HomeFood + WineYou say ‘shiraz’, we say ‘syrah’

You say ‘shiraz’, we say ‘syrah’

Murdoch Hill winemaker Michael Downer

A Hills winery has topped all the greatest icons of Australian Shiraz – and it’s sending a message that reflects our special environment.

One of the great joys in the Adelaide Hills is its cool, crisp evenings – especially in summer and autumn when the rest of the State can be sweltering.

While we’re turning off the air-conditioning as the sun sinks in the west, the region’s winemakers are also loving the fact that where we live helps immensely when it comes to making unique styles of cool-climate wines.

They refer to one of the main influences of the Adelaide Hills’ elevated landscape as a high diurnal temperature variation, when the thermometer swings daily from warm afternoons to cooler nights, which helps preserve the natural fruit acids in ripening grapes and aids their vibrant flavour profiles.

This daily degrees shift is a boon for crisp and refreshing white wines, and it also can have a profound impact on the country’s most popular variety of red wine.

In most regions of Australia it’s known as shiraz.

But in the Adelaide Hills, more and more producers are choosing the synonym syrah – pronounced “sirah”.

Why might that be points to a subtle but important shift in the varying wine styles that can arise out of the very same grape variety.

Shiraz, as we have long been accustomed in SA, will generally have a rich, intensely ripe, fruit-forward flavour profile with a full-bodied, higher-alcohol, heavyweight kind of drinking feel.

If a wine producer labels their shiraz as syrah, then you should expect the same grape to express a lighter to more medium bodied style, often a touch less alcohol, more fragrance to begin, and for many palates a subtle peppery spice note to the taste.

Importantly, it should be emphasised, even if an Adelaide Hills label stays with the classic “shiraz” nomenclature, it will very likely have a more syrah-like expression – you can put that down simply to the region’s cooler climatic and growing season impacts.

One of the highest profile syrah devotees is Oakbank-based Murdoch Hill winemaker Michael Downer, who crafts three variations of the grape with different winemaking techniques, levels of intensity, and at different price points.

They start at the Murdoch Hill estate release ($36), then gather momentum with The Landau Single Vineyard Oakbank Syrah ($56), and the more reserve style Orion Oakbank Syrah ($91).

The 2021 vintage Landau Syrah attracted a huge wave of wine-loving attention to the Adelaide Hills region this year when it was voted by the lauded Halliday Companion of Wine tasting panel to be the best shiraz wine in the country, scoring an extraordinary 99 points out of 100 and trumping the finest wines from regions such as the Barossa and McLaren Vale where the variety reigns supreme (the 2021 vintage has sold out, and the 2022 vintage is now available, a deliciously aromatic and vibrant follow up).

All three Murdoch Hill syrah are very clear about expressing their regional and specific Oakbank vineyard characters in a more restrained style compared to more traditional blockbuster shiraz from other regions, Michael says.

“We’re looking for a style with a little more nuance, a little more restraint, more perfume, spice laden and more savoury,” he says.

“The cooler nights here promote greater tension and preserve the acidity and freshness of the fruit – these are the elements that define Hills syrah.

“There’s a lot of excitement in the region as a whole with the variety, whether you call it shiraz or syrah.”

Other key Adelaide Hills producers celebrating in style the new age of syrah include Sidewood, Michael Hall Wines, Mordrelle, Harrison Wines, Anvers and Vintage Longbottom, which crafts a straight Hills “H” Syrah as well as an attractive, aromatic “H” Pinot Noir/Syrah blend – the designer “H” marking on the bottles referring to their Hills origins.

“Defining the wines as syrah is about depicting the style as a lighter weight, more medium-bodied wine than the more classic shiraz from regions like McLaren Vale and Barossa,” proprietor Kim Longbottom says.

“People are getting their head around that now, that syrah does mean a lighter weight style of shiraz,” she says.

“There’s a cooler climate difference in the wine – a more elegant offering.

“And it’s a clear message about the Adelaide Hills.”

Tony Love is a writer, wine lover and proud Adelaide Hills resident. He was named the Wine Communicators of Australia 2018 Legend of the Vine (SA), was a member of the Halliday Wine Companion reviewing team for the 2022 edition, reviews for Winepilot and judges at regional and capital city shows. He is the South Australian Wine Ambassador for the Asian-Pacific Region.

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