Big Red: Australia’s Top 25 Shiraz

Posted on Aug 7, 2019

Big Red is a sand dune outside Birdsville that guards the border of the Simpson Desert.

It has an “easy” side that tempts four wheel drivers casually wondering whether their vehicle is up the task of crossing over the 30m lump and into the world’s largest sand dune desert.

But, like Hotel California, Big Red’s steeper western side seems to slope so that “you can never leave”.

So it is with Australia’s big red grape – shiraz. Local winemakers hoping to distinguish themselves from Australia’s 2500 other producers with new varieties and styles soon find they can’t escape the massive gravitational pull of shiraz. It is Australia’s single biggest variety by far and accounts for nearly a quarter of the national crush.

But, far more importantly, it is also the nation’s most profitable. The 418,000 tonnes of shiraz crushed in Australia this year account for nearly a third of the industry’s $1.2 billion national wholesale value. Although red grapes generally outperform their white counterparts by value anyway, shiraz’s further outperformance is partly explained by the industry’s heaviest weighting to premium grape pricing at $600+/tonne. Shiraz grapes command more than 85 per cent of their total volumes at these prices whereas Australia’s top white grape by volume – chardonnay – can only capture them for 12 per cent of their crush.

Wine show scores follow the money.

Shiraz is by far the single largest segment of the Australian wine show circuit. Last year the 3048 shiraz labels exhibited around the country accounted for more than 7700 of the total 41,000 scores accumulated by those shows (19%). That compares with the next biggest segment – chardonnay – which numbered 5043 scores across 1846 different labels in 2018 (12% of all scores).

A recent magazine survey of shiraz suggested that the grape’s sheer ubiquity was leading to increasingly diverse styles as winemakers sought to differentiate their offerings. This observation has been somewhat simplified over the years into a contest between “cool” and “warm” climate styles with the former firmly in the ascendant.

The general proposition is that warm climate shiraz tends to represent a bigger, riper and possibly oakier style reminiscent of more traditional winemaking approaches while cool climate shiraz tends more towards medium-bodied, fruit-forward and juicy wines.

However this polarity is not as obvious at the judging table.

Specialist wine show “The Great Australian Shiraz” is a good prism through which to view the debate. Matching the 31 wines to which the show awarded gold medals (out of 313) to critics’ notes, descriptions of medium-bodied wines (“light weight”, “reserved and shy”, “soft-textured”, “easy-drinking” and “supple”) were far outweighed by wines which attract descriptions such as “full-bodied and deep”, “hearty”, “a full-bodied red with dark, almost tar-like fruit”, “intense” and “concentrated”.

A quick survey of the most awarded shiraz in Australia as compiled by us confirms this observation. Our top wine, a premium McLaren Vale label, was variously described as “a bold, chocolatey wine” with “very deep, bold, concentrated purple/red colour” and “rich (and) porty… awash with boysenberry and bitumen”. Not much cool climate restraint there.

Wine show judges assessed 7705 shiraz exhibits last year. These are the top 25 labels:

1 Shingleback D Block Reserve McLaren Vale Shiraz 2014
2 Jim Barry Lodge Hill Clare Valley Shiraz 2016
3 Blue Pyrenees Richardson Shiraz 2013
4 De Bortoli Woodfired Heathcote Shiraz 2017
5 Nugan Cookoothama Shiraz 2015
6 Shingleback D Block Reserve McLaren Vale Shiraz 2015
7 Pinnacle Drinks Avon Brae Moculta Eden Valley Shiraz 2016
8 Houghton The Bandit Shiraz 2015
9 Taltarni “Estate” Shiraz 2016
10 Taylors Shiraz 2017
11 Battle Of Bosworth Shiraz 2017
11 Jacob’s Creek Johann Barossa Shiraz 2015
11 Mitchelton Single Vineyard Shiraz 2015
11 Zilzie “Estate” Shiraz 2018
15 Houghton Thomas Yule Frankland River Shiraz 2015
16 Redman Shiraz 2015
17 Coriole Redstone Shiraz 2017
18 Saltram Mamre Brook Shiraz 2016
19 Orlando Lawson’s Padthaway Shiraz 2013
20 Bird in Hand Syrah 2016
21 Leasingham Classic Clare Shiraz 2015
22 Montalto “Pennon Hill” Shiraz 2017
23 McWilliam’s McW 660 Reserve Canberra Syrah 2016
24 Lake Breeze Section 54 Shiraz 2016
25 Kaesler Clare Wine Co Shiraz 2016

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