Signature South Australian Shiraz

Vineyard landscape, Barossa, South Australia (1)

I want to share a recent class experience that I found to be exceptionally interesting and rewarding.  It was a class about Australia’s signature wine, Shiraz.  If you want to see what we covered about South Australian Shiraz and some of its top regions, producers, and viticulture including old vines, this is for you.  We’ll include some other aspects, touch on aging Shiraz, and also cover the tasting.

The class, South Australian Shiraz: Iconic and Age Worthy, was conducted at the San Francisco Wine School with students and the class leader in the classroom, and also tuning in remotely.  Mark Davidson, Wine Australia’s Head of Education, acted as moderator.  A couple of notable Australian winemakers, whose wines were included in the tasting, joined adding virtual comments and content.  Although the pandemic has been unfortunate event, some good has resulted.  The resulting impetus towards virtual meetings and education provides valuable greater reach.

Aged Wine
Consider for a moment young versus older wines.  Young wines exhibit more fresh fruit character while aged wines tend to embody subtle, more complex attributes.  Both are great and it gets down to personal preference.  Let’s see what the presenters and winemakers said about aged wine.

McLaren Vale, South Australia (3)

Mark assures us that many wines from Australia and California age longer than we might expect, and that since 2010 many wines are under screw cap further enhancing their life span. Ian Hongell, the winemaker at Torbreck whose wines are included in this class, believes we don’t drink or celebrate aged wine sufficiently for our own edification, pleasure, and in order to continue advancing our wine education.  Ian suggests, Drink more old wine!

Mark continues, both warm and cool Australian climates produce iconic and age worthy Shiraz, the best of which can reach half a century in age.  Some report wines aged 70 years and still in quality condition.

Freshly picked Shiraz grapes in McLaren Vale (1)

Mark advises that to find top Shiraz try Barossa Valley, Hunter Valley, and McLaren Vale.  As Shiraz ages, he says to expect the following aromas, tastes, and character –
1 year – powerful dark or black fruit, plums, and blackberries
5 years – the wine develops earthy, savory complexity
10 years – retaining the aforementioned, tobacco notes
appear with savory leather, and smooth tannins
20 years – smooth and mellow cedar, saddle leather, forest
floor, stronger tobacco yet still retaining vibrancy and a drop of red fruit

The 11 Shiraz wines tasted in this class were produced mainly in the warm climate regions of Clare Valley, Barossa Valley, Eden Valley, Adelaide Hills, and McLaren Vale.

Ian Hongell, Torbreck winemaker (1)

Winemaker Discussions
Two Australian winemakers whose wines were featured in this class provide insight and expertise that only a winemaker could.  To be sure, these fellows know their stuff!  Chester Osborn is one, a fourth-generation proprietor and winemaker at D’Arenberg in McLaren Vale.  Chester’s Great Grandfather founded d’Arenberg in the early 1900s.  The other is Ian Hongell, winemaker at highly regarded Torbreck Vintners.  Ian has worked at wineries around the globe including making wine in France, Germany, California and is the former chief winemaker at the esteemed Peter Lehman Winery in Australia.  Mark gave a meaningful compliment to both of them, calling their Shiraz some of the most classic that is available, especially in terms of structure.

Chester Osborn, Proprietor and winemaker at D’Arenberg, McLaren Vale (1)

Mark asked Chester what he saw as the differences, if any, in the aged wines of Barossa Valley versus McLaren Vale.  Chester suggested some geologic differences between the two areas, noting that limestone and sandstone are good contributors to age worthy Shiraz.  He mentioned the top end of the Fleurieu Peninsula that McLaren Vale is situated on as having moderate temperature.  Nights are cool due to the mountain range nearby and the Southern Ocean only 30 minutes distant, promoting retention of acidity in the grapes.  The climate’s nocturnal coolness, and also Chester’s relatively early picking preferences reduce the probability of shriveled berries and potential for oxidized, tarry wines.  “Were still drinking wines from the 60s, without lots of age; they’re still drinking good.”  Chester described these wines as spicy with red fruits and having good length.

Wines aging in oak casks at Penfolds (1)

The conversation moved to oak, which is tied to aging.  Historically the Australian producers of Shiraz employed American oak for élevage.  But they have shifted choice, not finding fault with American oak, but for stylistic reasons.  Many are employing French oak, which shows vanilla in its youth and can also enhances the wine’s fruit character.    The wines tasted here are biased mainly with French oak to promote fruit, and less with US oak which lends a coconut character.

