In Australia, Rethinking Shiraz


Photo by Jarrett Wrisley

To view images of wine-making in Australia's Hunter Valley, click here for a slide show.

When I boarded a bus destined for Australia's Hunter Valley, I wasn't expecting much.

That's my palate's fault. It has developed its own rigid set of prejudices about Australian red wine, after a decade tasting the kind Australia tends to export. Not bad wines, mind you, but the kind that, at a dinner party, seem to talk over everything else.

It's a shame that those blustery wines have become a touchstone of Australian red. Because it's possible to sample a wide range of styles down under that are far more subtle than an outsized Barossa Shiraz. Wine drinkers don't all share Robert Parker's oak and jam fetishes; thankfully, Australian winemakers don't either.

After a short tasting, my perceptions of Shiraz had been turned inside out.

So when I arrived in the Hunter Valley, I headed to the Small Winemakers Centre there. While the region is more famed for its Semillon, there was a firm chill in the wind, and it felt like red wine-drinking weather. So that's what I drank, and I'm glad that I did.

I found wines that were more modest than their southern cousins, and many that didn't seem all that Australian. Some were even a sniff Gallic with their tight tannins, minerality, and snooty acidity. If you like drinking Syrah from the Rhone, you might like Hunter Shiraz (I should mention that we're talking about the same grape).

The Enomatic machine on display at the Centre protects wine by pumping argon gas into open bottles, keeping each one fresh for a few weeks. This allows them to serve about 20 wines by the glass, many with age on their side. As I drank, Andrew Bird's violin poured out of the speakers and Shiraz spurted from the Enomatic's little steel tap. It was a pleasant and unpretentious drinking experience, and that seems to be the point.


Photo by Jarrett Wrisley

Here's what my wine-stained notepad says:

"Light whiff of vanilla from the oak, herbaceous, prominent tannins and good acidity. Unusual and well-balanced. Yum." (That, for the Ghillie Shiraz 2004, made by Capercaillie. BTW: "Yum" is the best wine term I have in my arsenal.)

And this: "Black pepper, cumin, soil and leather. Elegant. A hint of fruit, but not a lot...Cherries. They're playing 'Paranoid Android', which is also nice." I wrote that about the Meerea Park Terracotta 1998, which an iPod at the wine bar decided to pair with Radiohead's best album. Welcome to the New World.

Then there was a Thomas Wines Kiss 2007 that was aggressively oaked and very fruity, and finally the Brokenwood Graveyard 2005. The Graveyard Shiraz is probably the Hunter's most celebrated red. That wine, which was equal parts red fruit and savory earth, tasted like it would age wonderfully, but it was admittedly strange at first. Sort of like OK Computer.

After a short tasting, my perceptions of Shiraz had been turned inside out. So I went to chat with a few people that are making these wines. That led me to two young wine makers, both of whom grew up in this windy hill country where kangaroos probably outnumber cars on empty weekdays.

First I met Liz Jackson at First Creek, a contract winery that makes wines from fruit sourced from across Australia (which is common here). But Liz likes her local grapes best.

"There was a time, maybe ten years ago, when we got really worried here," Jackson said, "because big Shiraz was booming and that really hurt us. We make medium-bodied wines, and you can drink more than one or two glasses, and now people are coming back to that style. The Hunter wines also age really well."

I just finished a bottle of her 2006 Shiraz in my apartment in Bangkok, and it was youthful and fruit-driven, with a wonderful nose of berries and herbs. Indeed, you can drink more than one glass.

Next morning the sound of sqwawking spoonbills pulled me out of bed. I'd slept in the Pepper's Convent, a Victorian structure that was split in four pieces, trucked 600 kilometers to wine country, and painstakingly restored there. It's an enchanting place to stay for a night.

I followed the vines outside to neighboring Pepper Tree Wines, where Luke Watson emerged from his winery in baggy jeans and a t-shirt. He has a boyish face that would probably get him carded in a stateside bar, and he's one of Australia's promising young winemakers.

"I was going to go into the mines to be honest," he said, "but then I did a few vintages, and decided to stick with it in a winery." Watson explained that the Hunter was characterized by winemakers emulating older styles of winemaking. But they're young, and they're putting their own stamp on the Australian industry.

"The biggest problem is that we just don't have enough wine," he explained, as we tried wines from across Australia that he makes in that location. I liked the reds from the Hunter best, and I confessed.

"Yeah, they're pretty good. But we sell most of it down the road in Sydney. The rest of the world doesn't see too much of this--maybe that's what sets it apart."