The wine park

My love affair with Shiraz

May 20, 2013 12:55:13 PM



My love affair with Shiraz started during my September school holidays in 1972. There was a large team planting vines in our Heysen vineyard and it was my job to water them in with a long hose connected to a large tank on the back of a small truck. It was not so much the watering that had me hooked that day but the ability to drive the truck, a huge thrill for an eleven year old. I had to wait for the tank to empty, uncouple the hose so that we knew where we were up to in the row, then drive the truck to the end of the row. Astounding stuff for a kid at that age.


I still remember having one of those life-changing moments as I was watering a vine, thinking “this is my future”. My connection with this vineyard and the neighbouring Hanisch vineyard, had begun. After completing my secondary education in Adelaide, I went to Roseworthy Agricultural College to study Oenology. The wine industry was in a slump at that time and everything ‘Barossa’ was bad. Shiraz was hard to sell and was yet to be recognised as a varietal able to make a great wine. My colleagues at Roseworthy used to rib me about being from a backward region and for growing this unwanted grape variety. In the mid 70s there was an oversupply of red wine and an undersupply of white wine – creating the situation in some vintages where Shiraz was picked under ripe, crushed, pressed, fined with carbon and made into white wine!


My first vintage after Roseworthy was in the family business in 1982 and this taught me a lot after all the theory work during my studies. I was also pruning in our vineyards and started to develop a strong bond with the vines I helped to plant the years before. To help shape the quality of the next harvest in the vineyard was something I had learned about in the classroom and was actually now doing.


Our first step to help in the overall improvement of our grape quality was to put irrigation in all of our vineyards. Why did we do this after the Barossa had survived for over one hundred years as a dry grown region? The answer is simple; to make dry red wines of notable quality you need to grow them in a different way to those used for fortified wines. This required the use of irrigation at times throughout the growing season. In College we were taught that it was vital for quality to stress a vine by reducing its water supply around veraison. However, during my first few years as a winemaker, my view on this theory changed to keeping the vine happy and watered around the period of first colour change to produce a better wine, with thicker skin and more mature flavours. The amount of water put on at this time is critical and it should be done considering the soil moisture content along with the health of the vine, together with its amount of foliage and crop level. Hence the variables are numerous.


The other thing to consider with maturing Shiraz vines in the Barossa Valley is that for sufficient flavours to develop in the grape, there needs to be a minimum maturation period of 35 days from grapes colouring to harvesting.


The history of the Shiraz grape is quite interesting. The Syrah grape is originally from France, notably the Hermitage area in the Rhone Valley. Experts believe that the grape variation planted in Australian vineyards came directly from this location, which explains the supremacy of Australian Shiraz in the New World Shiraz market.


Syrah first came to Australia in 1831 when Scotsman James Busby, often called "the Father of Australian viticulture", made a trip back to Europe to collect cuttings from vines (primarily from France and Spain) for introduction to Australia. One of the varieties he collected was Syrah, although Busby used the two spellings "Scyras" and "Ciras". The cuttings were planted in the Sydney Botanical Gardens and in the Hunter Valley, and in 1839, some cuttings arrived in South Australia from Sydney. By the 1860s, Syrah was established as an important variety in Australia.


In my next note, I will share some details of my early days making Shiraz….