by PHILIP WHITE - This was published in The Independent Weekly on 26 September 2008
Something really scary is happening to shiraz.
Since vintage, I’ve tasted thousands of barrels, tanks and bottles of this great Australian staple in various stages of undress. The wines, I mean. Although I am guilty of conducting the odd early morning tasting without pants – the palate’s fresher sans culottes – the wines I’m discussing here are being prepared for market, and are still awkward, unfinished, and uncovered.
Suddenly, unbelievably, it’s really hard to get a taste of shiraz that has not been adulterated to some extent by viognier.
In the northern, cooler part of France’s Rhone Valley, the shiraz is often pale, lacks tannin, and resembles cranberry juice more than, say, a hearty Barossa or McLaren Vale job. So they add a little viognier, the white grape that was so unpopular its total world plantings were down to six footy grounds before Yalumba bravely chose to make it famous twenty seven years ago. Now viognier’s all over the joint. Not quite the weed that chardonnay became, but threatening.
Genetically, the French viognier is very close to that tannic red mystery from over the Alps, nebbiolo. Very few Australians have the pluck and nous to grow or make good nebbiolo, as its confounding raft of tannin seems somehow disconnected from its elegant cranberry/raspberry/strawberry fruit. Wisely, they avoid it.
So, since white is much more difficult to make than red, why the hell did these boofheads suddenly pretend fluency in viognier, the white nebbi?
When shiraz is on the weaker side of elegant, you can bolster it with the raft of tannin cool climate viognier supplies. You need only one or two per cent of co-fermented viognier to give the red finishing weight and extra aroma, often along the lines of apricot. Apricot and cranberry, see? Makes some sort of sense.
My scant biochemistry makes it risky for me to attempt to explain what the mealy viogner tannin does to the pale colour of such wines, but it’s safe to say it somehow changes the anthocyanins of the blend, enhancing the blues and purples of the wine. A dribble of viognier, or a night or two on viognier skins, makes pale shiraz deeper in hue.
But in Australia, where we can’t seem to pick shiraz below fifteen per cent alcohol, so it’s black, and stacked with natural shiraz tannin, and packed to the gunnels with dense-to-impenetrable blackberry, prune, dried fig, licorice, salt and whatnot, I simply cannot see why anybody would want to add apricot.
It gets worse. The really stupid add over-ripe viognier to over-ripe shiraz. Once it’s above, say 13.5% alcohol, viognier ceases to smell and taste of the almost-elegant apricot, and suddenly becomes the thick dull syrup you get in a tin of peaches. It loses its drying, savoury tannin. It’s gluggy dumb muck. The shiraz needs water and acid, not alcoholic syrup.
Now they’ve planted so much sicko viognier in the wrong places and finally realise they’ve fluffed it, they’re all tipping it in their shiraz, and hoping nobody notices. They think they’re hiding it.
Which leads me to fiano, the white from Italy’s Campagnia, where they make awful oxidised plonk and plug it with a piece of Portuguese bark. But at Coriole, in McLaren Vale, the new plantings produce an ethereal, vaporous wisp of a drink that seems to float off the palate like a cloud, leaving a neat little coating of powdery, mealy tannin on the tongue. This excites the appetite and turns on the epicurean quarter of the sensory tent. Try Coriole’s 2008 vintage, and you’ll immediately get my drift.
Mark Lloyd agrees with much of the above, sufficiently to show the whole damn lot of us that there are gastronomically intelligent alternatives. So when he pointed his Coriole team at its first serious fiano in 2006, they took the wine off its skins much earlier than the Italians do, in order to achieve that lighter, ethereal style. But the skins had enough of the right phenolic tannins and aromatics to set Mark thinking about how that would influence shiraz.
So the Coriole Shiraz Fiano 2006 has about three per cent of the latter in it, co-fermented, to stunning advantage. The fiano somehow brightens the lighter red fruit spectrum of the shiraz, enhancing the raspberry and strawberry aspects which are usually hidden in all that blackberry and prune. So you have this lovely intense shiraz prettied up and lightened with vivacious raspberry, musk and marshmallow sugar. It’s as cute as all get out. And then the mealy, powdery tannins of the fiano somehow render the wine’s finish a lot more entertaining and savoury than normal shiraz.
Not to mention all this highly abnormal, deformed shiraz that reeks of viognier, and which will be sold without any label even vaguely mentioning the v-word or its inclusion. These mugs are buggering the flavour of Australia's most significant red, hoping nobody will notice. Very, very stupid.