Barossa Valley unsuitable for shiraz?

The somewhat controversial proposition that the Barossa Valley is unsuitable for shiraz has been put forward by Andrew Jefford in his article entitled “A Year in Australia: My Take on Terroir” in this month’s (July 2010) Decanter magazine.  He relevantly comments that:

“Many Australian winemakers have been busy, over the past-quarter century, erasing the sense of place from their wines.  Only now is it beginning to be allowed back.  Even then it’s a struggle, because of the innate conservatism of the wine-show system, and because of the lavish scores which prevail in some Australian wine reviews  Both over-reward (in my view) manufactured wines whose day should never have dawned in the first place.

That quarter-century, I’d suggest, will eventually be viewed as lost time: a period during which many of Australia’s greatest terroirs underperformed, with sometimes ill-suited varieties lingering for too long in the wrong locations.  An example of the latter – and I accept that this will seem heretical to many – is Shiraz in the Barossa and McLaren Vale.  Shiraz flourished in these regions during the fortified-wine era …

The vineyards were then switched (from the mid-1960s onwards) to table wines, and the prevailing view became that you need to add something like 4g/l of tartaric acid to deliver an acceptable pH and TA post-malo.  I cannot believe that any wine which most producers believe routinely requires around 4g/l of acid adjustment to salvage its pH will hold a long-term place in the fine-wine pantheon: the end result, when combined with intrinsically sweet fruit and an absence of tannin, is simply too confected and simple.  These wines appeal initially, but quickly pall with experience (and food) …”

Underlying these comments appears to be the proposition that the acidification of wines obstructs terroir from being expressed.  The related proposition appears to be that acid additions detract from wine quality.  The former may or may not be true: I don’t know.  I do though find it fairly easy to identify Barossa shiraz in blind tastings, so if distinctiveness is an element of terroir then Barossa shiraz has it.  The latter I’d suggest depends on personal taste – some people like acidity in wines (eg riesling), some people don’t.

More generally though, my humble observation is that wine is hardly an unadulterated expression of grapes.  So I wonder whether acid additions are an important terroir “erasing factor” or whether we need to first systematically rule out other factors such as fungicides, sulphur additions, chaptilisation in cooler climates and the myriad of other adjustments that are involved in the grape growing and winemaking process to be certain.  I’m not saying that acid additions are irrelevant – acidity adjustments may of course play a problematic role and indeed I sometimes complain of excess acidity in some Coonawarra cabernets.  However, if the underlying complaint is really that any major adjustments to the vineyard or wine are to be viewed as problematic, by the same logic, many of the world’s classic cooler climate wine regions might too be declared to be growing unsuitable grape varieties.  And that doesn’t seem right, if only because I like their products too.

In relation to the Barossa Valley, in my humble experience, Barossa shiraz ages extremely well, is capable of producing wines that are outstanding, and to my palate at least, has a rather unique flavour that distinguishes it from shiraz produced in other parts of Australia, and other parts of the world.  To my palate, while I think that Bordeaux produces the world’s definitive cabernet sauvignon based wines, Australia produces the world’s definitive shiraz based wines.  Of course, there can be no harm in experimentation with different grape varieties to see whether even better results can be achieved, but I’d query whether it’s right to conclude that shiraz is unsuited to the Barossa Valley for the reasons put forward above.

14 thoughts on “Barossa Valley unsuitable for shiraz?”

  1. I agree with a lot of what you say. Andrew Jefford is in book promoting mode and nothing does this as well as some controversy. For his European palate, Barossa Shiraz is perhaps overpowering and therefore he may conclude it ignores terroir.I have been looking at this subject for the last year and have come to the conclusion that several sub-regions within the Barossa have different character, impacting on flavour and structure in systematic ways, almost irrespective of the winemakers efforts. The reason this is not so easy to detect is that there is so much blending going on. I reverted to extensive barrel tasting and find the influence of terroir striking.I am in the process of writing about this, but it will be a while before the results are out.


  2. The comments are as ridiculous as saying Champagne or Burgundy shouldn't be considered in the great pantheon of great wine because of chaptalisation (adding sugar).The Barossa in on the nose amongst many wine critics and afficionados for a whole host of knee-jerk reasons, but I agree with you Sean, the Barossa produces a tremendous amount of unique, age-worthy wine.


  3. Sean,He came to Australia with this thesis, that Australian wine has too much acid and hence it is unable to demonstrate terroir, and now after living in South Australia for the best part of a year, he says the same thing. Now this may mean that he was right all along, but equally it could suggest a closed mind.


