Dangers in the Shiraz aisle

Published10/8/2008 12:05 AM

The Australian wine industry has hit a rough patch. It's sitting on a lake of surplus wine - the equivalent of around 50 million cases as of last year. Exports dropped 13 percent in terms of volume, and 12 percent by value, for the year ended in July. Imports into the U.S., after surging for years, fell more than 5 percent last year and so far this year are down 15 percent by volume. For us, as consumers, all these statistics raised this profound question: Does this mean there are bargains to be found?

Australia built its export juggernaut on the basis of Shiraz, its signature grape (known as Syrah elsewhere), and Chardonnay. For years, we enjoyed both of them - Shiraz for its peppery, muscular vitality and Chardonnay for its good value and easy drinking.


We're sure there are many reasons for the drop in demand for Australian wine, but we'd like to suggest two. First, to some extent, we think Australia is a victim of its own success. In the U.S., Australia ushered in a new era of wines from other countries, introducing millions of people to tasty, affordable and easy-to-pronounce wines that were not made in California. Now Americans, more than ever, are willing to try wines from all over the world, and so countries like Argentina are walking through the door that Australia opened.

The second issue is more basic: quality. Australia might not make the world's best wines, but, by gosh, it sure makes the best labels. They're clever, often funny, attractive, easy to understand and feature a whole theme park full of animals. The problem is, at some point, the industry seemed to pay more attention to the labels than the wine.

While the names and the labels became cuter and cuter, the wine inside became more and more unpleasant, giving up all pretense to good quality. In broad blind tastings of under-$20 Shiraz and Chardonnay over the years, we found them increasingly sweet, alcoholic, lacking in real fruit tastes and so similar that they tasted like they had come from the same giant vat. Even at that, we wondered if any caring person had tasted the contents of that vat. It became clear that the operating principle of many wineries was "just take the money and run!"

And you know what? More Americans decided that they'd rather have a better wine with a less-adorable label from someplace else, such as Chile. (Our favorite Australian wines these days are less-popular varietals. It's worth making a special search for an Australian Riesling, for instance.)

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In our tastings through the years, we have found Shiraz over $20 a whole different experience than the less-expensive wines, with richer, spicier blackberry fruit and far more guts. Shiraz is a wine, at its best, that is big, but not heavy. Australia's greatest wine is Penfolds Grange, which is made from Shiraz and is very expensive. We have found many of the attributes of Grange - structure, great fruit, confident winemaking - in some midrange Shiraz as well.

It got us to thinking: With Australia eager to sell some wine, is it possible that we'd find some of the really good stuff - wines that should cost $50 or more - parading as midpriced wines that cost $20 to $50? We bought more than 50 to find out. We focused on the 2004 and 2005 vintages, because those are the ones you are most likely to find on shelves, but we included some 2006 wines as well. We tasted the wines in blind flights over several nights.

We aren't looking for "Australia's best Shiraz." And we aren't trying to find out if there are some good ones - of course there are; there are some good examples of just about any wine from anywhere. Our mission is far simpler: We want to know, when you go to a wine store outside Australia looking for a red wine that costs around $20 to $50, whether the Shiraz aisle is going to be, overall, a good bet, especially right now, with the possibility of bargains afoot.

The answer turned out to be no, but with a caveat - actually, two very big caveats, named Dead Letter Office and Pirramimma.

We don't think we've ever had a tasting with such a bifurcated result. Of more than 50 wines, just three rated Very Good or higher, but two of those three rated Delicious.


It's a funny thing - not funny ha-ha, funny strange. Shiraz is a big, gutsy, dark, peppery wine and, as a result, it's clear that a lot of wineries think it's easy to caricature. "Let's see: some dark color, heavy on the alcohol, a bit of sugar, plenty of oak and maybe some vanilla flavoring and ... Aha! Shiraz!" Unfortunately, that's what more than half of our sample tasted like. They were simple, lab-made wines in which all of the tastes, especially alcohol, stood apart from each other.

They were often both harsh and charmless. In some cases, we debated whether the wine tasted more like Cherry Coke or Dr Pepper, while some others reminded us of the various "fruit-flavored" syrups we used to pour on our breakfast at the International House of Pancakes.

In some cases, the wines were better than that, but the winemaker seemed to be afraid of Shiraz's heft and left the wine too weak and acidic, letting the pendulum swing too much toward the austere side. Here's the ultimate irony: We felt that many of the wines were actually under-$20 wines that had been repackaged as over-$20 wines. Huh? "Hey, Charlie, since those tables aren't selling, let's raise the prices!"

All of this is basically an insult to the real thing. What is the real thing like? Big, rich and inky, with layers of flavor. Some hints of minerals. Structure. Real, ripened-on-the-vine fruit. Fascinating, complex tastes, with a hint of tobacco, coffee and some of the scent of blue flowers we often smell in the Syrah-based wines of the Rhone Valley of France. And, time after time, tomato acidity. Yeah, we know this is hard to grasp because we also don't much like tomatoes in our wine, but next time you have a good Shiraz, close your eyes and think about the nicely fleshy and acidic kick that a very good tomato offers; we think you will sense that in a good Shiraz.

Both the Dead Letter Office, from Henry's Drive Vignerons, and the Pirramimma offered this kind of very real, very special taste. They are what Australian Shiraz can be. Not only that, but the Dead Letter Office cost us just $28 and the Pirramimma just $20.99. Both were worth far more. In our last tasting of midrange Shiraz, in 2004, the Pirramimma 2000 was our best value. This is clearly a name to keep in mind. The importer, American Beverage Group of Petaluma, Calif., says the winery made 8,000 cases of the wine and that 3,000 were imported and distributed in 40 states. The importer of the Dead Letter Office, Quintessential Wines of Napa, Calif., says the winery made 6,800 cases, of which 3,200 were imported and distributed to every state except one (sorry, Mississippi).

If we were regular consumers again, as we were for so many years, we would consider the midrange Shiraz aisle too risky to visit. And that's a shame, because our favorites show that there really are a few very good deals there right now. So if you have a wine merchant whom you trust, someone who knows a caricature wine from the real thing, take a chance as the weather cools. Otherwise, there are better bets among the big reds in the store.

Dorothy J. Gaiter and John Brecher write Tastings for The Wall Street Journal. Email them at wine@wsj.com.

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