Vine block identifier, Torbreck, Barossa Valley (1)

The Character of Mint
Ian and Chester discussed mint character.  Wine polymerizes as it evolves, but intrinsically it will yield a eucalyptus-based compound, in one of various forms.  Many old vineyards demonstrate mint among their signatures.

Some clones of grape varietals display mint in their character which will always be there.  This means a spicy, savory, or herbal mint, but not Eucalyptus and is related to a wine’s herbal or leafy nature, which can enhance aging.

Mark brought in the concept of the aroma of eucalyptus trees being present in a vineyard’s air.  He maintained the aroma would also enter into the grapes.

Dead Arm Disease
Chester talked about the Dead Arm Disease, which occurs globally.  There are two parts to his story.  Chester showed several graphic images depicting the first part.  He related that after enjoying his Dead Arm wine and eventually deciding it’s sleep time, unfortunately sleep on your side with most of your weight resting on one arm.  When you awake, the arm feels numb, essentially dead.  We’ve all experienced a dead arm feeling.

In the scientific version of this tale, the Dead Arm Disease enters the vine through pruning cuts, moving slowly throughout the plant.  One of the two arms on the trellis usually fails first, but the grapes remain unaffected.  At that point, the soil and root system supplying nutrients haven’t changed.  Nutrients flow into fewer bunches of remaining grapes with less foliage requiring nutrients.  Clearly, good grapes and wine continue to result!

Mark asked if Chester generally sourced grapes for D’arenberg Dead Arm Shiraz from old vines.  Chester responded, “Fifteen percent is from vines that are about 30-year old vines, and they give a certain spiciness and vibrancy to the wine that is not as tannic or earthy as the older vineyard.  But they have to be very good vineyards that are 30-years old and go into this wine!  So they have a beautiful spicy and vibrant tannin and…lift-off   Then fifty percent is from vines that are around 50 to 60  years old, and they’ll be more geologically expressive… more earthiness or more rustic tannins … like length or more restrained characters that takes years to open up.  And then about thirty five percent is from vines that are 100 years up to about 130 years old, they’re obviously the most geologically expressive.  They’re very unique.  Each vineyard has a very unique character to it…Sometimes a vine looks so oaky, there’s so much tannin in there…and it hasn’t even been in any [oak vessel]…and they’re really quite interesting with leather-like notes in it…You always tend to have in the very old vineyards a certain black soot-like note that is really long and really earth-like that …smells like freshly dug earth… So it’s really interesting how the old vines work.”

The D’arenberg Cube

Mark inquired as to how Chester came upon his vision for the D’arenberg Cube.  Chester explained that initially he was planning to simply add to the 140 year old homesteads already on the winery estate.  But he also had a vision of an iconic building that would draw guest’s interest. Chester wanted something representing d’Arenberg, and what came to mind was an iconic puzzle.  His vision evolved to a massive Rubik’s Cube holding a wine tasting area.  Chester set forth on his project, bringing it to fruition and calling it the D’arenberg Cube.  It’s really a multi-storied fantasy structure sporting numerous attractions including 25 authentic Salvador Dali bronze sculptures and graphic artworks, videos of D’arenberg wine labels, and of course the numerous, uniquely named  D’arenberg wines to taste.  When asked if the floors rotate as in the Rubik’s Cube puzzel, Chester put the question to rest by informing that he ceased construction on the project after costs reached sixteen million dollars!

Questions and Answers
Tannin, Ian
Answering a winemaking question, Ian said he does not add tannin to Torbreck wine, and the only tannins in his wine come from the fruit and oak casks which are employed judiciously.  Ian’s wines tend to have very stable tannins which act as a preservation agent.  The feel of these tannins is quite rounded, not grainy or sharp, and effects a layering in the wine”…“The wine is created to have that longevity.”  The 2010 should just be starting to “come into its own”.  Mark added that the tannins in this 2018 are “sneaky”, not quite obvious, and it’s drinking beautifully right now.  Ian said all this indicates longevity, and suggested another gauge.  Open a bottle of Shiraz but make no pour and reinsert the cork.  Do this for four to five nights in succession, say five.  If you find the wine still inviting after this process, it’s likely to be long lived.

