WINE OPINION SARAH HELLER

Elegant, lighter-bodied shiraz comes to the fore in Australia

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 08 January, 2015, 4:49pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 08 January, 2015, 4:49pm

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Anybody who brings up weight in the post-holiday months probably deserves a sack of coal next Christmas. Our culture's fixation with bodies is such that we tend to apply body-related analogies even to things for which they're poorly suited.

For example, a so called full-bodied wine is not literally any larger or heavier than a light-bodied one. It's not even necessarily denser, given alcohol is only 80 per cent as dense as water, and full-bodied wines tend to pack the alcohol in spades, sometimes hitting 16 or 17 per cent.

So is that it? Is body just a matter of booze? Not necessarily: some "plumpness" comes from a viscous form of alcohol called glycerol (aka glycerin, an ingredient in many hand soaps, but please don't try drinking one).

Other wines are low in alcohol but high in sugar, making them feel thicker in the mouth just as honey feels thicker than apple juice. The final factor is called "total dry extract," which seems an inappropriately dry term for the roughly 20 grams of different dissolved solids in every bottle that make a wine such as Lafite sublime and one like Yellow Tail decidedly ordinary.

Thus what "body" actually describes is wine's viscosity; that is, internal friction or thickness (we won't comment on the resultant implications of being called a full-bodied person).

The fact that "full-bodied" was once an unalloyed positive for many wine drinkers suggests that all that was needed back then was something with as much "oomph" as possible.

As in many fields, nobody likes oomph as much as Americans, whose critics and winemakers seem naturally inclined to make it big, make it red. Australia, in its rush to feed the oomph-crazed beast, quickly made itself known in the noughties in the US for the kind of bold, high-octane shiraz you could fuel your SUV with.

But with declining US fortunes post-2008, Australia pivoted back to its biggest market, Britain, and the rest of us, who all pointedly asked whether we needed quite so much bang for our buck.

Because one thing wine needn't do is bang. Chardonnay needn't carry 14.5 per cent of alcohol or cudgels of oak. Likewise, it shouldn't be so stripped of oak and alcohol that it goes unnoticed in a sea of pinot grigio.

The new wave chardonnay from cooler climate areas around Melbourne, particularly the Yarra Valley (Oakridge and Giant Steps leap to mind) and the Mornington Peninsula (try Kooyong and Ocean Eight), are delightfully grown up.

The oak use is subtle, with older, larger barrels used for fermentation and ageing. These result in a less oaky finish than simply ageing the wine in conventionally sized barrels. The alcohol sits at around 13 per cent, and the aromas are in the flint-floral-lemon zone rather than the realm of peach-pineapple smoothie.

The phenomenon is by no means restricted to whites, the most notable target being Australia's iconic grape: shiraz.

So intent are the new producers on differentiating themselves from the old models that some have taken to calling their wine "syrah" instead. On some level this saddens me, though I can understand the intention.

Instead of trying to alter the public's entrenched image of shiraz, these producers want a way to flag their bottles as more elegant and old world in style. There are plenty of people who still like the old shiraz, so maybe it's the best plan of attack.

But the proud use of the name "shiraz" for a truly novel, non-derivative palette of wine styles is one of several reasons why bottles such as Luke Lambert's Crudo shiraz, Battle of Bosworth's Puritan shiraz, Sons of Eden's Remus shiraz and Gemtree's Obsidian shiraz (to name a few highlights from a recent trip) are so exciting.

They are sleek, pared-down visions of what Australian shiraz can be; less loud but more sonorous.

Crudo and Puritan sit firmly on the side of perfumed, peppery and flirtatious.

They are sleek, pared-down visions of what Australian shiraz can be; less loud but more sonorous

Both are intended for early consumption, with none of the milk chocolate oak that is a calling card for much Aussie shiraz, having replaced it with a healthy dose of funk.

Remus and Obsidian are decidedly serious, with the florals of Remus and the velvet robe tannins of Obsidian securing their status as very fine wine. While both are deeply impactful wines, you would never describe them as beefy or voluptuous. Nor, worse still, that most yesteryear of compliments: bangin'.

Sarah Heller is a Hong Kong-based wine writer