The always provocative Randall Grahm, the mind behind Bonny Doon wines, who is also the king of the well-marketed wine (Big House Red, anyone?), was on The Splendid Table (listen to it above) a couple of weekends ago promoting his new book, Been Doon So Long. Not one to miss an opportunity like this one, he stirred the pot on Australian Shiraz, and poked a bit at the well-marketed ones, too.
He did acknowledge that not all Australian Shiraz are manufactured, overdeveloped swamp juice, but if one cares deeply about OZ Shiraz, the main point may have been irritating enough to cause them to miss that.
Too Easy to Get Into
His main position is that many too many a Shiraz from Australia is TOO EASY to drink, thus ruining the experience of (or making more difficult the transition to) balanced, carefully made Shiraz and Syrah from all over the world. "Shiraz" as a moniker has come to embody assembly-line wine with over-the-top, fat, roasted, syrupy qualities, and this is evidenced by estates in California using the name to indicate the nature of a Syrah (which is what it is usually called there). There are even some Australian wine makers who have taken to calling their Shiraz "Syrah" to indicate the style of the wine. Some folks feel that (the stereotypical) OZ Shiraz is the Avignon Papacy compared to the TRUE SYRAH found elsewhere. Nonsense. It is just that the empirically less-interesting--if quite delicious--wine happens to be extending the hand of friendship, while great Syrah often presents (if opened and drunk too young) a clinched fist.
A Problem Where There Shouldn't Be One
Why is it a bad thing that Shiraz should be too easy to drink? Well, nothing, per se, is wrong with that, any more than there is anything wrong with White Zinfandel. Despite some who hold out for White Zin's promise in the way that Sarah Palin thinks that elected officials should be no better than an average person, it really is not a true exposure to the best potential of the wine grape in question. Of White Zinfandel I used to say, "that's not wine." But it technically is, just as Yellow Tail, Little Penguin, Three Monkeys (or any other critter-named wine) are also--despite the purists' desire to deny it--wine.
An unadulterated Zinfandel is a RED WINE, bold, plump with berry fruit and in some regions has the potential for such high alcohol that one bottle alone can be a party. Syrah/Shiraz can and should be in that league too: the nature of Syrah is that it is at its best and most emotionally evocative when it tastes appropriately of fruit AND of herbs, rocks, and the undefinable mystery that only great wine grapes possess.
A Road Map for Peace
To my mind, Syrah should not be a front-line wine. Merlot? Of course! Malbec? Naturally! But well-made Syrah--even when it has a forward, friendly fruitiness--has an aloof quality...the vinous equivalent of a cool reception, which evaporates, however, the more time one spends with it. A great wine grape shouldn't be relegated to making one dimensional wine with such preponderance that its name suffers. Merlot has endured this affront at the hands of some irresponsible growers; Pinot Noir may have dodged it in the post-Sideways drift away from mass-consumption of the variety; let's help Syrah/Shiraz avoid it, too.
I applaud Shiraz if it's tasty (no matter the style) and deplore those that aren't (whether they are tarry and overripe, or so "elegant" that they are "dreadful"). Running alongside this is the assembly-line approach to many Shiraz from Australia, which turns me off: wine is not intended to be manufactured, but shepherded from the vineyards through the winery to the bottle. When most of the Shiraz in the world meets this kind of standard, the swamp juice will disappear, the schism between Shiraz and Syrah will heal, and we can raise a glass of the two together.
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