It’s hard to describe what it was like back in the day, back when Australian wines were totally new to us in America. Think about it: tasting new styles of wines, new expressions of grapes for the very first time. At a time when many varietals and regions were well known by the trade and by consumers, the immersion into an unknown world of tastes and aromas was the enological equivalent of diving into a pool with blinders on from the high board, just less scary.
That’s what it was like when two wines from Victoria arrived that disrupted the notion of what a peppery syrah could be. The 1994 Mount Langi Ghiran shiraz from the Grampians west of Melbourne and the 1994 Craiglee from Sunbury, a suburb just a short drive from Melbourne’s airport showed pepper with power and precision. This was no elusive whiff of spice that appeared and blew away that could be found in some wines from the northern Rhone. There was no mistake with these wines. There was full-on pepper in abundance here. The phrase I used at the time was “It was if they took a pepper grinder and dumped it into the vat.” I still use it.
Over the years, personal, anecdotal and scientific research have revealed interesting facts and observations about the role of pepper in Aussie shiraz which might be of interest. Scientists at the Australian Wine Research Institute in Australia have identified that rotundone is the chemical component that accounts for peppery aromas in wine and more interestingly, that about 20% of people are unable to smell pepper in wine. This raises an interesting point that wine writer Jamie Goode has mentioned: If you can’t smell pepper and you come across a Mount Langi shiraz in judging a wine show, does that mean your score is incorrect? Personal experience at The Jug Shop when these wines first arrived into the market had less to do whether someone could smell it. Quite the opposite, some consumers just plain didn’t like pronounced pepper aromas in their wine and saw them as unpalatable!
The question arises as to why some wines show more pepper than others and specifically, why it’s more noted in wines from Australia’s cooler regions. For the life of me, the E+E Black Pepper shiraz from the warm Barossa Valley was so named because of the supposed relationship between the grape and the scent but in over 30 years of tasting Barossa shiraz, it’s not something I have encountered much at all. Or much anywhere else in South Australia. This is a Victorian thing.
Some winemakers believe that the pepper component in shiraz appears at a certain point in the grape’s ripening cycle and then disappears as the grapes mature. If a winemaker wants to capture that flavor, the fruit must be picked during that window which is relatively brief. In warmer areas, once the grower readies his crew to pick the fruit, it’s too late as the window is closed. In cooler appellations, the period when pepper appears lasts longer which enables growers to capture the elusive spice.
As many folks know, or should know, Australian sparkling shiraz is one of the country’s unique contributions to the world of wine. Over years of experience, it’s become clear that fizzy shiraz reflects its viticultural origins just as clearly as the flat stuff. And nowhere is that found more clearly then in Craiglee’s rare Sparkling Red No. 6 which had loads of pepper aromas accurately reflecting it’s cool Victorian origins when it was released.
And not only can the pepper in shiraz come through in its bubbly state, it can remain in a wine over time as seen clearly in the 2006 Mount Langi shiraz tasted just last week. Clearly apparent as a black pepper aroma mixed with some earth and savory elements, it also showed clearly on the palate as it complemented the more mature textures and flavors there as well.
But just as pepper is more elusive in the northern Rhone and California syrahs, it’s not always easy to find in Australia either. It takes just the right vintage conditions: too hot and you’ll get a classic shiraz with soft fruits. And so it was with the 2015 Langi. Too cold and the grape can’t ripen leaving a green, vegetal aromas. Some Aussies in the trade can discern the difference between white and black pepper! A rough guide in my experience is that wineries like Mount Langi and Craiglee capture that perfect aroma 3-4 times a decade. Here’s hoping for more, I love pepper in Aussie shiraz and its clear that there are fans here in the States. I hope to find more examples for readers in the future.