A while back a great friend came to dinner and produced an Australian Shiraz – the 2003 Wyndham Estate Black Cluster Shiraz, from the Hunter Valley in New South Wales. We don't drink much Australian Shiraz in our house for the simple reason that many of the wines are too powerful for our taste, with alcohol levels that easily creep up above 15%. Well, we were in for a pleasant surprise.
As a wine educator and writer I get to taste an ample share of Aussie Shiraz. Overall I am a huge fan of Australian wine, but I find many of the Shiraz wines too extracted and alcoholic – especially at the higher price end. While the wines can have incredible flavor intensity and fruit concentration, more than a sip can easily overwhelm even the most robust of dishes.
So, as our friend poured forth on the deliciousness of the wine I cautiously scoured the label for the alcohol level. Imagine my surprise as I read the label on an alcohol level of 13.5%. It is a while since I saw such a low abv number on an Aussie Shiraz. As wine labels have to be printed often before the wine is finished, there is a half a percent leeway either way on the actual alcohol. But it was accurate, as I later verified from the wine's official technical analysis.
Wow, I exclaimed, now very eager to taste the wine. Delicious, it was very well balanced, packed with ripe plummy, blackberry and blueberry fruit. Aromas of fruit mingled with hints of coffee, smoke and wonderful spicy earthy leather. The palate was rich, not thick, but smooth. The modest alcohol was well balanced and the flavors were fresh and vivid, allowing the signature Hunter Valley earthiness to shine through. Evident oak was also well integrated and the finish was very long. Needless to say we finished the bottle.
Black Cluster is a full-bodied wine with lots of tannin, and so pairs well with most red meat. That night we enjoyed it with a rib-eye steak, simply seasoned and grilled, which we served with wilted Swiss chard with bacon, atop a generous dollop of creamy polenta. It would pair equally well with most cuts of steak, especially barbequed as well as char-grilled duck breast or rack of lamb.
Delighted with my 13.5% Shiraz find, I started to look at other Hunter Shiraz wines. Unfortunately, compared to the more well-known Barossa Valley or McLaren Vale regions, there are not as many Hunter Valley producers selling in the US. But I did find a few.
• 2007 Brokenwood, Hunter Valley Shiraz, 13.5% - Brokenwood is a well-known producer, whose wines I am familiar with. Like Black Cluster, while full-bodied, this wine showed elegance and restraint. Packed with ripe blackberry, peppery and savory Hunter earthiness, the texture was rich but wine was not overly extracted. Supple tannins with just the right firm grip were smooth. Very long, savory finish.
Another great Hunter producer is Tyrrells, whose Vat #9 Shiraz is worth picking up if you find it. All three of these wines are excellent examples of Australian Shiraz at only 13.5% abv
So, what is it that enables these producers to consistently make a Shiraz wine that is totally ripe, yet modest in alcohol. Is it a general Hunter Valley phenomenon? While regarded as hot, the Hunter Valley climate is certainly more humid and damp than the Barossa. Or, is it specific to the individual vineyards, or old vines? Eager to find out more I contacted Wyndham winemaker, Nigel Dolan and Brokenwood winemaker P.J. Charteris, who both explained that it is really a combination of many factors; the soil, the climate, the vintage conditions, ripeness at harvest and in particular the hundred plus year tradition within the Hunter of making a more medium-bodied, elegant style of Shiraz (with circa 13% abv), than is typically produced in other regions of Australia.
Many Australian wines get thrown a lot of flack for being blockbusters and alcoholic. True, it is a warm country, so alcohol levels will be high. But for the lower alcohol lovers out there, maybe this is your chance to try something Australian.
Unfortunately, Black Cluster, Brokenwood and Tyrrells are high-end wines and rather on the expensive side for everyday purchase – approximately $40 / bottle.
But for a special occasion, to gift or indeed to cellar, the splurge is definitely worth it.
During my search I did find one Hunter Valley producer that sells a Shiraz for $10. It is 2007 Hope Estate Shiraz. As I could not find it in NYC I have not tasted it or checked the label for the alcohol level. Technical details from their website show the wine at 13.5%. Another reasonably priced Hunter Valley Shiraz to look for is the 2007 Margan Shiraz, which sells for about $22 and is 14% abv. Both are fairly widely available (check locations on wine-searcher) around the country.
Until next week.
Mary Gorman-McAdams, DWS, is a New York based wine educator, freelance writer and consultant. She holds the Diploma in Wine & Spirits from the Wine and Spirits Education Trust (WSET), and is a candidate in the Master of Wine Program.
(Images: Mary Gorman and producer websites)