Australian Shiraz: What Does It Taste Like and Is It Ageworthy?

It was during a visit to Australia in October 2019 that my view of Australian Shiraz changed — and for the better. My prior experience with very ripe versions of Shiraz lacking finesse left me less than enthusiastic about Australia’s expression of the variety. I probably would not have been interested in a wine tasting offered by San Francisco Wine School, entitled “South Australian Shiraz: Iconic and Age Worthy”, prior to that visit. But, after getting to know the variety better during that visit, I was very curious to taste Shiraz from around South Australia and even more curious to taste some aged versions. I applied for and received a Media Pass to attend this tasting. I agreed to write a blog post about my tasting experience in exchange for attending the tasting at no cost. 

The tasting was organized around ten wines: five current-release wines (2017 and 2018) and five aged wines (2010 and 2013). David Glancy, Master Sommelier and co-owner of San Francisco Wine School was in the classroom with students. Mark Davidson, Head of Education, North America for Wine Australia joined remotely as did Ian Hongell, Chief Winemaker for Torbreck in the Barossa Valley and Chester Osborn, fourth-generation winemaker at his family’s McLaren Vale winery, d’Arenberg. 

Iconic and ageworthy Shiraz featured photo
Iconic and Ageworthy Shiraz

I, and about 50 other participants, also joined the discussion and tasting remotely. I received a tasting kit with small sample bottles of each wine in the tasting. In total we tasted wines from four Australian wine regions: Penfolds – South Australia, Wakefield – Clare Valley, d’Arenberg and Kay Brothers – McLaren Vale, and Torbreck – Barossa Valley. 

One concept became apparent as we tasted through the wines: each Shiraz has its own character. Of the wines in this tasting the Torbreck was the ripest and richest (due to warmer growing conditions and and winemaking choices), d’Arenberg is on the bigger side too. The Wakefield reflected its cool climate; and Kay Brothers and Penfolds split the difference in terms of style.

There was a common thread among all of these wines: great acidity. The fruit flavors definitely varied by region, as did the tannin structure, but all had excellent acidity, good balance and ample tannins — all qualities necessary for successful aging.

2018 Penfolds Bin 28 ‘Kalimna’, South Australia —ruby color with aromas and flavors of red and dark fruit, crushed flower stems and hints of coconut. Tannins are drying in a medium body. Flavors are fresh and lively. SRP $40

2010 Penfolds Bin 28 ‘Kalimna’, South Australiaruby with hints of garnet at the rim. Aromas and flavors include mixed berry compote, leather, dried berries and figs. Tannins are still grippy with good acidity and interesting complexity in a medium body.

Penfolds Kalimna was originally a single-vineyard wine from the Kalimna Vineyard in the Barossa Valley. Now it is a blend of sites from around South Australia, though Barossa Valley still features prominently in the blend.

2017 Wakefield ‘St Andrews’, Clare Valley, Australiabright ruby with aromas and flavors of crunchy red fruit, cherries, blackberries with great acidity. Tannins are very drying in a barely medium body. Lively and flavorful. SRP $60

2013 Wakefield ‘St Andrews’, Clare Valley, Australia ruby with slight garnet at the rim. Aromas and flavors include dark fruit compote, dried fruit, leather and pencil shavings. Tannins are drying in a medium body. Extremely complex and interesting. 

Grapes are sourced from a single vineyard site in Clare Valley. The soil type is prodominantly terra rossa (iron oxide rich loam over limestone.) The wines were partially barrel fermented and aged for 20 months in American oak.

2018 d’Arenberg ‘The Dead Arm’, McLaren Vale, Australiadark ruby with generous aromas of plums and dark berries with dried mint. Red and dark fruit flavors with earth, leather and tobacco in the background. Tannins are grippy in a medium body. SRP $65

2010 d’Arenberg ‘The Dead Arm’, McLaren Vale, Australiaruby with garnet at the rim, cedar and dark fruit aromas lead to dark fruit flavors with tobacco in a medium+ body. Plenty of fruit flavors remain and tannins that are still very grippy. The finish is long.

Fruit is sourced from several old sites to take advantage of variable vine age and soil types. Small batches are fermented, gently pressed, partially foot trodden and basket pressed. Aged for 18 months in new and older American oak.

2017 Kay Brothers ‘Hillside’, McLaren Vale, Australiadark ruby color with aromas that include red fruit and blackberries. Flavors tend more toward dark fruit, but they’re still tart with earth and gauzy tannins in a medium body.  SRP $59.99

2010 Kay Brothers ‘Hillside’, McLaren Vale, Australiacolor is garnet with aromas and flavors of dried fruit, cedar, leather and black pepper with excellent acidity. Tannins are gauzy in a medium body.

This historic property dates back to 1890 when brothers Herbert and Frederick Kay purchased the property. Fruit is sourced from various estate vineyards situated on a variety of soil types. Grapes are hand harvested, fermented in open vats and basket pressed. Aging took place in French and American oak for 20 months.

