Yarra Valley Shiraz/Syrah: a big thumbs up

With no Appellation Controllée system to dictate grape variety, viticulture and winemaking, it’s no holds barred for Australian winemakers.  Even if a region shows a particular affinity for a variety or two (take Chardonnay and Pinot Noir in the Yarra Valley), who’s to say alternative varieties might not be equally exciting?  Sure, it makes it harder to get a handle on regional typicity but, as long as the site suits the grape (I’m not advocating a return to the fruit salad vineyards of yore) and winemaking is sympathetic, then why not?

The word alternative might not spring to mind when the variety in question is Shiraz, Australia’s most planted grape, however, a new incarnation of the variety is being feted as never before in the in the Yarra Valley. Funnily enough, it owes much to Pinot Noir.

How so?  Exactly the same techniques behind De Bortoli’s Pinot Noir project (which started around 2001) are now being widely applied to Shiraz (or Syrah as it’s also called in the Yarra), and with great success.  As De Bortoli’s highly influential Chief Winemaker Steve Webber (dubbed “the Godfather” locally) points out, interest once came from co-fermenting Shiraz with Viognier but now it’s coming from whole bunch fermenting.  Foot stomping and open ferments too.

The outcome?  Perfumed, juicy wines, with the emphasis on fruit vibrancy not fruit sweetness, fruit tannin not (sweet) oak tannin.  For Webber, Syrah is the most exciting thing in the Yarra even if, he jokes, “the old boys think it’s Pinot.”

Here are my notes on my picks of the bunch.

De Bortoli Estate Syrah 2010

A deep colour with lifted, spicy, subtly green whole bunch notes on an enticingly perfumed nose and palate. Ready to rock and roll its soft, well integrated acidity makes for a really juicy, drinkable wine with silky tannins and ultra fluid white pepper edged blood plum, black cherry and berry.  It’s a Bistro wine, says Webber, for people who love drinking wine with food.  Delicious now and for mid-term drinking.

Punt Road Chemin Shiraz 2010

The Chemin label is for Punt Road’s small batch wines.  It sees 100% whole bunch ferment and a bit of foot stomping.  Though it’s a little stalkier than the De Bortoli, it shares the same lively, juicy immediacy and (black berry and plum) fruit vibrancy.  Good.

Innocent Bystander Mea Culpa Syrah 2010

The Mea Culpa range is small batch.  This maiden Syrah is 100% whole bunch fermented.  A juicy core of dark cherry and blackberry is multi-nuanced with spice, dried herbs, and talc (?!?).  Firm tannins give spine to its long, earthy (Pinot Noir reminiscent) finish.  Good.

Payne’s Raise Redlands Shiraz 2010

From a relatively cool site at 200m in Seville, the Upper Yarra Valley, this Shiraz sports a complex nose with earth, charcuterie, stems and spice.  In the mouth, juicy black fruits come to the fore.  Finishes long with an exciting thread of Szechuan pepper spice.  Very good.

Luke Lambert Reserve Syrah 2010

The 100% whole bunch fermented Reserve hails from a block at the crest of the hill of the St. Andrews vineyard in Dixons Creek , which has bonier, rockier soils than Lambert’s first tier Syrah and produces smaller bunches.  The latter (40% whole bunch picked) comes from a warmer site, closer to the valley floor and, though I enjoyed its savouriness, the fruit wasn’t as well defined or as fresh as the Reserve – Lambert says he’d not pick it as late again.  The Reserve, on the other hand, is resplendently spicy and direct, with a lively edge of tannin (a sense of fruit skins even) and acidity to its black pepper threaded fruit.  There’s a sweet note of cinnamon but an earthiness too.  Very good.

Mayer Big Betty Shiraz 2010

Though firm, tensile tannins lie beneath, Timo Mayer’s 40% whole bunch, foot trodden, single vineyard Shiraz positively saturates the palate with bright and juicy spice-licked black berry and cherry fruit.  A touch of glycerol oils the wheels but, aged in old oak, it finishes long and reassuringly dry.

Jamsheed La Syrah 2011

Gary Mills’ inter-regional blend augments Yarra Valley fruit with old vines fruit from the Pyranees. This junior wine, which he describes as “a cheap quaffing Ardeche style” is where he “seasons” his new oak.   It sees 35% new oak (all puncheons) and, with 80% whole bunch, combines charcuterie (smoky oak) notes with a lovely lift of white pepper spice to its fleshy, sappy even, red fruits and plum.  It’s wonderfully drinkable, savoury and digestable.  Classy quaffing and, to borrow again from Mr Webber, a great bistro wine!

Jamsheed Silvan Syrah 2010

Fruit is sourced from one of the coolest, latest ripening sites in the Upper Yarra (typically after ANZAC day on 25 April) and, though youthful, this 100% whole bunch fermented Syrah is expressive, intense and layered.  White pepper top notes bring delicacy and spice to its bass notes of savoury charcuterie and cool tang of clay.  Tannins are ripe but present.  Very good.

Oakridge 864 Syrah 2009

Deeply coloured, this brooding, spicy (liquorice) Syrah (100% whole berry) envelopes you in juicy black fruits and fleshier blood plum.  A long finish is teased out by ripe but present savoury tannins.  Lovely balance.  Good.

The Wanderer Shiraz 2010

Fruit is sourced from a 30 year old vineyard at Dixons Creek.  It’s got a lovely sweet spot of fruit with peony and pepper lift and a deft touch of green.   Elegantly threaded with tannins, it’s a very gentle, drinkable Shiraz, quite beautifully balanced.

Yarra Yering Underhill Shiraz 2004

Cutting edge back in the day, Yarra Yering relased the first commercial vintage of wine from the Yarra Valley since 1973, helping to kick start the Yarra’s renaissance.  Founder Dr Bailey Carrodus’ techniques are practised to this day but, these days, look cutting edge all over again!  Small batch fermentations (in 92 half ton tea chests, pictured) and use of stalks has always been de rigeuer.  This Shiraz comes from the Yarra’s last cool year before 2011.  Unlike 2011, it was also a dry year.  From a lower site near the winery, it’s savoury and gamy with a generous palate of dark fruits and liquorice, a touch of tar too.  A firm, cool sweep of tannins keeps it well in check, while a stemmy, green note adds edge.  Flavoursome.

Yarra Yering Dry Red 2 2006

This blend of Shiraz Viognier and Marsanne was first made in 2003 (when it also featured Mourvedre and Pinot Noir!)   Planted in the mid-80s, the Viognier must be among Australia’s oldest and, from a single vineyard/parcel, produces just a barrel and a half of wine.  If not one for the brett police (according to winemaker Paul Bridgeman, it’s “in the roaring 40s”), it’s a gorgeous wine.  Sensual and perfumed like a Cote Rotie, it reminds me why the northern Rhone region is sometimes referred to as the Rhone’s Burgundy, though its richness of fruit is distinctly Australian.  A soft swathe of tannins and beautifully integrated acidity carries a long and languid finish.  Very comfortable in its skin, which feeling it imparted to me as I slowly and contemplatively spun out my glass.

One Thousand Candles Red 2011

It seems fitting to finish up with this wine, the first from an ambitious new project spearheaded by Bill Downie (a key player in De Bortoli’s Pinot Noir project).  Also because it’s made from 90% Shiraz, 10% Pinot Noir.  A true synthesis of styles.  It’s pale but very bright, fresh and aromatic with tell tale spicy, stemmy whole bunch notes.  Spending a whole month on skins, it has a raw intensity to its crunchy, red berry fruit and textured tannins.  Very pure and precise in the mouth.  Very promising.

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