Australian Shiraz – a noble beast

Wise words from the late, great Len Evans

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The late Len Evans, one of Australia's greatest wine ambassadors

The late Len Evans, one of Australia's greatest wine ambassadors [©]


Some many years ago the late Gerard Jaboulet was my guest for luncheon, and we tasted quite a few of the best shiraz wines that came from Australia. 'They are marvellous, he said. 'They are extraordinaire. Please keep them here, I do not want the competition.'

What fun he was, and how gracious. I had long been a huge fan of his wines, buying, among others, quantities of '61 la Chapelle in the '70s for only dollars. (Thank heavens we drank them all and didn't make a fortune out of them). One thing we agreed to at the time was that very old Rhone Syrahs and Hunter Hermitages (our name then for shiraz, which is our name now for syrah), tasted very like each other, and could be confused quite easily.

Shiraz had long been the workhorse of Australia. At one time we had more of it planted then any other variety, and we had more of it than anywhere else in the world. It was used for red, 'port' – both vintage and tawny – for rose and for sparkling burgundy. Even, during one infamous period of what was our version of the White Australia policy, a particularly tasteless form of dry white. Little did we realise we owned a treasure trove.

Now the world has gone bonkers about Shiraz/Syrah, and rightly so, but it still doesn't sufficiently understand just how complex and delicious these wines can be, and how different.

The three main wine states (South Australia, Victoria and New South Wales) have made great Shiraz wines for many, many years, and they were different then.

I tasted, a couple of years back, a Maurice O'Shea Mount Pleasant Hunter 1944 which was labelled 'Light Dry Red'. Fifty-five years on, it had a magnificent perfumed bouquet – crushed violets, roses, mown hay, cinnamon – an intense and complex flavour, and a long sustained structure.

On the other hand, the wines made in northeastern Victoria were renowned for their ferruginous ferocity. 'Ah' said a Frenchman tasting a dry red, 'is this what you call port?' Another taster claimed they were big enough to have by themselves for dinner. Yet another added, 'No, they are a three-course meal, wine to go with it, and a good cigar'. Little wonder then Alan Bailey, a famous maker, used to open his bottles 24 hours before consumption.

Not too many hundred miles away, in the same State, Colin Preece of Great Western fame made wines that were much lighter, though still full bodied, and were of great style, the secondary flavours produced (yes, we had terroir even then) being quite extraordinary. And a chap called Max Schubert was playing with the variety and maturing it in new oak at a place called Grange.

Forty years ago one could buy the great old wines, going back to the '30s, amazingly cheaply. Indeed, part of the luck of this writer is that he experienced so many great wines then, from Shiraz, that this led to an enthusiasm which helped push Australian wine consumption from the doldrums of the mid-'60s to the red wine boom of the late '60s.

Today, things have changed. We see these great old stagers but rarely. Wine today is enjoyed so early in its life that the majority of it goes before any real secondary flavours emerge. This helps develop a pat recognition of what Australian Shiraz is, perhaps typified by the wines of McLaren Vale and the Barossa. Wines of huge colour, great fruit impact, lovely, soft, rich, luscious almost, with soft tannins and a lingering finish.

In my mind's eye, I picture a graph for the structure of various varieties. Some Australian Chardonnays are like Picasso's bull – all head and shoulders (fruit and power), with very lean flanks (no finish).

Cabernet Sauvignon is a Big Dipper, a switch back, with the famous hole appearing after the middle which then rears to a big tannic finish, all impact, breathless, out of control. A great le Montrachet is the longest wine in the world, the oenological Long White Cloud, and so on.

And Shiraz is Uluru – huge, solid, even, long, soft, round, yet brooding and majestic.

But there's not just one Australian Shiraz wine style. There are so many different structures within the same structure, so many flavour characteristics that may be there, sometimes dominant, often part of a joyous blend. Flavours include: licorice, chocolate, mint, pepper, cinnamon, nutmeg, farmyard, leather, earth, sweaty saddle, rose, violets, hawthorn, and many others. Some older wines smell like the inside of a lady's handbag, others of tilled old soil. All fascinate.

Come taste the difference. If there are 72 different wine areas in Australia, (there well may be more, I was away last week) there are 72 different styles of Shiraz, and maker divisions within each style, and divisions within each maker.

Sufficient to say that there is a tremendous amount of good wine being made, from Grange to very good reds from recognised irrigation areas.

The world of winelovers now demands the lovely, cuddly, open, honest, generous wines made from shiraz. Happily Australia has at last realised that this great workhorse is in fact a noble beast.


Reproduced with permission from the Winepros Archive. First published 30 August 2001.

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August 30th, 2001
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