Top Kiwi shiraz leaves international competitors in the shade
SHIRAZ seems to have followed me like a shadow in the past eight weeks, the most interesting occasion being a blind tasting of 24 highly rated wines from Australia, New Zealand, the US (California) and France, each country with six representatives from the 2005 or 2006 vintages.
There was a distinct feeling of deja vu when the identities of the wines were revealed. The first, third, seventh and 11th-placed wines all came from the Gimblett Gravels sub-region of Hawkes Bay in NZ. The feeling intensified when Craggy Range Le Sol and Trinity Hill Homage Syrah, both ’ 06s, were first and third, backed up by seventh equal ’ 06 Unison Syrah and 11th equal ’ 06 Villa Maria Gimblett Gravels Selection Syrah.
The consistency of the exceptional quality of the Le Sol and Homage wines in the past four years puts beyond doubt the entitlement of the Gimblett Gravels to be ranked as one of the great shiraz regions in the world. This rating is reinforced by the ever-widening range of Gimblett Gravels wineries with top-quality shiraz, as witnessed by this tasting.
The irony is that Hawkes Bay and Gimblett Gravels were for a long time seen as cabernet sauvignon and cabernet blend producers, with shiraz a slightly eccentric oddity. It causes trans-Tasman blood pressure on the Australian side to rise knowing it was the worldwide success of Australian shiraz that led to the follow-the-leader chase by winemakers in all the other key wine-producing countries of the world (other than France’s northern Rhone Valley). The Gimblett Gravels wines share singularly bright and intense fruit expression, a spicy vibrancy that ripples across the typically long palate. These are elegant, mediumbodied wines that seem to effortlessly capture all of the best features of cool-climate shiraz.
At the other end of the spectrum, the French wines — four from Cote Rotie, one from Hermitage (these five from the Rhone Valley) and one from the AlpesMaritimes (which had won an important award in France) — came equal 11th, 18th and then four of the last five places. It is true that 16 judges’ points being collated (and there being no discussion) compressed the average points for each wine, but most of the judges had considerable knowledge about the wines and styles of the northern Rhone Valley, and the outcome for the French wines was a bloodbath.
The Russian River sub-region of California’s Sonoma Valley is best known for its pinot noirs, reflecting its decidedly cool climate. But shiraz has insinuated itself here as quickly, and as convincingly, as in Hawkes Bay. The ’ 05 DuMol Jack Roberts-run Syrah (an idiosyncratic use of capital letters) is deep crimson, with potent, rich dark berry-plum aromas and a massive palate with multiple layers of inky, juicy black fruits. All it needs is time.
The ’ 05 Pax Lauterbach Hill Syrah has even better colour, with spicy black fruits and quality oak effortlessly achieving a dimension of aroma and flavour on a par with the DuMol, and in no particular need of patience. Three Australian wines followed, all from the ’ 06 vintage: Collector Reserve Shiraz and Yering Station Reserve Shiraz Viognier tied for fourth place. They were just in front of ’ 06 Shaw & Smith Shiraz, vivid crimson, with plum, spice and black cherry on a very intense and focused palate, which has great length and line.
Clonakilla Shiraz Viognier was ninth and Paringa Estate 14th. If it seems strange they didn’t fare better, their average scores (using the 20-point scale, not the 100) were 17.72 and 17.44 respectively, compared with 17.97 for Collector and Yering Station.
The last-placed Australian shiraz was the ’ 06 De Bortoli Yarra Valley Reserve, with an average of 17 points. I gave it 18.5 on the 20-point scale and used near-identical words to describe it as I did in the 2009 WineCompanion (where I gave it 96 points). It is an immaculately crafted wine with perfect line, length and flow courtesy of super-fine tannins. For inexplicable reasons, it polarised opinions: I was one of five judges who gave it 18.5, while others gave it a much lower rating. The take-home lessons are that Australia cannot rest on its shiraz laurels (the bad news) but that highquality shiraz is no longer an oddity (the good news), thus attracting wine lovers across the world.