When the first white settlers brought vines to this new colony, not many knew, or cared much for the names of the varieties. Out of respect and gratitude for the folks who let them have cuttings, they tended often to name the grape after the town or place where they bought it.
So the French Mourvèdre, or Monastrell, as the Spanish call it, became Mataro because the aspirant Aussies picked it up in that French Mediterranean seaside port, where the grape is called Mourvèdre.
Many of the varieties from Xerez were simply called “sherry”, which was the British docker’s attempt at pronouncing the name of that place; Shakespeare’s loveable patriot and drunk, Sir John Falstaff, called it “sherries”.
And so to that last tall, steep hill – the one with a tiny teat of a chapel on its peak – that the Rhone passes as it leaves its gorge to build its great delta all the way down to Marseilles: A returning crusader bunked up there once on his way home from bashing Moslems. He was wounded and exhausted but the wine from that vine-covered slopes made him feel good so he stayed there squatting in his adopted hermitage.
Those grapes were called Syrah, a word never seen on the local labels: Hermitage was, and still is, the name they used for their best Syrah wine.
So the smart settlers who brought us those cuttings called them Hermitage, in due respect of their source. It took a long time for most Australian red freaks to attempt a pronunciation of Syrah. How they confused it with Shiraz, the stylish city in Iran/Persia with the most beautifully trippy mosque and only sweet white wine, remains lost in some 19th-century tavern, but that’s what happened here: for a century, many thought Hermitage and Shiraz were different varieties.
The styles of wine grown and made in Hermitage and those that come from Australia have evolved quite differently, right up to what was called Grange Hermitage till the French forced an agreement in the international courts that would have us forever drop the H word in return for export access to their markets in Europe.
The Jericho family, led by winemakers Andrew and Neil, make two versions of this variety. One is from the Duck Chase Vineyard at Seaview, McLaren Vale; the other from the Corydon Vineyard in the hills above Willunga.
Typical of the haphazard manner we apply to nomenclature, these have become known in that same international trade agreement as Adelaide Hills, which is nonsense and misleading. They are very obviously the Willunga Hills, or perhaps Kuitpo Hills, which are parts of what the white folks named the South Mount Lofty Ranges from the start.
Jericho McLaren Vale Shiraz 2014 ($38; 13.8% alcohol; cork) grew at two tonnes per acre at 170 metres above the Gulf St Vincent and an hour’s walk from it. The vineyard faces south, so it misses the worst of the baking sun.
While much lower in alcohol than nearly all of the gloopy, overpowered jam most Ockers remain determined to make of their Shiraz, this smells ripe, but much more lively and appetising: it’s more elegantly poised than those dunderheaded forgettables. It has a faint dusting of piquant white pepper across its gentle set of dark berries – a character over-ripe fruit loses.
There’s certainly nothing unripe about the flavours: the wine is more like Shiraz than blackberry jam. It’s juicy, fresh, vibrant and sinuous, with oak that’s pretty well disappeared into the fruit, and has natural acid that cleans the palate and provokes hunger without being too obvious or imbalanced.
In essence, this is what Australian Shiraz should be like: delicious, balanced, appetising and concentrated but svelte enough to guzzle as much as savour. It is, after all, a drink. It won’t make any difference to you until you tip it in there.
On the other hand, the Jericho Adelaide Hills Syrah 2014 ($38; 12.4% alcohol; cork) grew on a north-facing slope at 340 metres height. Due to the vines getting no irrigation on that very stony, windy hilltop, the hand-pickers could find only 0.4 tonnes to the acre.
The wine smells a little more sooty at first, a character arising from toasted barrels. But most will miss this: there’s more fun and delight in here than you’ll get up a chimney! It shows a similar array of black, blue and deep red berries with an almost sinister iron/carbon/gunblue glint.
Is it close enough to Hermitage to justify the Jericho adoption of the Syrah word the French don’t use on their labels? In this bouquet, I find bits of elegance and nature that do remind me of some of the more elegant Hermitage Syrah vintages. It has a lovely Rhone Gorge sweetness to its fragrance, like I would imagine the elusive jet black rose to smell.
Somebody has developed a black-ish rose – there’s a sample in the Botanic Gardens – but the one I’m imagining here is like steam engine jet black.
It’s the palate that proves the Jericho point: it makes the Seaview Shiraz look very Australian, and riper than indeed it is: even a tad jammy. In contrast, this wine’s form, its build and demeanour is strappy, stroppy and belligerent. It’s cheeky and svelte, yet still very intense. No jam; not even a dob of conserve.
So there you have two brilliant examples of how far we got off the potable Shiraz track. Most Australian makers would never have produced a Shiraz as low in alcohol as 13.8 per cent. Somehow, they simply don’t get it. They’re scared of it. But 12.4 per cent? That’ll earn you a disbelieving look of horror.
Me? Gimme. Duck with the Shiraz. And the Syrah? Gerard Jaboulet, the great deceased Hermitage king, once sent me, with a bottle of his ’78, to his favourite Hermitage country restaurant in pursuit of one dish. It came on a big flat white plate. On that was a layer of pork stock with lentils, fresh-foraged truffles from the nearby Massif, a few slices of thin carrot, and just a couple of tiny shreds of pork belly with a good crunch on their crackling.
My sensories still tingle at the memory of that sublime epiphany.
You rock you Jerichos!
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