Aging, Ian
Ian responds to a related question, aging his wine.  All the major elements of wine, fruit, acidity, tannin, and alcohol are necessary for the wine to age successfully.  But he cautioned, “When the fruit’s gone, you really see the palate crack and dry out.”

Fruit, Ian
Mark inquired what Ian does to maintain fruit vibrancy without jeopardizing fruit richness.  Ian spoke to the importance of management of temperature, soil, and canopy, and even the time of day of picking, which shifts the fruit’s composition for processing.  He presented a parallel of biting into a sun-warmed apple versus a cold one.  What is captured for flavor is in the condition of the grape at the instant of crushing the grapes.

Shiraz vine (2)

Fruit Management, Ian
Ian had previously mentioned fruit management and the class inquired as to what he meant.  He explained that fruit management covers a wide range of activities and he began with grapevine yield.  Torbreck’s vineyards are cultivated to yield only a half-ton to one ton per acre.  The reason for such low yield is to achieve high quality fruit.  Low yield discourages the fruit from collapsing, shriveling, and vanishing.   It also permits more of the vines nutrients to concentrate in fewer berries making them more robust and their attributes more readily discernable.

The spacing of the vines in the vineyard is another important criterion.  Torbreck is planted with quite wide spacing, about 11 ½ ft row spacing by 8 ft between vines within each row.  Torbreck’s older vines may be spaced even wider, at 16-foot by 10-feet.  Vine spacing trends vary with time, location, and objective.  Wider spacing provides a greater volume of soil to draw nutrients from, and a larger potential canopy of leaves to provide protection from the sun, as well as sufficient vigor to get active vine leaves to bring the fruit to full maturation, all the while maintaining a ratio between fruit and green growth.

Torbreck’s fruit management includes a kaleidoscope of additional concerns and practices, of which some of the more important are east-west rows, mulch on the soil, friendly insects, and self-seeding crops between vine rows.  Ian said that at harvest he invests more of his time in the vineyard than in the cellar because he views the R&D lies among the vines.  He emphasizes, “The winemaking goes a lot easier once you get your fruit right.”

Ian noted that Torbrecks philosophy is to take the best of everything in what they do.  They call themselves sustainable, being a member of Sustainable Winegrowing Australia.  Torbreck grows grapes with minimal intervention and employs organic sprays and practices.  Ian emphasized that these practices define the content of Torbreck vineyards and wines, along with the best oak Torbreck can buy.

Old Vines, Ian
Responding to a question about the oldest vines employed in his wine The Factor, Ian answered that many date from about 1890, while Torbreck’s oldest vines were planted in 1858.  Their yield is meager at a half-ton to one ton per acre, and they are all dry-farmed.  Advocates of dry-farming say that such grapes are more intense, including their color and flavor, and that dry-farming demonstrates environmental responsibility.

Torbreck also grows Grenache and Mourvèdre, which do well in Torbreck’s climate and soils, along with the Shiraz.  “They’re the right grapes for our region, and they make these incredible wines…They’re hand pruned, handpicked, and dry grown, low or no irrigation.”  Ian continued explaining that the low yields produce wines of incredible power and concentration.  “It’s our style and what we do.”

Climate Change
On climate change, Ian mentioned that Australia is not only seeing greater high temperatures, but also lower cold ones , not to mention more or greater winds along with other weather changes.  Mark added that Australia has recently been planting more southern-Mediterranean varietals.

Comments on the Wines
Because this event is a class, and not a reviewing panel, a few comments will be noted, but not a full review.  These unique and intriguing South Australian Shiraz wines are of very high quality.  The wines clearly evidence the conscientiousness and care of passionate viticulturalists, winemakers, and proprietors.

