Big Reds Down Under 

Six Shirazes and Shiraz blends from Australia offer something to suit every palate.

For many Wineaux, mass-market Australian Shiraz played a key role in our earliest attempts at wine-related sophistication. I can still picture the $3.99 bottle I brought proudly to a friend's dinner party in the mid 1990s. Later, as I learned to enjoy more subtle wines, my impression of that old Shiraz standby devolved from "impressive" to "merely medicinal," eventually winding up somewhere around "undrinkable." The varietal itself became a casualty of that one brand's sub-par quality, and I started leaving Shiraz on the shelf.

Now I know that certain Australian Shirazes are considered among the finest red wines in the world (witness recent vintages from Penfolds fetching about $2,500 a case) and that the high-end brands often have a budget offering well worth a try.

This week, instead of looking at the low end of those luxury labels, we tasted six offerings from lesser-known wineries. The most expensive wine underwhelmed me, but Token Winemaker leapt to its defense. To me the 2008 Wagtail Shiraz ($13.99) had a rather flat aroma with just a bit of loaminess to it, and while full-bodied and nicely balanced, its strong vegetal quality was too much of a detraction.

More pleasing in both price and flavor profile was the 2008 Kilda Shiraz ($7) from South Eastern Australia. This one was classically Shiraz on the nose, with what Token Winemaker identified as a dominant meaty scent. Medium-bodied with a slight sweetness, this pleasant wine was milder than the aroma hinted it would be; I'd recommend a glass without food.

Also falling into the "enjoy it without food" category was the 2006 Snake Charmer Shiraz ($12.99) from Australia's Limestone Coast. Spice was the theme here: I smelled cinnamon, mint, menthol, and vanilla and tasted plums and cherry in this off-dry, mellow wine. "Refreshing" isn't a word I often use to describe red wine, especially such a classically full-bodied varietal, but that's what came to mind after a few sips.

I recognized Silverwing for a Pinot Noir I once praised, and this week we tried its 2005 Shiraz ($9.99) and 2005 Shiraz Grenache ($9.99). They were certainly distinctive, with the Shiraz presenting itself as a bulldozer of a wine with plum, raisin, and plenty of spice in the aroma and on the palate. Token Winemaker said it tasted old beyond its years. Grenache makes everything subtler, and sure enough its addition made for a more mellow, food-friendly, off-dry wine full of berry and plum that might be nice with a non-spicy pasta dish.

Finally, ranking last despite its promising mix of varietals was the 2006 Ironberry Cabernet-Shiraz-Merlot ($7.99) from Western Australia. "Welcome to the farm!" cried a bouquet full of must, hay, and other barnyard classics. The juicy cherry tartness was far from redemptive.


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