After college, I started working with Christy Frank at Frankly Wines in New York City. I’d spent a year as an exchange student in Melbourne, and had visited wineries in Mornington Peninsula and Tasmania, so I was interested to explore the front shelf of the store, where Frank displayed some of Australia’s quirkier wines. Their colorful labels looked like pop art, and when I mentioned that I wasn’t interested in heavy, jammy, oaky, high-alcohol shiraz, she pointed me towards some lighter styles from McLaren Vale, the Adelaide Hills and Victoria.
One of those wines—the 2013 Jamsheed Beechworth Syrah from Yarra Valley—had me packing my bags and heading back to Victoria last summer. It was unlike any other Australian syrah I had tasted—savory, spicy, floral and fresh while still maintaining a dark-red-fruited character. As soon as I landed I booked a visit with Gary Mills at Jamsheed.
“Syrah is part of your wine lexicon if you grow up in Australia,” Mills told me. Yet back in 2003, when Mills founded Jamsheed, he looked to St-Joseph in France’s Rhône Valley for inspiration. “I love the wildness of the variety, the heady spice and the crazy sweet green wacky tones,” he says of the style of wine he found there, powered by fermentation with whole bunches. “I love the way that mineral soil can push a drive shaft of tautness through a palate that’s surrounded by deep fruit.”
On a tip from Jamsheed’s winemaker, Rhen Dodd, I headed to Luke Lambert’s winery early the next morning. Lambert was inspired to try his hand at winemaking by the wines of Cornas. He settled on the Yarra Valley for his syrah project, having tasted elegant, low-alcohol pinot noirs and cabernets from the region.
“The Yarra has soft light and lots of interesting slopes, volcanic soils and good rainfall,” he says, “so the wines tend not to be so sunny and muscular but more elegant.” Lambert sources his fruit from south-facing vineyards in the Upper Yarra: Between the coolness of the climate and the limited sun, the fruit can ripen slowly and sustain acidity at harvest.
Timo Mayer is also based high in the Upper Yarra, in the remote outskirts of Healesville, at a vineyard he calls the Bloody Hill. As we stood outside his house that overlooks his vines, he told me about leaving Germany to settle in Australia, the path to his own label in 2000, and his excitement about all things whole bunch.
His first experience working with syrah was back in the 1990s when he was making wines at De Bortoli, in charge of the basic bottling. “It was the poor cousin of the Estate Syrah. It was lower in alcohol, we didn’t use any new oak on it, it got less attention in the cellar, so it was less worked—and it was all the better for it,” Mayer says. “It had Yarra Valley written all over it.”
Here are some fresh styles of syrah from cool sites in Victoria, most from high altitudes, most from Yarra. There’s nothing monolithic about them. Instead, their lightness allows the character of the individual sites to show through.
Yarra Valley Shiraz
Tasting Notes by Joshua Greene, W&S Australian wine critic
This is an earthy Yarra wine that’s beautiful in its informality, from the scents of horse stable and game to the high-toned mace-like scent that brings to mind Mediterranean roasted eggplant, or shawarma. It’s tight and meaty, with lasting spice. (91 points, $20; Old Bridge Cellars, Napa, CA)
Gary Mills makes this syrah from a site in the foothills of the Victorian Alps—the elevation at Beechworth is more than 1,800 feet. He works without additions: spontaneous, whole-bunch fermentations; no enzymes; no fining or filtering and minimal sulfur at bottling. So, the wine leans a little natural in its volatility, needing a good shake in a decanter to get past the pickle scents and land in meat-and-olive-tapenade spiciness. It turns fragrant with light scents of blackberries, cured meat and pepperoncini. Let it open up before serving with rabbit pappardelle. (91 points, $55; Vine Street Imports, Mount Laurel, NJ)
Lambert’s syrahs are never what you might expect from Australia. They have the grace more often associated with Cornas than with anywhere in the New World. In the warmth of the 2013 vintage, this one is more Italianate—one taster compared it to Lacrima Morro d’Alba. There’s a wild, exotic fruit scent, close to red plum and pomegranate, along with a floral note of rose petals. It’s bold and luscious, firmly contoured, lasting with a sense of restraint that doesn’t diminish its cool length of flavor. (93 points, $65; Vine Street Imports, Mount Laurel, NJ)
Mayer grows this wine at his Bloody Hill Vineyard, 6.4 acres of vines on a steep slope at the base of Mount Toolebewong. He uses 50 percent whole clusters in the fermentation, which seems to outline the charry edges of this syrah, capturing black mushroom and black olive flavors within a tense structure. Decant it for a wood-oven pizza topped with eggplant, sausage and olives. (92 points, $85; Vine Street Imports, Mount Laurel, NJ)
A gracious, fl oral shiraz, this wine has a tension that shows in the crunch of its pomegranate fruit. It’s light, even for a Yarra Valley shiraz, focused on freshness. The tannins are rocky and firm, though the wine feels gentle, a delicate study in contrasts. (92 points, $80; Old Bridge Cellars, Napa, CA)