THE old joke used to be: "What do you call a thumping headache that starts with a strong taste of leather?" Answer "Shiraz."
Happily, Australia's most famous red wine has undergone many changes since those bad old days but it does now seem at a crossroads.
Interestingly, it was a Scot – James Busby – who originally took cuttings of syrah from the Rhne to Australia in 1832. The new arrival caught on quickly but was used for fortified wine for the next 100 years (remember "Australian Ruby"). Even when a table-wine industry did emerge, shiraz vines were torn out to make way for fashionable cabernet sauvignon.
Then, inspired by a trip to Bordeaux, Max Schubert – the chief winemaker at Penfold – started to experiment. Because it was to hand, he used shiraz rather than cabernet. The early results were inauspicious. One critic likened the wine to crushed ants and even his own board judged it undrinkable. Slowly, however, attitudes changed and Schubert's efforts evolved into the iconic Penfold Grange.
Early shiraz produced very ripe, chewy, robust wines with intense flavours of oaked cherry or chocolate and embodying richness, power and, of course, high levels of alcohol. It became a tremendous hit in the US, in particular. That sales momentum was preserved by two other developments. First, new winemakers emerged ready to travel the world finding ways to improve their wines. Secondly, unlike France, Oz labelling centred on grape varieties. Only last year, a survey found that, after price, nothing matters more to shoppers than the grape variety.
Regional variations also began to assume importance and good examples started to emerge from McLaren Vale, Western Australia and cooler areas like Victoria.
However, few things last forever and disenchanted commentators began to dismiss shiraz as one-dimensional. As Giles Clarke a master of wine at Alliance Wine put it: "Consumers have tired of big, burly, Australian shiraz with high alcohol and the heavy use of oak; new approaches are being sought".
Even some growers share those concerns about alcohol, believing that levels beyond 14 per cent obliterate both flavour and aromas. Wine with too much oak or alcohol is also difficult to match with food - more important as wine and food combinations move centre-stage.
More blending is one aspect of the new approaches to which Clarke refers. Many shiraz producers have adopted the Rhne trick of blending in a small proportion of the white grape viognier. This brings floral influences to the finished wine. Other grapes are also being blended with shiraz to increase interest and lighter versions are emerging, too. Some growers are even looking at carbonic maceration – a whole-grape fermentation method used mainly for fruit-driven reds such as Beaujolais. The 2010 harvest should help as the quality looks good and the weather is helping.
Susan Hulme MW – one of the Panel Chairs at the judging for the International Wine Challenge – feels these efforts are beginning to pay off. "I was struck by the quality of some Australian shiraz at this year's IWC," she says. "Many were brimming with vivid bramble, black cherry, cream and spice flavours, with an excellent balance between velvety tannin and juicy acidity."
None of the judges know which producers' wines they actually tasted but the trend is clear. Hulme, who runs a wine consultancy called Vintuition, is an influential convert, having won the coveted Bollinger Tasting Medal in 2005.
These good omens with the determination and flexibility of the growers should spark new enthusiasms among consumers. With luck, another successful chapter will open shortly in the book that James Busby started nearly 200 years ago.
Bushlands Shiraz Cabernet 2009
South eastern Australia, 13.5 per cent
A simple entry-point shiraz blend with attractive dark fruit and presentable balance. 3.49, Aldi
Marsanne Vin de Pays d'Oc
Languedoc, France, 12 per cent
A grapefruit and pear-flavoured white for excellent everyday drinking at a superb price. 3.98, Asda
Rolling Shiraz 2007
Central Ranges Australia, 13.5 per cent
A soft and smooth shiraz with bramble and raspberry flavours and tremendous depth and balance. 8.21 as part of a mixed case of 12 from Irvine Robertson (0131-553 3521), quote Scotland on Sunday for a 10 per cent discount
• This article was first published in Scotland on Sunday on 23 May.