Does Shiraz have an image problem?

In this extract from The Wines of Australia, the most recent title in Academie du Vin Library's Classic Wine Library, Mark Davidson discusses whether Shiraz has an image problem and asks what Australia’s winemakers might do about it

Words by Mark Davidson


The Wines of Australia, by US-based sommelier Mark Davidson, is the most recent title in the Classic Wine Library. Mark uses the book to guide readers towards the premium wines, boutique wineries, sustainable wine producers and winemakers involved in Australia’s notable natural wine movement. Mark’s enthusiasm for these wines is infectious and he says, ‘If you can get access to the full range of Australian wines being made today, it is impossible to be bored.’

In this extract from the book, he discusses whether Shiraz has an image problem and asks what Australia’s winemakers might do about it.

The Shiraz Conundrum

Shiraz is not as popular as it once was, either in Australia or in several export markets. Recent retail data for the UK produced by IRI still has Shiraz as the top selling Australian variety but purchases are heavily skewed towards cheaper price points. China was once a big market but given the import levies imposed, it is not part of the current discussion (though this market may be on the radar again soon). In the United States, the general sentiment among the trade is one of lukewarm interest. Ask any of the top importers, and they will all agree that selling Shiraz right now is a challenging proposition.

Australia is home to the oldest plantings of this variety in the world. Shiraz is the grape behind some of the most iconic wines ever made in the country. There is no place on earth that can show the full range that this variety can achieve better than Australia. So, what is the problem? I spent a decent amount of time over the last 12 months asking Australian growers, winemakers, and journalists this very question. Responses varied but most agreed on one thing: there are too many middle-of-the-road, one-dimensional, boring examples. The early popularity of the variety also meant that it was planted widely, and perhaps in certain areas other varieties may fare better and make more interesting wine. One could argue that the cheap and cheerful style of supermarket Shiraz is debasing the value and character of the variety.

Shiraz viognier
Shiraz–Viognier ferment at Clonakilla. The resulting wine is one of the most seductive examples of Shiraz in Australia. (Photo: David Riest, Clonakilla Wines)

I am not convinced that this is where the image problem lies. Mass market wine is traded on price and these wines are not necessarily the ones that people use to judge the quality and character of Shiraz. I feel more blame rests with the expansive range of Shiraz that sits at moderate price points, around A$20–30 (roughly £10–15). There are exceptions, but the sea of sameness in this segment is numbing. Most are simplistic wines with nothing more than ripe fruit and a few lashings of oak.

It doesn’t take long to get worn down by the disappointments. I have lived, drunk and breathed Australian wines for close to 20 years and rarely reach for this type of Shiraz. To be fair, I have recently tasted several examples of newer, fresher styles of Shiraz at this price point, some of which are juicy and delicious, which is encouraging. However, I would still argue that other varieties often deliver more character and interest at the same price point. For example, the Spinifex Papillon, priced at A$28, a Grenache–Cinsault blend from the valley floor in Barossa Valley, is absolutely delicious: red-fruited, savoury and spicy. It has freshness but it also screams where it is from, with Barossa warmth and comfort. Similarly, the Coriole Nero from McLaren Vale is priced at A$30. Fragrant, fresh and juicy, it has lively black fruit overlayed with a charming herbal element. So why buy a moderately priced Shiraz when wines like this are on offer?

If we wish to continue to praise Shiraz and hail it as our heritage grape, we need to ensure that we keep it interesting

Pete Fraser is rationalising his plantings at Yangarra. He is pulling out some Shiraz vines in sections of the estate and planting another 4 hectares of Grenache Gris and Grenache Blanc, as these two white varieties have performed particularly well. He is also planting three more hectares of Picpoul for the same reason. In addition, he plans to add eight more hectares of Grenache. If we wish to continue to praise Shiraz and hail it as our heritage grape, we need to ensure that we keep it interesting. Old vine and other special sites where world-class wines are being made should be highlighted. More thought needs to go into site suitability for future plantings. It is so easy to demonstrate the diversity, character, and quality of this variety in Australia. Nobody else can do what Australia can do with this variety but if we populate store shelves with one-dimensional, simplistic examples it will be a long hard road to get the image of Shiraz back to where it belongs.