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Feature: Renegade Reds

Emily Ross

The supply of Three Rivers Shiraz, a wine made from grapes grown in South Australia’s high-altitude Barossa Ranges, is so scarce that the waiting list is five times longer than the available stock. Its creator, winemaker Chris Ringland, says that promoting the wine to the international market has been simple: “I just tell people they can’t have any.”

In a good year, 1,000 bottles of Three Rivers Shiraz is produced from the 92-year-old unirrigated vineyard. Two-thirds of each vintage makes it to the U.S. market, where wine distributor The Grateful Palate works closely with Ringland to determine who will secure a bottle.

Ringland’s vision for the wine was simple: “I wanted to create a wine of extreme concentration and power, to really make a statement,” he says. “I wanted to explore a different avenue of shiraz production, to make something that really reflects what turns me on when I open a bottle of wine.” (He also wanted something that looks “damn good in the glass.”) Ringland, whose first vintage was in 1989, says that if he feels a vintage is not up to scratch, no Three Rivers is released for that year. That is exactly what happened in 1997 when he found the grapes to be inferior and used them for another wine label.

According to Robert Parker, perhaps the world’s most influential wine critic, Three Rivers is the best shiraz made in Australia. On his 100-point rating system, Parker deemed the 1993 vintage a 99. Around the same time as Parker’s first rave review, the 1996 vintage was released at $250 a bottle, and it sold out in the United States in less than three weeks. Parker’s enthusiasm for the wine trebled the price within a year to $750 a bottle.

Some will argue that Three Rivers and fellow Australian shirazes Penfolds Grange and Wild Duck Creek Shiraz Duck Muck rival the world’s finest reds: a first-growth claret, grand cru Burgundy, a super-Tuscan, or the best of the Napa Valley.

However, Andrew Caillard, the executive director of Australia’s elite Langton’s Fine Wine Auctions, is not interested in making such comparisons. “Rival is the wrong word,” he says. “Wine is an experience, and wine buyers seek new experiences all the time. It is not like buying a fridge or a camera, where the buyer needs only one item. The word peer is better.”

While many of the French ultrapremium wines are renowned for their subtleties, Australian winemakers have pushed the boundaries for producing big, fruity reds that make an asset of the land’s often hot, dry climate. They are characteristically bold wines, powerful and fleshy, with highly concentrated flavor and layers of fruit. Think chocolate, cassis, pepper. They have the intensity, concentration, and flavor length to impress, and as all great wines should, they evoke the essence of a magical place, where a winemaker’s alchemy has been played out.

According to some of the world’s most influential wine critics, particular vintages of these three great Australian shirazes are close to perfection, if there is such a thing. The combination of vineyard sites, vintage conditions, and winemaking philosophy create something unique.

These wines also represent relatively good values compared to other trophy wines, such as the Pomerols and the grand crus. British wine critic Jancis Robinson describes the top premium Australian shirazes as “bargain masterpieces.”

“They are wines for wine lovers, wine drinkers, collectors, and some of our oldest and most passionate customers,” says Dan Philips of The Grateful Palate, which distributes Duck Muck as well as Three Rivers.

Scarcity continues to add to the attraction of these wines, and whenever they appear at U.S. and British wine auctions, their prices continue to rise. Some Penfolds Grange vintages are now worth 50,000 times their original sale price. When first produced in 1951, a bottle of Grange sold for one Australian dollar. In 2001, a bottle from that vintage sold for $26,000. “It is an oenological artifact,” says Caillard.

Grange has been labeled the world’s best dry red by myriad wine critics. The legacy of winemaker Max Schubert, who took a scientific approach to winemaking and was fanatical about research and development, it is unquestionably the greatest achievement of the Australian wine industry.

Wealthy Scandinavian textile manufacturer Anders Josephson was so enamored of the wine that he built a humidity-controlled warehouse on Lake Macquarie in the Australian state of New South Wales and began buying up all the Grange he could find. He now has the world’s largest collection of the wine, more than 100,000 bottles valued at more than $5 million. A complete set of vintages recently sold to a New York collector for more than $85,000. “Grange has its own character, its own intensity, concentration, and mighty flavor,” says Caillard.

Primarily made from shiraz grapes, helped along by some cabernet sauvignon, Grange is a multivineyard, regional blend. The grapes originate in the Barossa Valley, a fertile, fascinating part of South Australia established by a Lutheran community in the 1840s and now known for its excellent jazz, shiraz, and riesling.

Grange may have more prestige in the marketplace and fetch the highest prices for Australian wine on the international market, but the brashly named Duck Muck Shiraz has enjoyed sensational reviews as well, selling at auction for as much as $750 a bottle. The quirky name for the wine came from a friend of winemaker David “Duck” Anderson, who scrawled “Duck’s muck” on a wine barrel at the winery in Heathcote in the Australian state of Victoria. The vineyard is only 17 years old, but the warm, dry climate has helped the fruit develop into its signature high intensity. Parker labeled it a “cult wine,” when its short supply sent wine collectors into a frenzy.

Other Australian wines worth investigating include Clarendon Hills Astralis Shiraz, Torbreck Run Rig Shiraz, Henschke Hill of Grace, Giaconda Chardonnay, and Jim Barry The Armagh. The wine regions most likely to produce impressive shiraz include the Barossa Valley, McClaren Vale, Heathcote, and the Hunter Valley. Australian wine critic Philip Rich wisely urges wine lovers to look beyond the “Parker phenomenon” to these other impressive premium Australian wines.

When it comes to wine, Australia is still very much a frontier of new-world productivity. It is a place where a wine producer opens its doors every 73 hours, and wine exports are forecast to exceed $1 billion next year. Unfortunately, this prodigious output is unlikely to produce too many more truly great wines, but rather a lot more wines that are simply beverages, not experiences.

Ringland cannot imagine a time when wine connoisseurs will not desire his wines, as long as the vintage remains up to his standards. “There is a core group of people in the world who are so turned on by a truly individual wine, they become hooked and infatuated,” he says. For those who are lucky enough to secure a bottle of these brash, bold, larrikin wines, enjoy.

TASTING NOTES

Penfolds Grange Hermitage
Tasting notes: chocolate, cherry; full bodied; flavor that goes on and on; needs 12 to 15 years’ cellaring, up to 40 years
Key vintages: ’55, ’63, ’66, ’83, ’86, ’90, ’91, ’94
Production: as many as 10,000 cases
Price: from $160 to $1,750

Wild Duck Creek Shiraz Duck Muck
Tasting notes: high intensity, boisterous, oaky, fruity, and a big finish
Key vintage: ’97 Production: 700 cases Price: from $300

Three Rivers Shiraz
Tasting notes: concentrated chocolate, blackberry fruit flavors finishing with long mulberry smoky flavors; deep crimson, richly flavored.
Key vintages: ’91, ’92, ’93, ’96
Production: 600 to 800 cases
Price: from $150; difficult to find

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