DRINK / Grapevine: Kathryn McWhirter on the versitile Aussies

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A wine said to smell of 'sweaty saddles' could only be Australian. It's straight out of a Monty Python sketch: 'This is a wine for hand-to-hand combat. It smells of sweaty saddles and dingo droppings.' Forget the latter, but 'sweaty saddles' used to be a widely used description of Australian Shiraz (the French Syrah of the northern Rhone). You may be relieved to hear that nowadays not many Aussie Shirazes smell like the top end of Ned Kelly's horse (although this interesting, leathery/animal flavour, still made occasionally in the Hunter Valley, can actually be delicious). But Shiraz grows all over Australia. It makes reds that range from cheap to Australia's dearest (Penfold's Grange at pounds 45 a bottle); from fullish, basic gluggers to fruity, rich reds in the hotter places and elegant, northern Rhone-like spicy-minty-raspberry-fruity reds in cooler areas. The best can age for up to 20 years, though they are delicious young and fruity.

Shiraz is often blended with Cabernet Sauvignon, whose mint and blackcurrant flavours mingle in well. 'Cabernet-Shiraz' or 'Shiraz-Cabernet' on the label indicates which is dominant. The best tend to be bott-led alone. Here are some of my favourites, with not a saddle in sight: *****1990 Eileen Hardy Shiraz, South Australia (pounds 8.99 Oddbins) is wonderful value, a lovely, fleshy red with rich blackberry fruit and unobtrusive tannin. But Shiraz can be nearly as delicious at far lower prices. ****1992 Leasingham Domaine Shiraz, Clare Valley (pounds 5.49 Oddbins) is firmer and leaner, but also yummy, with a flavour like blackcurrant boiled sweets, and a tarry streak.

And the price of ***1992 Peter Lehmann Vine Vale, Barossa Valley (pounds 3.99 Oddbins) is particularly stunning. This is dark, rich and smooth, less full but deliciously blackberry fruity. Other delightful, big, ripe Shirazes include ****1991 Kingston Estate Reserve Shiraz (pounds 9.99 in major Tesco stores), a huge but very gluggable wine with complex savoury, spicy, tarry and blackcurrant-fruity flavours, and van-illa oak; ****1991 St Hallett Old Block Shiraz, Barossa Valley (pounds 9.49 in major Tescos, pounds 8.49 King & Barnes of Horsham, pounds 9.49 Winecellars of London SW18), made from the estate's best grapes from the oldest vines, also rich, ripe, fleshy and complex, raspberry-flavoured and quite tannic. ***1991 Chapel Hill Shiraz, McLaren Vale (pounds 7.99 in major Tescos, also at the Australian Wine Centre) has dark, rich, mulberry, blackberry and plum fruit and lots of soft tannin; ****1991 Mitchelton Print Label Victorian Shiraz (pounds 9.99 Oddbins) has raspberry and blackberry fruit, and toffeed complexity.

Also delicious in a leaner style is the concentrated, blackberry and treacle-flavoured ****1990 Willow's Vineyard Shiraz, Barossa Valley (pounds 7.49 Australian Wine Centre). ***1989 Wolf Blass President's Selection Shiraz, South Australia (pounds 8.99 Oddbins) is more Rhone-like, firmer and slightly farmyardy, figgy and at-tractive. ***1988 David Traeger Shiraz, Victoria (pounds 6.99 Australian Wine Centre) is firm and aromatic, with raspberry fruit and a minty overtone. And ****1991 Wynns Michael Shiraz, Coonawarra (pounds 14.99 Oddbins) is firm and dark, peppery and concentrated and quite tannic.

THE Australian Wine Centre has the biggest range of Australian wines in Britain, including lots of exclusive ones and small producers'. At the end of the year they will close their shop beneath South Australia House in the Strand and concentrate on mail order (keeping their current Freephone number, 0800 716893). Good buys at the moment include ***1993 Chapel Hill Eden Valley Riesling (pounds 6.49, also Bottoms Up), a very aromatic, floral white with tangy citrus acidity, exotic ripe fruit flavours and a hint of toast. ***1993 Tim Adams Clare Valley Riesling (pounds 7.99) needs keeping for five years; mouth-filling but quite delicate, dry, full-bodied, limey, it's too young yet. ***1993 Best's Western Dolcetto (pounds 6.99) is a rare Australian example of the light, aromatic Dolcetto grape of north-west Italy. This is a delicious, red with plummy fruit and hints of mint, chocolate and almond. ***1992 St Hallett Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot (pounds 6.99) is a big, ripe wine with complex flavours of blackcurrant, grass and mint. ***1991 Delatite Devil's River Cabernet Merlot (pounds 7.49 Australian Wine Centre, pounds 6.99 major Tescos) is very minty, light and aromatic.

*****outstanding ****superb; ***ex-cellent; **very good; *good