The Wines
Penfolds Bin 28 Kalimna 2018 Shiraz

Penfolds Bin 28 Kalimna 2010 Shiraz

Wakefield St Andrews 2017 Shiraz Clare Valley

Wakefield St Andrews 2013 Shiraz Clare Valley

d’Arenberg The Dead Arm 2018 Shiraz McLaren Vale

d’Arenberg The Dead Arm 2010 Shiraz McLaren Vale

Kay Brothers Hillside 2017 Shiraz McLaren Vale

Kay Brothers Hillside 2010 Shiraz McLaren Vale

Torbreck The Factor 2018 Shiraz. Barossa Valley

Torbreck The Factor 2010 Shiraz. Barossa Valley

Seppeltsfield Para 21 Year Old Tawny 1999 Vintage

Tasting Comments –

Penfolds is located in Magill and Barossa Valley, South Australia.  Their vineyard was established at Magill Estate in 1844.  Penfolds created the Shiraz red blend eventually to be called Grange.  Initially, Penfold’s sourced grapes for this Shiraz from one vineyard called Kalimna .  More recently, the wine is composed of a blend from several vineyards.

Penfolds Bin 28 Kalimna 2018 Shiraz

The author.  This 2018 from Penfolds demonstrates good tension and the impact of ripe, savory fruit with hints of dried cherry and date.  Demonstrates a lithe carriage and refined tannins.

Penfolds Bin 28 Kalimna 2010 Shiraz
The author.  Black-purple in color, nose of menthol and earth, mid-weight with heaps of extract.

Wakefield St Andrews
Based in Clare Valley, South Australia.  Now in their third generation of wine producing, the proprietors are Justin, Mitchell, Clinton, and Bill Taylor

Wakefield St Andrews 2017 Shiraz Clare Valley
Chester.  Tannic seaweed, menthol, and mint.

The author.   Bright, focused, spicy herbal exotic menthol-mint with a note of oak.

Wakefield St Andrews 2013 Shiraz Clare Valley
The author.  Delivers lightly coating, fine grained tannins, black fruit, and refreshing acidity.

The D’Arenberg winery,  named after a one of proprietor Chester’s family  ancestors, is situated in McLaren Vale, South Australia.  Chester’s Great Grandfather, Joseph Osbourn, founded d’Arenberg early in the 20th century.  After making wine at several wineries around the globe, Chester took charge in 1984.  D’Arenberg is fully certified organic and is one of the largest biodynamic growers in Australia.  Some of the major attractions at the D’Arenberg winery are the D’Arenberg Cube, Chester the entertainer, and of course the wines.  Their unique names are an extravaganza in themselves: The Footbolt Shiraz, The Sticks & Stones, The Laughing Magpie, The Stump Jump, and The Twenty-Eight Road Mourvèdre.

D’Arenberg The Dead Arm 2018 Shiraz McLaren Vale
Ian Hongell.  Dark fruit and chocolate, quite expressive. This is a big wine made to cellar.

Class.  Chocolate-cherries.

The author.  Dark ruby in color.  Nose of subdued Damson Plum and juniper.  Mocha on the palate.

D’Arenberg The Dead Arm 2010 Shiraz McLaren Vale
Class.  Showing expressively.  Spicy fruit, bright with notes of pepper and soy sauce.  Earthy wine with damp evergreen, forest fern,  It’s really fun.

David, instructor.  Very fruity on the finish.

Mark.  Notes of dark chocolate. The pepperiness that may be recognized in Shiraz comes from rotundone

Chester.  Dark spectrum fruit and chocolate-cherries, opulent and prominent forest-earth.

Ian.  Beautiful layers of structured tannin along with the fruit.  The alcohol and tannin are preservatives.

The author.  Ruby and brick in color with a violet meniscus.  Aromas of forest floor, juniper, and earth.  Complex palate delivering spicy bright fruit.  Long, juicy, and well structured with mild tannins.  Note that rotundone is in the sesquiterpene family, and traces of pepper in wine are often slight.

Kay Brothers
The Kay Brothers Estate resides in McLaren Vale and dates from the 1870s.  Fruit is sourced from various estate sites with diverse soils.  Soils include dark loam and clay with quartz over limestone, sandy loam over limestone, and sandstone.  Grapes are handpicked, fermentation is open vat, and basket-presses are employed.  The aging regime is 20 months American and French oak.

During Mark’s visit to the Kay Brothers, he found memorabilia that had been preserved, such as an old grocery list which he perused.  Outdoors on the estate he saw farm animals including horses and hens .

The Kays are no stranger to Chester Osborne, their neighbor, and Chester’s Grandad, arriving in Australia in 1891, was their golfing partner.  Chester noted the Kay’s are tuned into the quality aspect of wines, initiating a successful quality campaign in the late 90s.  He mentioned the sandstone in the Kay’s soil lending earthiness and variety to the tannins.

