- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 3, 2004

The bigger the better. That seems to be the philosophy governing a lot of red-wine making these days. There always are exceptions, but as a general rule, red wines taste considerably richer and riper than they did a decade ago.

You can credit the Australians. Their predilection for big, bold fruit flavors has exerted a significant stylistic influence on vintners all around the globe. More specifically, the international success of Down Under shiraz, a wine few consumers knew 10 years ago, has altered winemaking near and far.

No matter the grape variety, bigger wines come from riper fruit. It’s a delicate balance. Pick the grapes too early, and the wines will taste vegetal. Pick too late, and they’ll seem hot and heavy, with raisinlike flavors.

Winemakers have long tried to achieve just the right balance, but how they define that point of equilibrium has changed recently. Due to advances in both grape growing and winemaking, ripeness has paradoxically become riper than it used to be.

Start in the vineyard. Ripeness is in large measure a function of sugar, an easily quantified variable. For a long time, many vintners simply measured the sugar level in their grapes, then harvested when a certain numerical target was hit. Yet sugar by itself does not constitute full, or physiological, ripeness. Other important determinants include seed color (brown, not green), skin tannins (soft, not harsh), and stalk texture (supple, not hard).

Leave the grapes hanging long enough on the vine, and, if you’re fortunate enough to avoid rain and rot, you’ll get full ripeness. The difficulty, particularly in warm climates, comes in the fact that you may also get excessive sugars, leading to bruising wines.

There’s no perfect solution, but viticulturalists have learned that they can manipulate a vine during the growing season so that it will devote more of its energy into ripening fruit instead of growing vegetation. This involves a host of techniques, including trellising, canopy management and leaf-pulling; the result can be a wine with full ripeness but without off-putting heat.

In the winery, the most critical issue involves managing tannins. Contemporary red wines taste more powerful than ever, but people tend to drink them earlier. Winemakers who want to produce supple, accessible — as well as ripe — wines thus need to tame the tannins.

They do so by carefully monitoring fermentation times and temperatures, as well as by allowing the grape juice to pick up additional color and extract before (and sometimes after) fermentation. Some even use a high-tech process called reverse osmosis to extract tannin and alcohol, making their wines more palatable.

All of these operations and techniques are being practiced today throughout the winemaking world, but many, if not most, of them originated — or at least originated on a serious commercial scale — in Australia. Led by pioneering viticulturalist Richard Smart, as well as by a generation of globe-trotting so-called “flying winemakers,” Australians have changed how vintners everywhere think about wine. As Jancis Robinson, arguably the world’s most prominent wine commentator, puts it, their “influence is difficult to overestimate.”

For wine drinkers, the Australian influence can be felt in such powerful New World wines as California cabernet or zinfandel, Argentine malbec and Chilean merlot, as well as ever richer, riper Old World wines — for example, new-styled wines from Bordeaux and Tuscany and a bevy of exciting wines from Spain. But the wine that most clearly exemplifies the Australian predilection for big, forward and at the same time sumptuous reds is undoubtedly shiraz from Down Under itself.

Shiraz, known as “syrah” in most of the rest of the world, came to Australia in the 1830s. For a long time, it was the country’s workhorse grape, being used to make oceans of simple wine for local consumption. Much later, when producers began raising their sights (and thinking seriously about export markets), shiraz took a back seat to cabernet, a variety with greater international prestige. As recently as 1986, the Australian government actually paid growers to remove shiraz from their vineyards.

Thankfully, many resisted, including some of the big companies, such as Lindemans, Penfolds and Tyrells. Then in the 1990s, when the effects of the new viticulture and winemaking began to be felt, shiraz exploded in popularity, both at home (It’s now Australia’s most popular varietal) and abroad. Here in the United States, sales are skyrocketing.

Some Aussie shiraz does taste over the top, meaning too extracted and jammy. Compared with other varietals fashioned in today’s big style, though, it succeeds far more than it fails. Delicious wines, berryish and often somewhat chocolaty, can be found for less than $15.

With a step up in price, the wines tend to be even more expressive and nuanced, but no matter the cost, there’s nothing bashful about them. If you like wines brimming with boisterous bravado, they definitely belong on your supper table.

During January, I tasted more than 70 Aussie shirazes available in the Washington market. My favorites are listed below, in rough order of preference, with importers identified in parentheses.

OVER $15

Cape Mentelle, Margaret River, 2001, $23. Outstanding. Rich and ripe but evidencing admirable winemaking restraint, this wine’s red and black fruit flavors are enhanced by notes of black pepper and sweet leather. Very classy stuff. (Imported by Clicquot)

Maxwell Ellen Street, McLaren Vale, 2001, $32. Weygandt-Metzler, a Pennsylvania-based company specializing in fine French wines, has added a number of Australian properties to its portfolio. Many of the Peter Weygandt Selections prove very impressive. This one is full of spice and sweet berries, and it tastes seductively supple. (Weygandt-Metzler)

Bookpurnong Hill, Riverland, 1999, $32. Excellent structure, full-bodied, with impressive depth and length. While it displays plenty of ripe, jammy fruit, it also offers a tobacco-tinged bouquet and a dark chocolate finish. Impressive. (Davies & Co.)

Rosemount Estate “Balmoral,” McLaren Vale, 2000. A heavyweight, this almost brooding wine (identified as “syrah” on the label) tastes great but will be even better with time in the cellar, as its firm structure prevents it from exhibiting all its nuances and subtleties right now. (Southcorp/PWG Vintners)

Kies, Klauber Block, Barossa Valley, 2001, $24. Wonderfully soft and supple. Medium-bodied, so a great sipping red wine on a cold winter’s eve. (Weygandt-Metzler)

Penfolds Bin 128, Coonawarra, 2001, $24. Very ripe but lush rather than hot. Well-structured, so a good candidate for cellaring. (Southcorp/PWG Vintners)

Warrenmang Reserve, Victoria, 2000, $53. A beautifully complete and nuanced bouquet introduces this high-end offering that, at a whopping 15.5 percent alcohol, tastes seamless and sumptuous. (Weygandt-Metzler)

$15 AND UNDER

Water Wheel, Bendigo, 2001, $15. An amazing value, this wine tastes more complete and complex than many costing two or three times as much.

Though coming in at 14.5 percent alcohol, it seems soft and supple, with luscious cherry and red berry flavors, as well as a streak of chocolate that lingers in a long, layered finish. The surprise star of my tastings. (American Wine Distributors/Southern Starz)

Annie’s Lane, Clare Valley, 2001, $12. Spicy wood supports soft, succulent red fruit. A fine value. (Beringer Blass)

Yalumba, Barossa Valley, 2001, $10. An impressively rich wine, slightly floral (from 5 percent viognier) in the bouquet. (Negociats USA)

Cockatoo Ridge, South Australia, 2001, $7. Spicy and peppery notes add interest in this fresh, fruity wine. A crowd pleaser at a great price. (Davies & Co.)

Wynns Coonawarra Estate, Coonawara, 2001, $12. Seductive aromas introduce a full-bodied, expressive wine. The fruit is just beginning to dry, so drink it in the near term. (Southcorp/PWG Vintners)

Lindemans Reserve, South Australia, 2001, $11. Red fruit, full but soft, with plenty of spicy oak. (Southcorp/PWG Vintners)

Black Swan, South Eastern Australia, 2002, $9. Bold but fresh, almost inky in color, and deeply flavored. A lot of bang for not many bucks. (Barossa Valley Imports)

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