Imagine two French vignerons, who happen to be best friends, meeting to discuss wine – one from Bordeaux and one from Hermitage. The winemaker from Bordeaux laments about how their hard the vintage has been so far and that they don’t think that the wines coming from this vintage are going to be up to par. The two then hatch a plan.
After their grapes have been harvested, they start making wine. The good friend from Hermitage then surreptitiously sends their friend a batch of their freshly made wine. They go to every effort to make sure that no-one will ever know that this vintage of claret has been bolstered up with wines not allowed under the edicts of the Appellation Controlee for that region. The result of their endeavour produced wines with better structure and weight than efforts from neighbouring estate’s despite a difficult year.
Now, of course I am not saying this ever happened and I am not saying that it never happened. I am also not saying that there are no cabernet shiraz blends made in France because there are some fine examples coming from the South in the form of IGP wines. Of course, neither can you overlook syrah’s love of a good blend when you consider the likes of fine Chateauneuf du Pape and other Rhonish syrah blends. I am, however, quite glad that there are some countries that treat these blends with the respect they deserve and in the case of Australia, they have become beloved.
However, in my daily conversations with wine drinkers, I have recently found myself defending wine that are a blend of varieties. There seems to be this perception that 100% varietal wines are superior and that blending is only done at the less expensive end of the market or to rectify wines in poor vintages.
Having over 180 years to get to know the syrah grape, Australians have been known to be more likely to defy rather than abide by syrah tradition, or any tradition for that matter. Calling it ‘shiraz’ is an obvious place to start. Subsequently, Australian winemakers, who have been known to historically add pinot noir to shiraz, now create a range of interesting shiraz blends including the more traditional Rhone mixes.
Although sometimes, and I mean in rare instances, the more experimental side of blending says more about winemaker’s innovative streak than representing compelling drinking. I have recently tasted a wine with an addition of 20% riesling which I felt did not add anything of value. Notwithstanding this example, I have enjoyed reds with a vibrant, but much smaller, dose of riesling in the past such as Dandelion Vineyard’s ‘Lions Tooth of McLaren Vale’ which bewitches with its lashings of pepper to the pure blackberry fruit and fine, fine tannins.
There are plenty of more traditional French blends from Bordeaux (red and white) and the Rhone regions coming out of new world wine producing countries, including the fragrant Cote Rotie of the blend of shiraz / viognier. It is, however, the meeting of generous hearts of cabernet sauvignon and shiraz grapes that the majority of drinkers of Australian red blends know and love.
The partnership is mutually beneficial and creates a wine that is softer and more food friendly than the separate components. The bold bright fleshy fruit of the shiraz grape takes a lesson from the often equally rich and ripe merlot and fills out the structure of cabernet sauvignon which has more tannin and often more acid. The complexity of fine cabernet sauvignon with its herbal edge adds an extra layer of flavour to shiraz. Shiraz also adds vibrant colour and some additional alcohol lift.
Famous blends of shiraz and cabernet from Australia include Penfolds Grange which has often had a dose of cabernet sauvignon, Wolf Blass Black Label, Yalumba ‘The Signature’, Jasper Hill ‘Emily’s Paddock’ and Lindemans Limestone Ridge just to name a few.
Of course, at the other end of the spectrum these big red grapes perform well in commercial blends where they produce a juicy, round style that is soft and approachable to drink in the now. As with the finest blends, these bulk wine blends use the synergies of these grapes to their advantage.
The pedigree of these wines prove that in many instances Australian shiraz/cabernet sauvignon blends are in no way, shape or form lesser wines than straight 100% varietal wines. Just as you could never say that about any fortune commanding first growth claret. The prestige blends are not simply thrown together as a means to improve a wine in a poor performing year but are made with judiciously chosen grapes that display exciting synergy.
Next time you are holding a bottle of red wondering if, as a blend, it is really going to deliver as much pleasure as its 100% varietal neighbour – the answer is; perhaps even more.
Here are five examples for any budget –
Majella Musician Cabernet Shiraz 2011 ($20)
A wine with generosity at heart. Cinnamon, plum, caramel backed with some Coonawarra cabernet mint. Soft, long fine tannins are well integrated in a wine that is full of life and an elegant food wine. Drink it now and enjoy its cheerful freshness. >> Find this wine
Henschke Henry’s Seven 2012 ($32)
A pretty blend of shiraz 69%, grenache 20%, mourvedre 6% and viognier 5% – dried roses, raspberry fruit with a pinch of nutmeg and pepper and just a whiff of menthol. It is very chocolatey on the palate and has a vibrant lift from the viognier is offset by the savouriness of the mourvedre. The whole effect is elegant, effortless and seamless. >> Find this wine
Mt Pleasant Mount Henri Shiraz Pinot 2011 ($40)
Hunter Valley red fruit with a pinot enhanced structure that reminds us of the Hunter Burgundies of decades past. Cherry fruit and savoury forest floor flavours hit mid palate and smoothly move on to an intriguing finish of bright fruit and cloves.
Yalumba The Signature Cabernet Shiraz 2010 ($45)
A classic from the Barossa that is hard to resist. The cabernet contributes cigar nuances to the ripe black fruit spiced with cinnamon. This is a wine of supple tannin texture and finesse that will reward the patient cellarer. >> Find this wine
Clonakilla Shiraz Viognier 2011 ($85)
One of Australia’s most acclaimed shiraz viogniers with cool climate Canberra grown shiraz co-fermented with 5% viognier. Bright ruby hued, cherry and berry fruit, perfumed with exotic spice, vanilla and lashings of pepper. Very fine and powdery tannins, the fruit is fresh and clean mid palate and some savoury rosemary and smokiness on the finish. >> Find this wine