2018 Torbreck ‘The Factor’, Barossa Valley, Australiadense ruby color with aromas and flavors more so of dark fruit than red fruit. Flavors are riper, a bit warmer with great acidity and grippy tannins. This wine is bigger in style, but balanced, with a medium body. SRP $110.00

2010 Torbreck ‘The Factor’, Barossa Valley, Australiagarnet in color with aromas of cedar, leather and dried fruit. Cedar and dark fruit flavors predominate with grippy tannins and lots of acidity in a medium body. Big and bold, but balanced.

Fruit is sourced from several old vine sites in the Barossa Valley. The wine spent 24 months in 40% new French oak. The Factor is made in a big, lush style by design. Careful vineyard management allows for ripe fruit but with ample acidity.

The big take-aways from this tasting were 1) tasting wines side-by-side is an excellent way to understand their differences in flavor, weight, and texture — and their similarities. It’s the best way to develop a memory for the flavors of a variety and region. 2) The only way to understand a grape variety’s varied expressions is by tasting, tasting, tasting from different regions. Don’t stop with just one or two expressions of a particular variety. If, like my experience with Australian Shiraz, your first taste is a style that doesn’t suit your palate, you might be missing out on other wines that do. It’s a rookie mistake to dismiss a wine without proper exploration. 3) Yes, Australian Shiraz does age, and beautifully so. 

This is not the first wine tasting class I have taken from David Glancy at San Francisco Wine School. For years I have been interested in taking classes at SFWS, but the drive to San Francisco from Stockton made that impractical. With their pivot from in-person learning to a hybrid format (roomers and zoomers), necessitated by the COVID pandemic, taking classes from home is now possible. 

In October 2020 I completed the Intermediate Blind Wine Tasting course, then online only, over the course of several Saturday afternoons. The wines for each tasting were shipped to my home in the same small bottles as for this tasting. The tastings worked perfectly well over Zoom and I hope the zoomers option never goes away.

Cheers!

6 Comments

  1. The big unanswered question here is did you ask if each wine had natural acidity or added tartaric. The universal answer, going back over 30 years of increasingly hot vintages, would be almost all all Australian wines have added acid. That was my experience as a mainstream wine writer in Australia and New Zealand during 90s and 2000s. Climates are hotter now, and so where is the acidity coming from. I also have a cellar full of older vintages from that period from top producers and generally the wines have developed as positively as I’d hoped based on my experience of European and North American wines.

    • Hi Paul. Thanks for your question and comment. I did not ask, nor do I have that question/answer documented in my notes, but what the winemakers (Torbreck’s Ian Hongell in particular) talked about is the extreme amount of work they are doing in the vineyard to grow balanced Shiraz so they have to do less work in the cellar. He talked about growing Shiraz that produces a fresher flavor profile. I’m happy to hear your Australian Shiraz is aging gracefully. Cheers!

      • Hello Nancy,
        I screwed up here and left off a key word. See other reply. Aussie reds and whites, excepting rieslings and semillons, haven’t aged well at all in my experience. I’ve been selling them off at auction in Australia and New Zealand because locals are willing to pay a lot more for them there than when new. Ironically, often local wines sell for higher prices than quite good French, Spanis and Italian wines. There are virtually no American wines sold in Australasia.
        As far as viticultural options, beyond increasing shading, there isn’t much more they can do — and for how long — to avert over-ripeness, low acidity and high alcohol. Change grapes or move. Its a similar problem facing lots of hot climate regions throughout the world.
        Again, sorry for sloppiness leaving out NOT developing.

    • oppps, I left a key word out here. Indeed, Australian wines have NOT developed as positively as I hoped. I should have double checked the sentence, very sloppy of me. For three reasons primarily. The intense UV of the south, creates a sweetness to the fruit that simply doesn’t develop into more interesting savory tertiary characters. Fruit forward forever. The structure of the wine, with standard addition of tartaric acid and powered tannins becomes even more artificially unbalanced with age. And the high alchol, just gets more clumsy as it ages. It is worth challenging winemakers and PR events like you attended for deeper more accurate answers. Harvest times are 2-3 weeks later compared to a few decades ago, which means a shorter season. Which if grapes are being picked earlier still to preserve acidity implies less ripe tannins and fruit.

  2. Great post Nancy! It sounds like a great experience. I’ve been considering pursuing the CSW. Did you consider any WSET before deciding to become a CSW? If so, what made you choose the CSW?

    Also, I recently became Treasurer of the Glancy Wine Education Foundation.

    • Thanks Martin, it was an interesting tasting. I did think about WSET but it wasn’t available to me in Stockton without traveling to take the classes. I was able to do the CSW from home, so that’s what I chose. With your extensive tasting experience, and experience writing about so many wine regions in the world, either program will be straight forward for you. Enjoy whichever program you choose. Congratulations on your Treasurer position with the Glance Wine Education Foundation!

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