Barossa Valley unsuitable for shiraz?

The somewhat controversial proposition that the Barossa Valley is unsuitable for shiraz has been put forward by Andrew Jefford in his article entitled "A Year in Australia: My Take on Terroir" in this month's (July 2010) Decanter magazine.  He relevantly comments that:

"Many Australian winemakers have been busy, over the past-quarter century, erasing the sense of place from their wines.  Only now is it beginning to be allowed back.  Even then it's a struggle, because of the innate conservatism of the wine-show system, and because of the lavish scores which prevail in some Australian wine reviews  Both over-reward (in my view) manufactured wines whose day should never have dawned in the first place.

That quarter-century, I'd suggest, will eventually be viewed as lost time: a period during which many of Australia's greatest terroirs underperformed, with sometimes ill-suited varieties lingering for too long in the wrong locations.  An example of the latter - and I accept that this will seem heretical to many - is Shiraz in the Barossa and McLaren Vale.  Shiraz flourished in these regions during the fortified-wine era ...

The vineyards were then switched (from the mid-1960s onwards) to table wines, and the prevailing view became that you need to add something like 4g/l of tartaric acid to deliver an acceptable pH and TA post-malo.  I cannot believe that any wine which most producers believe routinely requires around 4g/l of acid adjustment to salvage its pH will hold a long-term place in the fine-wine pantheon: the end result, when combined with intrinsically sweet fruit and an absence of tannin, is simply too confected and simple.  These wines appeal initially, but quickly pall with experience (and food) ..."

Underlying these comments appears to be the proposition that the acidification of wines obstructs terroir from being expressed.  The related proposition appears to be that acid additions detract from wine quality.  The former may or may not be true: I don't know.  I do though find it fairly easy to identify Barossa shiraz in blind tastings, so if distinctiveness is an element of terroir then Barossa shiraz has it.  The latter I'd suggest depends on personal taste - some people like acidity in wines (eg riesling), some people don't.

More generally though, my humble observation is that wine is hardly an unadulterated expression of grapes.  So I wonder whether acid additions are an important terroir "erasing factor" or whether we need to first systematically rule out other factors such as fungicides, sulphur additions, chaptilisation in cooler climates and the myriad of other adjustments that are involved in the grape growing and winemaking process to be certain.  I'm not saying that acid additions are irrelevant - acidity adjustments may of course play a problematic role and indeed I sometimes complain of excess acidity in some Coonawarra cabernets.  However, if the underlying complaint is really that any major adjustments to the vineyard or wine are to be viewed as problematic, by the same logic, many of the world's classic cooler climate wine regions might too be declared to be growing unsuitable grape varieties.  And that doesn't seem right, if only because I like their products too.

In relation to the Barossa Valley, in my humble experience, Barossa shiraz ages extremely well, is capable of producing wines that are outstanding, and to my palate at least, has a rather unique flavour that distinguishes it from shiraz produced in other parts of Australia, and other parts of the world.  To my palate, while I think that Bordeaux produces the world's definitive cabernet sauvignon based wines, Australia produces the world's definitive shiraz based wines.  Of course, there can be no harm in experimentation with different grape varieties to see whether even better results can be achieved, but I'd query whether it's right to conclude that shiraz is unsuited to the Barossa Valley for the reasons put forward above.
Wine Thoughts
June 12, 2010

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