Recently I participated in an Australian Shiraz tasting. A BYOB affair with no other subthemes . Seven bottles showed up mostly from Southeastern appellations around Sydney, Canberra and Perth, the best known region of the country. While the vintages and soils were different, there was one common denominator in four bottles that appealed to my fellow tasters. These were:
2003 Reynella Shiraz, McLaren-Vale ($25)
2006 Two Hands Shiraz, McLaren-Vale ($33)
2005 Archetype Shiraz, Barrosa Valley ($30)
2004 Fireblock Shiraz, Claire Valley ($20)
Their common denominator, as I perceived it, was that they wore too much “make up”.
Allow me to explain. These were all dark, maroon wines with big, hot weather fruit aromas. Thus on first impression they promised a big fruit, tannic, spicy and high alcohol experience on the palate. Instead they delivered clean understated fruit and no tannin, but with alcohol aplenty. The acid profiles varied, some had none and tended towards sweetness, others delivered acid near the finish, but not nearly as much as you would find in France and Italy. They were all smooth, well balanced wines. It was impossible not to be charmed by them.
So what’s the problem?
To me it seemed impossible for such relatively young wines from an obviously hot climate to deliver this kind of smooth palate experience from those grapes without extensive winemaker manipulation. The lack of tannin in particular made the experience feel a bit fake. Who knows what the winemakers did. The bottle labels did not reveal any hints of how the wines were made; they simply contained back tags full of meaningless P.R. bullshit, common to most labels nowadays (oh yes, that will for sure be the subject of future blogs). But whatever they did, the winemakers were skillful in the way they crafted the palates.
Is there something wrong with that?
Let me diverge into an anecdote. In 1986, I and a bunch of fellow young residents used to drool over a certain ICU nurse who was always well made up, wore sweaters to work that highlighted her always erect nipples, and was often seen working in knee high boots with 8 inch heels(you could do that in those days). She was easily the flashiest female in the entire mega-complex known as Moffitt Hospital in San Francisco. While my fellow buddies all made attempts at gaining her affections I stood back and wondered, – imagined actually – what she would look like without all that make up, the S&M boots, and the obviously fake breasts. Would she really be all that attractive if you woke up next to her in the morning and saw the “real thing”? In the end my actions spoke for themselves; I left my buddies to their pursuit and went for another nurse in that ICU who did not sport all that make up and sexy garb. With her what you saw was what you got.
These Australian wines reminded me of that flashy nurse. The grapes were manipulated into something seductive and enticing, to the degree that they had lost their identity. There was one other bottle in the bunch, a 2006 Lehmann Shiraz from Barossa Valley that did seem “genuine”. It sported a similar color and nose to the others, but in the palate delivered big chocolaty fruit and yes, tannin! Its rough edges were there to be experienced. In my tasting notes I wrote, “wow, this is the true one!”
Would it make a difference if I could mentally “undress” the manipulated wines by discovering what was done to them? Wasn’t the pleasant experience good enough for the price of the bottle? These are philosophical questions most of us do not ask. We just buy, uncork and guzzle. After all, most consumer products we encounter are manipulated in various ways to entice us, from ingestible products, to clothes, furniture, cars etc. As the world of wine becomes rapidly homogenized with products that taste similar, what I call the “Coca-Cola, Pepsi-Cola” experience, it is precious to discover a few genuine drinks which remain true to their grape and soil and dare to leave their imperfections intact, without any chemical airbrushing.