Southern Australia: Shiraz Tasting the Gems and Thinking About Climate Change Impacts

Some serious field research was needed to explore some classic Shiraz vantages and this required both tasting and climate data research.   The tasting and associated class, “Australia – Iconic and Age Worthy Shiraz.,” was led  by David Glancy of the San Francisco Wine School.    This was a hybrid class based in San Francisco and on zoom class for me and others from many regions. Also we were extremely fortunate to have two winemakers as the  main speakers: Chester Osborn of d’Arenberg Vineyards based in McLaren Vale and  Ian Hongell of Torbreck Vintners, based in Barossa Valley.

Before discussing the wines let us clarify one thing regarding Syrah vs Shiraz. They are  two different names for the same grape. Syrah is common in France’s Rhone Valley and Shiraz is what most winemakers in Australia call it. Another note is Shiraz tends to be more fruit forward than the Old World style. One final question I hear: what is the origin of this grape? France is the consensus now but, in the past, there has been discussion that the origin was the city of Shiraz in Iran.

(map credit-  )

For the folks doing the tasting via Zoom we had the 10 Shiraz wines shipped in vials, very clever and practical. However I will just highlight two regions. The first one is McLaren Vale;  d’Arenberg The Dead Arm Shiraz. Dead arm is a vine disease in which one arm of the vine slowly becomes reduced to dead wood. The bad news this reduces the yield since the surviving arm of the vine produces small volumes of wine. The  good news is that it has intensified flavor. We compared the 2010 and the 2018 vintages with the most obvious observation being that the 2010 sure ages well. It had a wonderful earthy nose with some solid tannins but not overdone. Many think that the above normal rainfall the proceeding fall and winter helped the crop. We also enjoyed the 2018 which had a very pleasant perfume nose with some light fruits .

The next wines sampled by our class were 2010 and 2018 The Factor from Torbreck Vintners.  This area is in Barossa Valley, which is to the north of McLaren Vale. and generally is slightly warmer than McLaren Vale. Everyone in the group really enjoyed the 2018, especially the light chocolate nose and light fruits. 2018 vintage summer growing season was preceded with above normal rainfall in the winter and then below normal rain for the spring and summer. This brought reduced yields and high quality wine. The 2010 had a subdued earthy nose with a full body of flavors and a great tannin balance. The famous Robert Parker rated this 97 points which is “extraordinary”. We all agreed on that.

After an hour tasting we had a question and answer period and being a meteorologist I had to bring up the climate change topic. It was agreed that the common theme was warmer summers with earlier budbreak and harvest. However the changing rainfall patterns are very concerning. I dug into the rainfall records dating from 1910 to 2020 and found that 66% of time rainfall was below normal for Southern Australia. The trend was certainly more pronounced for winter rainfall. Winter rains are critical with June, July and August bringing close to 37% of the total yearly rainfall. On the graph below notice the black line sloping downward over time, indicating less rainfall over time.

The graph below indicates the pronounced reduced rainfall pattern during the cool season. During the last 21 years,  18 have been below normal with many seasons significantly below normal. The cool season normally brings close to 60% of the total rainfall.

What are the impacts for the wine regions? Many experts say when we have below normal rainfall before Australia’s normally dry summer that will create several issues. One result is increasing probabilities of wildfires and we know the impacts that brings. Then with abnormally dry soil conditions just before spring can make vineyards more vulnerable to frost. Higher soil moisture tends to minimize frost issues and, in fact, a frequent practice for vineyard managers is to irrigate the vineyard the night before frost is expected. .

Future predications?  That is certainly a complex issue and would be for another article. Here are some interesting thoughts on future rainfall patterns.

After digging into weather data I was ready for a nightcap. I had some remaining port from the wine tasting class and enjoyed the rich and rewarding 1999 Seppeltsfield Para 21 Year Old Vintage Tawny

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