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Seeing red

Shiraz and the Barossa go hand-in-hand; like Central Otago and pinot noir or Marlborough and sauvignon blanc. But what makes the wines world-class and is the South Australian region more than a one-grape wonder?

As a Kiwi visiting South Australia's famous Barossa Valley the first thing you realise is how young our own wine history is. As well as being home to some of Australia’s most famous wineries, the Barossa is also home to its oldest with some stretching back six generations. The histories of these wineries is important, not just for the depth of experience but, more crucially, the age of their vines. In the mid 19th century an outbreak of phylloxera (an aphid-like bug) all but destroyed Europe’s vineyards, leaving the shiraz, cabernet sauvignon, grenache and mataro (or mourvedre) vines of the Barossa as the oldest in the world.

The vines, particularly shiraz, thrived in the Barossa’s fairly Continental climate, and this unique ability to draw from old vines producing small concentrated fruit parcels led to the making of complex full-bodied red wines. The wines that put the region on the map can be a tad pricey for the average consumer – Penfolds Grange retails at more than $700 a bottle – but all the Barossa’s key wineries create beautiful shiraz for all price points.

What should I expect it to taste like?

Originally Australian shiraz, including those from the Barossa, made its name as a full-bodied wine, high in alcohol with plenty of smooth tannins. These days, winemakers such as Yalumba’s Kevin Glastonbury are pulling back from that style, picking grapes earlier to create wines that are a little more sophisticated and lighter on the palate. Generally shiraz offers black cherry, plum, black pepper, liquorice, and dark chocolate flavours.

What can I drink it with?

Again it will vary winery to winery but hearty meat stews, game and chocolate are all good places to start.

Is there more to the Barossa and South Australia than shiraz?

Absolutely. The region also produces world-class cabernet sauvignon, grenache and mataro. But it’s not just about reds either. Chardonnay and viognier are also widely planted in the region and the neighbouring Eden Valley has earned international recognition for its rieslings. On that note it’s also worth remembering that the Barossa Valley is just one of 18 different wine regions in South Australia, producing the full spectrum of wine varieties from familiar favourites such as chardonnay, malbec and merlot to less well known European varieties such as petit verdot and sangiovese.

If you venture further south near the border with Victoria you’ll find yourself in Coonawarra, which as well as shiraz is making a name for itself with cabernet sauvignon.

Luke Skeer, winemaker for Wynns Coonawarra Estate says the region’s cool, maritime climate makes it perfect for cabernet sauvignon’s longer growing season. Although he says the shiraz is pretty good too, just different to their Barossa cousins – not as full or rich; more elegant. For drinking now he recommends Wynns Siding Cabernet Sauvignon.

He adds that great whites are some of Coonawarra’s hidden treasures. “We’ve been making riesling since the 1970s and chardonnay since 1982. When people come in for a tasting and say they want to start with the shiraz or the cabernet, we’ll try and urge them to try the whites too. They’re always pleasantly surprised.”

Which ones should I buy?

As well as Penfolds, large wineries such as Wolf Blass, Jacob’s Creek and Yalumba all have a large range of great quality shiraz readily available in New Zealand from Liquorland. Here are some great ones to try.

Everyday affordable wines:

  • Penfolds Koonunga Hill Range – Shiraz and Shiraz Cabernet
  • Wolf Blass Yellow Label Shiraz
  • Jacob’s Creek Reserve Shiraz

Specialty wines:

  • Penfolds Bin 389 Cabernet Shiraz (commonly known as Baby Grange)
  • Wolf Blass Gold Label Shiraz
  • Saltram Mamre Brook Shiraz
  • Jacob’s Creek Centenary Hill Shiraz
  • The People’s Shiraz
  • VNO Shiraz

Generally speaking the vintages to look out for in stores now are the 2010 and 2012, both considered exceptional vintages thanks to good amounts of rain over the winter, leading to lush healthy vines and early picking.

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