Yes, syrah and Australian shiraz is one and the same grape. But it doesn't do Australia any favours to keep referring back to the northern Rhône. True, the grape gave us Hermitage and Côte Rôtie, but now Australian shiraz has its own style and shouldn't feel the need to keep deferring to the French.
You see it in the way Aussie wines started out with European names to bolster their credentials: Hunter Valley chablis, sparkling burgundy, Coonawarra claret and a host of cap-doffing wine names now consigned to the pre-EU dustbin. The most glaring example is Penfolds' Grange, one of Australia's greatest shiraz-based reds. It was originally called Grange Hermitage precisely because the style called for due deference to the Rhône's greatest red. The Hermitage name had to be dropped with the advent of the EU. But it's a fair bet that Penfolds is proud of the fact that Grange can now stand on its own merits.
It's not the only wine that no longer needs to cloak itself with the French connection. Australia is justifiably proud of the fact that its shiraz has broken new ground. With its robust, rich and powerfully flavoured fruit quality, shiraz has enabled Australia to challenge the divine right of France to syrah supremacy. As a drink first, a wine second, its appeal is turning the heads of younger wine drinkers.
But shiraz is in danger of becoming a victim of its own success. At a dinner recently I heard other guests complaining that Australian shiraz was too sweet and oaky for its own good. These weren't journalists or "insiders", but consumers of everyday wines. And it's not just the overoaky sweetness that's coming in for criticism. It is suggested that the quality isn't as good as it was five years ago, that it's predictable and no longer the value it once was.
There's a lot of truth in this. Since 1994, shiraz has increased its share of Australian wine production from one in 10 to one in five bottles produced. At the bottom end of the market, big brands and supermarket own-label shirazes have proliferated to meet the popular call for good value, easy-drinking red wine. Some, like Penfolds, have managed to maintain admirable consistency. Others have made cheapness their priority. But going upmarket doesn't always work either; take Jacobs Creek Reserve Shiraz at £8.99, a predictable confection in which the parts – oak, hefty tannins and alcohol – are greater than the whole.
At the opposite end of the price spectrum, enter the thumper. Boasting kneecapping levels of alcohol, these monsters are often so big you almost need to take a knife and fork to them. Maybe it's just as well that the exorbitant prices of some of these make them too hefty for my wallet – and probably yours. It needn't be this way. Shiraz is not a Johnny-come-lately in Australia: its roots there go back to the 19th century. Literally. There are still hundreds of acres of precious old vines producing really intense, distinctive wines. More to the point, once you get beyond the £5 level, which I think you now need to do to enjoy quality shiraz, you begin to see that Australian shiraz varies from region to region and from one producer to the next.
Hunter Valley shiraz started the ball rolling with its peculiarly leathery style, once called "sweaty saddle" until Australians realised that Chesterfield sofa was a more flattering image. Western Australia has its own distinctive style, combining sunshine warmth with finesse, and is closer to France in style. Victoria's cool climate helps to lend its shiraz more aromatic spiciness, often with beguiling ground pepper and clove undertones. South Australia, for its part, boasts a plethora of styles, from the opulent, chocolatey-rich reds of the Clare and Barossa valleys and McLaren Vale to the more complex styles of Eden Valley and Adelaide Hills. The job of teasing out this diversity is a challenge for Australian producers. If we, too, are prepared to move a little upmarket to discover quality producers and regions, the adventure will pay dividends.
Shiraz to grab
2000 Paringa Shiraz, £6.95, Adnams, Southwold (01502 727222). An example of good value, juicy shiraz from Australia's Riverland at Renmark, with a touch of smoky oak and ripe, soft blackberry fruit.
2000 Penfolds Koonunga Hill Shiraz Cabernet, £6.99, Tesco, Waitrose, Oddbins, Thresher, Wine Rack, Bottoms Up. The new vintage of this stalwart blend from Penfolds sets the standard for the combination of approachable fruitiness and spice at an affordable price level.
1999 Shiraz-Grenache Christa-Rolf, RH Binder, Barossa Valley, £8.95, Lay & Wheeler, Colchester (0044 1206 764446). A veneer of vanilla oak and rich stewed plum and berry fruit epitomise the Barossa style of full-flavoured, winter-warming shiraz.
1998 Plantagenet Shiraz, Mount Barker, Western Australia, £13.99, Taste for Wine (0800 917 4092), Philglas & Swiggot, London SW11 (020 7924 4494). From the cool, climate-influenced Mount Barker, this is a red whose peppery, spicy aromas infuse the nice plump fruit with a distinctively savoury character.
1998 d'Arenberg Dead Arm Shiraz, £17.99, Booths, Oddbins. This strapping shiraz typifies the big McLaren Vale style with its mint humbug oak, full-throttle spice and chocolate-sweet fruit. A powerhouse red that works because it's tempered by the fine fruit quality.
1997 Yalumba The Signature Barossa Valley Cabernet Shiraz, £18.99, Majestic, Harrods, Tanners, Shrewsbury (01743 234500), Noel Young, Cambridge (901223 844744). The classic Aussie cab-shiraz blend, whose fresh roasted coffee bean aromas, capsicum undertone and smoothly pitched oak level make for a red rich in full-flavoured blackcurrant fruitiness.Reuse content