. Instead, I’ll shell out substantially more and go for the simply named Max’s. It’s clear they are targeting all the middle class erogenous zones with this. It has a more serious-looking label than Koonunga Hill, while maintaining the brand’s visual continuity. It is named after the guy that came up with Grange. It even has a, gasp, cork.
Twenty pounds later, I have my first bottle. Look at me with my Australian Shiraz from an upscale supermarket. All I need is a moustache and a middle-management job at Granada and I am a cool person in the 1980s. But how do the 1980s taste?
Penfolds Max’s Shiraz 2020
South Australia (14.5%). 91 points
Ah, doesn’t this bring back memories. Exactly as I remembered it. Dark like cherry cola, rich, overripe bouquet of blackberry jam. I’ve to admit though, there is a tad more complexity here than I expected. Some more grown-up notes, a bit of wood, hint of smoke. Not my style of wine, but it is not overbearing. It is also commendably consistent on the palate: there is an explosion of sweetness at first, again all the dark black fruit, but then a more serious, tannic structure reveals itself. I don’t like using “crowd pleaser”, but I can easily see this being many people’s favourite wine. Until they grow up of course.
I think this will stay for dinner though. I will need something seriously heavy for this. Slow cooked ox cheeks? Braised in Port and red wine? Yeah, that could work.
This wasn’t too bad for a start. I’ll now take it up a notch. What does a Serious Wine Lover™ do? Go for The Wine Society of course. I hope this will give me a taste of the contemporary. And indeed, I soon find a suitable candidate. Hipsterish label? Check. Name that sounds like the producer actually wanted to make craft beer, but thought there are bigger margins in wine? Check. Closure approved by Derek Zoolander’s School For Kids Who Can’t Corkscrew Good? Check.
Come on modern Australia, surprise me.
Whistler Shiver Down My Spine Shiraz 2020
Barossa Valley (14%). 89 points
This is again Dr Pepper-coloured, and the nose isn’t much different either. The vanilla is overwhelming. I’m trying to find fruit, but it comes from a can. There is an alcoholic burn there too. Yet the palate is surprisingly, and substantially, better. There is a leathery, almost harsh texture which is far from the cherry bubble-gum nose. There is also freshness and overall a reasonable character. Don’t get me wrong, the main taste that comes out is still stewed plums. But at least it’s trying.
What shall I cook with this? Maybe make a lamb ragu with wholewheat pasta. Throw lots of herbs at it, rosemary and marjoram and dried basil. Pit it against the plums and cherries and let them fight it out. And add a good chunk of the bottle in the ragu too, I think one glass of this will be enough for drinking.
I think I have covered what a reasonably committed amateur would do, now it’s time to take some professional advice. Let’s see if Incel Musk’s website is still good for anything. I’ll send out a bat signal and see what happens.
Ah, that’s good to see, lots of great responses. Naturally, I get the occasional “none of the good stuff is imported in the UK”, which sounds dubious. (The Australians have a girlfriend, but she goes to another continent.) I get a few recommendations for things I have tried recently(ish). And then I get many exciting suggestions, which I carefully and professionally filter according to a strict journalistic principle: easiest to find.
The merchant contingent gets its candidate in first. This one was recommended by Mike Boyne of the award-winning Bin Two wine bar in Padstow, and Tim Carlisle of North South wines. So, strong references. But how does it taste?
Paxton Jones Block Shiraz 2019
McLaren Vale (14%). 93 points
I thought they all come the same colour, but this is, I think, very slightly more purplish on the edges. It is also different on the nose – this is the first that has aromas that genuinely fit my preferences. There are fresh strawberries, cherries, and an elegance that I wouldn’t associate with the variety in its Australian take. It is similarly stereotype-smashing on the palate: freshness together with crunchy red fruit, and just a hint of tanginess on the aftertaste that rounds it out very nicely. I usually avoid delicious as a term, but this is actually it. And I am thinking duck confit with roast potatoes for dinner. Yum.
This is going well. I feel emboldened now, so I’ll go down a price level and see how things are looking over there. Giles Cooke MW produces a range of well-received Shirazes, so if someone can pull the low(er)-price challenge, it should be him. This is also a bit unusual, co-fermenting Shiraz with a bit of Zibibbo, which sounds like a lot of fun.
Thistledown Gorgeous Shiraz 2021
South Australia (13.5%). 88 points
I guess this is nearer to what you get below the £15 mark these days. The nose is a mix of sweet and sour, red fruit and green notes. My co-diner called it strawberry yogurt, and I can’t improve on that tasting note myself. The theme continues to the palate, with an unresolved tension between sweetness and bitterness. I can see someone who enjoys supermarket Oz Shiraz trying this and finding it quite the upgrade, all the familiar colours looking more vivid. But for a whiny armchair critic like me, I’m afraid it’s a no.
As I was a good boy last week and saved myself some money, this week I’ll spend like the proverbial sailor. John Atkinson MW tells me he remembers good things about Yarra Yering and he is as close to an infallible wine oracle as I’ve ever met. Plus, I have this book called 1001 Wines You Should Try Before You Die and Yarra Yering is in there too, and who doesn’t want to do the things they should before they die. I’ve smashed my original price ceiling now, but it’s all for a good cause. Kind of.
Yarra Yering Red Wine No. 2 2017
Yarra Valley (13%). 92 points, and maybe all the way to 94 eventually I guess, but don’t take my word for it. Can go either way.
This is a different animal. The nose speaks French. There is the elegance and clarity, as well the pepper, stone, and acidity, I tend to associate with Côte-Rôtie. There is only the faintest echo of a “no worries mate”, some sweetness on the fruit in the background. Do I really smell it though, or do I only imagine it because I know its provenance? Hard to say.
The palate is similarly elegant, mineral yet very light. There are some strict tannins in there, making me think that I opened this ten years too soon. I can see this growing up to be wonderful, but I can also see it falling flat two years from now – I really don’t know the wine well enough to say. What I do know though is that for £50 I can get tickets for the original artist, so I am not so sure why I’m here listening to the tribute band.
I saved the most lauded one for last. This one was recommended to me by Emma Symington MW. It got enthusiastic coverage by Jancis Robinson MW. And it has a vote of confidence from the coolest man in the Birmingham wine scene, Sonal Clare of the Wilderness. So, I have as high expectations as one can have. Come on Australia, one last push. Convince me.
Leeuwin Estate Siblings Shiraz 2019
Margaret River 13.5%. 91 points
More New Australia here. It certainly feels lighter, but I’m not sure that translates necessarily to freshness. Vanilla is prominent on the nose, followed by fresh strawberries, but there is a uniformity in the aromatic profile – I guess you could call it smoothness, but it feels nearer to flatness to me. The palate, however, is another story. It’s vibrant, fresh, pleasantly acidic and, while I wouldn’t call the fruit exactly bursting, it is somewhere in there. I suspect this would do very well in a horizontal Shiraz tasting, if only because of the prominent acidity. It is also very much à la mode. But if I owned vineyards in the northern Rhône’s Roasted Slope, I wouldn’t be losing much sleep.
So this concludes my brief Australian fling. Am I far from where I started? Not really. I never doubted Australian Shiraz’s capacity to please the unfastidious. I have certainly seen enough hype about the trend for lighter wines that the existence of Côtes du Rhône lookalikes came as no surprise. If anything, I was more impressed with how much I enjoyed those in the traditional style: I bought Max’s fully convinced I was going to hate it, instead it was good fun. Paxton, I think I’ll come back for more.
In due course though. I have six weeks without a drop of Chianti to make up for.
Photo by Joey Csunyo and Unsplash