Kay Brothers Hillside 2017 Shiraz McLaren Vale
Class.  Gorgeous fruit, notes of hoisin sauce.

Mark.  Shows gorgeous, with lovely, restrained fruit from a cool vintage.

David, instructor.  Seconds restrained fruit and finds bright acidity and tannin.  Showing gobs of fruit and spice.

Chester.  This cool vintage is not tannic and is early-drinking. It’s aging gracefully and opening slowly.

The author.  Vivid, deep purple with hues of ruby and brick.  An agile wine delivering caramel-blueberry compote with dark chocolate in a concentrated palate with viscosity.

Kay Brothers Hillside 2010 Shiraz McLaren Vale

Mark.  The 2010 is quite developed.

Class, Aromatic lift, a very interesting wine, copious fruit.

The author.  Ripe, laser-focused, opulent fruit lifted by the refreshing acidity.  A well cut and polished aged wine displaying great purity.

At this point Chester, being Down Under in Australia in another time zone, had to exit for what sounded like an ideal dinner engagement with some fellow vintners.  Mark asked if the dinner would be at Chester’s D’Arenberg restaurant, calling it one of the best in Australia.  Chester informed that no, but at a restaurant on a McLaren Vale cliff top he described as overlooking the sea.  He noted “There will be some good McLaren Vale reds, I’m sure.”

Torbreck is located in Marananga, South Australia, selling in 48 countries around the globe. Founded by David Powell, and named after a Scottish forest, Torbreck owns several highly regarded vineyards including Marananga-based Gnadenfrei which supplies grapes for their wine The Laird, among the highest priced wines in Australia, whose current 2016 vintage is available for $800.

Ian, Torbreck’s winemaker, commented that the architecture of Torbreck‘s winemaking as well as the élevage was virtually the same in 2010 as it was in 2017, his first vintage at Torbreck.

Ian explained his wine.  The Factor pushes the boundaries of what fruit can do.  Three years in the French oak used for aging here not only builds structure, but assists with texture and tension on the palate.  Four key vineyards provide grapes for The Factor, the oldest vines being on sand and sticky, black Biscay clay, red ironstone, and red loams over limestone.

Torbreck The Factor 2018 Shiraz. Barossa Valley
The author.  The Factor for vintage 2018 is truly an organic, seamless entity and a tutorial in detaining.  Brilliant ruby and dark cherry and in color with inky black-purple hues.  Nose of dark chocolate and dark fruit with hints of tobacco leaf and earth.  Delivers immediate impact with the intense, high extract, rich sweet fruit, and a saber of acidity slicing through.  On the palate blackberry jam, chocolate cherry, fig, and dried cherry.   A polished wine with very fine grained, structuring tannins.

Torbreck The Factor 2010 Shiraz. Barossa Valley
The author.  For vintage 2010, The Factor is an archetype for aged wine.  Vivid ruby with brick hues.  The delineation of attributes is outstanding in this twelve-year old as each has significance and connects to the others by complimenting or contrasting.  Intense and pungent dark chocolate, tobacco leaf, and chocolate cherries all energized by the acid level.  Silky, supple and concentrated displaying a pleasing tension.

Built in 1878, Seppeltsfield is located in Seppeltsfield, South Australia and incorporates a gravity flow cellar.  Visitors to the winery can taste their birth year vintage.  The Para 21 Year Old Tawny 1999 Vintage we are tasting is composed of Grenache, Shiraz, Mourvèdre, and possibly some unspecified varietals.   Mark complimented the Australians on continuing to produce fortified wines.  

Seppeltsfield Para 21 Year Old Tawny 1999 Vintage
The author.  Brilliant and clear amber in color with orang and golden hues.  The hallmarks of this Tawney are elegance, delineation, and expression.  Offers an intense palate of toasted walnuts, coffee, butterscotch, caramel, flan, and dried apricots. – more like an artist’s palette.  A light weight with suppleness, balance, length, plentiful tears down the glass, vibrant lifting acidity, polish, and impact.  This is a fortified wine with alcohol at 20%.

Photo credits
1. Wine Australia
2. Andre Castelluci
3. Tim Jones, Wine Australia

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