  4. Closed minded, shit stirring & incredibly unsophisticated and boring ideas on \”terroir\”. Another stupid import by certain people in the Australian wine industry.For another take on this-


  5. 1. Yes. Too many winemakers are simply plumb ignorant of the importance of natural acidity, which they watch disappear in their search for Parker points. This is one of the strangest, most encompassing examples of an industrial psychological sickness that I have witnessed. On the other hand, some of our alkiline soils will usually determine that a tweak of added acid makes better wine. 2. Yes. The habit has long been to blend mindlessly the different vineyards and terranes to achieve \”consistency\”, Parker points or Australian trophies, which are awarded always by those suffering the ailment described above in (1).3. I have written of wines with reference to geology for decades, and think that these fledgeling Barossa tastings (see link below), and the forthcoming McLaren Vale geological map, followed by ther Clare and Barossa maps will help sort much of this out fairly quickly. The reluctance with which winemakers approach their geology, and what it means, flavour-wise, is an indication of how reluctant they are to surrender their ancient regime.The hassles we've had trying to get the McLaren Vale map through the McLaren Vale Grape Wine And Tourism Association, which knows NOTHING of geology, is telling to say the least. This could have been printed long ago, but there is no enthusiasm from the major operatives. check


  6. Like many wine critics, Mr. Jefford is so used to giving his opinions that he thinks them to be fact, rather than just his opinions.Wine critics are like used car salesmen, they add no value to the consumer and simply exist to inflate the price of the product.I've often tasted a wine I disliked only to find that a wine critic has rated it highly – I've never yet changed my mind about disliking the wine; and vice versa!


  7. here here, wholeheartedly agree with red, edward and anonymous and jeremy pringle, most of all. who cares what jefford thinks of our wines? this ongoing bollocks about terroir and the 'correctness' of the french wine styles vs. the rest, is akin to saying- pizza was invented in italy, therefore only pizza made by italians with italian ingredients is any good.ludicrous statement by someone liking the sound of their own voice perhaps. compared with the % of green, stalky undrinkable dross emerging from france, i will take the barossa style shirazs in a second, especially considering the differences in price. the point about acid addition does have merit, but lets be clear- if chaptalization is ok for them, acid adds are just fine for us. at least we can get our fruit ripe!!


  8. Thanks for new round of comments on this topic. In relation to the suggestion from Anonymous, I strongly agree that your own opinion is the most important guiding factor, and the views of wine writers are most generally not facts. That said, though, I think that wine critics and wine blog writers (in particular of course!) can add value if you find ones who are informative and share your tastes ;-)CheersSean


  9. Posting on this a bit late, but agree with most of the comments above. Seems like a reversed-engineered trip to Australia to sell more books and try to add salt to our wounds. He is a Francophile and I would be very interested to hear what he has to say about the French adding sugar to their wines, as well as the quality of the bottom 80% of their end product.As for the Barossa – it will be fine. Their distinctive wines stand out in the world of wine (whether you love the style or hate it); a bad wine maker can fail with Barossa Shiraz, though a great wine maker can produce some magic (as is the case with many Oz wine regions).As JP said – great move bringing this guy out here to stick the boot into Australian wine – the Chardonnay call is his latest back handed compliment…RB 'BROWN'


  10. Thanks RB. I just finished reading Andrew Jefford's musings on Australian chardonnay in Decanter. The theme was a bit varietal focussed rather than terroir focussed, but that said, I thought there was some concession to regionality and terroir with his concluding remarks that \”[chardonnay] has shown those making it in propitious locations that they can trust their soils and sites to create the aesthetic parameters of a wine\”. So, we'll probably all still have to buy the book to find out his real thoughts :)CheersSean


  11. I was raised on Australian Shiraz–introduced to wine by my Australian brother-in-law when we spent a year in Melbourne in the 1970s. It was for many years my reference point, but as the years have passed and I have tried more European wines, I agree with Jeffords. Most Barossa Shiraz is too show-oriented and too oaky with virtually no sense of terroir. There are some interesting wines that age well, and I can enjoy them when I'm in Australia but I rarely buy them when I'm back in the States. Compared to even mediocre wines from the Rhone, I find them way too over-sized and lacking in personality and flavor interest.


  12. Fair enough Fred, you are most certainly entitled to your views, and it is good to hear different ones. I think there has been, at least in my opinion, a slightly regrettable tendency for Barossa shiraz in the last 10 years or so to become a bit too over-ripe and over-oaked with too much alcohol (read 15%+ abv wines). But I think that tendency is starting to correct itself more recently in Australia as fashions change, and winemakers in the region explore more subtle expressions of place. It is also of course a fashion that has not been isolated to Australia, as we apparently witness ever higher alcohol levels in right bank St Emilion wines, among other places. But the Barossa is of course a warm, probably even hot place, and I think its \”terroir\” tends, without much intervention, towards these very full bodied ripe expressions of shiraz. They do polarise opinion and I have had more than one friend \”move on from them\”, but are they an \”honest\” expression of what the Barossa does best or should they consider other grape varieties as per Andrew Jefford's suggestion? In my humble opinion, the answers are probably \”yes\”, and most likely \”no\”. Personally, do I like them? Yes, but then I like the Rhone Valley expressions of this grape too. Does everyone or anyone else need to like them? Not in my opinion: I love the personal journey of taste and changing tastes.CheersSean


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