by James Halliday
Shiraz is, and always has been, the most important red grape (hence red wine) in Australia. It arrived as part of the James Busby Collection in 1832 , the cuttings coming from the Hill of Hermitage, the most celebrated site in the northern Rhone Valley of France. It is grown in every one of Australia’s wine regions, successfully migrating from its traditional bastions in the warm regions such as the Barossa, Hunter and Swan Valleys to the coolest such as the Macedon Ranges and Tasmania, and every climate in between these extremes. Penfolds Grange is its flagbearer, but there are literally hundreds of world class wines made year in, year out.
If there is a question mark over the myriad of styles, it is the level of alcohol in some of the best known wines from the Barossa Valley and McLaren Vale, often coming from vines well over 100 years old. More specifically, alcohol between 15% and 16.5% is no longer favoured by the majority of consumers here and overseas. But it is a question that has a long way to run. Likewise, many of these Barossa wines are moving from French to American oak, but not Grange — and this is not a case of the king wearing no clothes.
For a time in the late 1980s to mid ‘90s, it seemed the plantings of cabernet sauvignon might surpass those of shiraz, but that possibility has been contemptuously shrugged off by shiraz, and there is no chance of it being revisited in the future. Moreover, while cabernet is grown in most regions, it is most convincing in moderately cool parts of the country,struggling in the coolest and warmest regions. Currently it is not being given the attention it deserves, but once the tumult has subsided, it will be recognised as one of the greatest of all red grapes/wines.
Merlot, which in Bordeaux, the Napa Valley and Margaret River has been twinned with cabernet sauvignon, had a meteoric rise in Australia between 1996 and 2005, its tonnage rising from 1920 to 132,000 tonnes,but has suffered far more than cabernet sauvignon. Few merlots receive gold medals in wine shows, and none do so consistently, The paradox is that demand has kept merlot in a secure third place because it is soft and easy to drink – cabernet without the pain.
Pinot noir, by contrast, is enjoying huge demand. Ask any sommelier in a restaurant with a serious wine list which variety comes second after shiraz and the answer will almost certainly be pinot noir This, despite the gulf in plantings between it and merlot and cabernet sauvignon. The reason more is not planted is that pinot noir is merciless in its demand for suitable climate and soil, or terroir. There is no second prize for pinot from a less than perfect climate, whereas there is with merlot and cabernet sauvignon.
NEXT: Read James' article, Alcohol content in red wines