In the latest wine podcast episode on Drinks Adventures, we visit the Coonawarra wine region in South Australia for a look at one of Australia’s most unique wine styles.
The Great Australian Red is a wine competition created by British wine writer Matthew Jukes and Australia’s Tyson Stelzer to recognise and celebrate the blend that defines Australia: cabernet sauvignon and shiraz.
While in Australia recently for the 2019 competition, Matthew visited Coonawarra for the annual Cabernet Celebrations festival.
There, he presented a Great Australian Red masterclass at Wynns Coonawarra Estate – and of course, don’t forget to check out my interview with Wynns senior winemaker Sue Hodder in Season Three of this podcast.
I was at Wynns for Matthew’s masterclass, and thanks to Coonawarra Vignerons and the digital agency Made With Moxie, I’ve been able to edit together a highlights package from the masterclass to share with Drinks Adventures listeners.
Theme music ‘Sandbox’ by Rudists.
Matthew Jukes on The Great Australian Red: Full transcript
JAMES ATKINSON: Renowned as a champion of Australian wine, Matthew Jukes has visited Australia many times over his 30-plus years in the industry.
MATTHEW JUKES: It had just been annoying me, irritating the back of my brain for 10 years, because every time I’d been over here on safari and had done a hard days eating and drinking, I’d be invited back to some winemaker’s house or whatever for supper. They’d cook something extraordinary and pull out an old bottle, often clean skin, often kind of bit knackered, pray the cork’s all right. Don’t know what it is, half the time they didn’t know what it was. And they’d say, “Oh, well, it’s a style we use to make.” It’s the old Cabernet Shiraz, it’s 12.8 alcohol and it’s 60 years old and it still looks fresh. And I think, “Blimey, if you could do that in Bordeaux with a simple, straightforward, barely oaked, lowish alcohol, red wine that was thrown together with a few little special parcels that were left over from making other wines, wouldn’t the world be a beautiful place.
JAMES ATKINSON: Matthew recalled that on one of his visits to Australia, he was fortunate to meet a legend of the Australian wine industry, the late Len Evans.
MATTHEW JUKES: And so I took the opportunity to ask him about this wine style that I’d come across, but that I couldn’t really find out on the shelves very much. And this wine style of course is the one we’re going to celebrate today, which is this Cabernet Shiraz. Unusual, nay, illegal in France sort of blend. So I said to Len at this dinner, “Len, I keep seeing these wines. Why aren’t they made today?” And he said, “It’s just not fashionable. Everyone’s favouring the the straight Cabs, the straight Shirazes. Focusing on the single varietals, aiming for sort of big point scores from the international journals, et cetera.” And rather shunning this historic classic, as you say bretty, claret blend. Now in the absence of great Merlot, and this is a country that doesn’t really do great Merlot. And I say that hand on heart, because I remember when the dearly departed and much loved and much missed Wayne Stebbens asked me to host the first Merlot Symposium in Melbourne many years ago, scratching your heads. Did anyone turn up to that? It was a day-long celebration, which is a day too long of Merlot, the joy of Merlot. And we got to the end, it was a very, very big audience. It must have been 200 people in the room. It was at a flashy hotel, it was at something like the Park Hyatt or somewhere, it was no expense spared, and we got to the end and Wayne asked me to sum up the day’s proceedings and I said, “Do you know what, we probably won’t be seeing you again. This will be the one and only Merlot symposium.” And I was right.
MATTHEW JUKES: And so in the absence of Merlot, Shiraz has done the job, and done the job admirably well. And, of course, there are a few companies who have never ever dropped this flame, charging forwards with it, and the famous company who’s wines are represented on the table among others. And that’s just the sort of courage and the knowing, the real core knowing and the inability to drop this style, having made it so well. And those people are clearly Penfolds, Yalumba and Wolf Blass, and a few others. And they make wines that are unique and wines that are sensational, and wines that literally refuse to fall over in the cellar.
MATTHEW JUKES: But of course over the last … It’s now 14 years, yeah, 14 years, Australia itself is throwing its own spotlight onto it. Winemakers are now putting these wines up front. Collectors are going, “Oh, I’ve always been a fan.” Of course you have mate. And prices are fluctuating and you see them popping onto wine lists. And instead of looking into catalogues, big wine shows, and going, ‘miscellaneous other blends’, page 48B, it’s now The Great Australian Red. And the reason why it’s The Great Australian Red, the reason why I came up with that name, is because it’s pretty obvious. It is The Great Australian Red. It’s unique in the world, no one does this. A chap in Provence tries it, it’s pretty shit. A chap tries it down and Argentina, another dude in Chile, give up, you know. This is where it lives and there’s a great reason why it works here.
MATTHEW JUKES: And also the final point before we start tasting is, it works from the aforementioned $7.99 level up to the $350 level, at every single level. And there’s no other wines done in the world, try and think of one, that works from everyday glugger, pub wine up to mental crazy collectors wine. It’s really extraordinary in that regard. And the cheapie will age just as well as the big boy if you give it a chance. So, that’s why we’re here. It’s a hell of a story, just that stuff’s a hell of a story. So now I hope that everybody that learns this and takes this on board uses this class of wine as their sort of ticket to gain entry to other markets around the world. And then of course every other great wine that Australia makes can follow, because there are millions of different styles, a huge diversity, epic wines made from other grape varieties that can just barge in after this style has bashed down the door. And this style will bash down the door because this style competes head-to-head with Bordeaux Claret, Napa Cabernet, the big South African reds, which are generally Cab. Super Tuscans which are Cab. Big Rhones, which are Shiraz. All the world’s great red styles, these wines compete and stand side by side on the table.
JAMES ATKINSON: Together with Lindeman’s winemaker Brett Sharpe, and with many leading Coonawarra winemakers in the room, Matthew presented wines at the masterclass ranging in price from $32 a bottle right up to almost $1500 for the Penfolds Bin 620 Coonawarra Cabernet Shiraz.
MATTHEW JUKES: This shape and style and structure of wine is reminiscent of Château Latour. What else is there in France that is this dense and dark and impenetrable and age-worthy. And it’s almost got those sooty, grainy tannins that are so active on the tongue, they almost fizzle on the tongue with so much energy, and it just tells you it’s a baby. So the direct comparison to that wine, and I’m sure we’ve got direct comparisons to all of them if we think hard enough, that would be the Latour of the room. And if that’s what I’m comparing it to, then that justifies the fact that it’s a bloody expensive wine.
JAMES ATKINSON: Another of the standout wines presented on the day was Yalumba’s The Caley, winner of the Great Australian Red in both 2014 and 2015, priced at $350.
MATTHEW JUKES: So if Penfold’s Bin 620 was the Château Latour, so the impenetrable black, warrior-like, this is Lafite. This is Lafite shaped, like a pencil. Completely upright, slender, very, very long. All of its energy has gone into propelling length. So the mass of the wine is not a bowling ball that’s been thrown at your palate at high speed and knock your teeth out, it’s been extruded into this extraordinary long flavour. I think it’s a beautiful, beautiful wine.
JAMES ATKINSON: But Matthew emphasised again, that The Great Australian Red over-delivers even at the lower price points.
MATTHEW JUKES: I have a spiral cellar (at home) a really old one that has a glass lid so you can kind of see down into the cellar. It’s not very big, but you can see the bottle tops. And I spotted the trademark red Penfolds bottle top right at the bottom of the cellar. It’s a pain to get down there because it’s quite full and I have to reach, and my back’s a bit bad and my elbow is a bit weird. And so I finally tweaked this bottle out and I was hoping it’s going to be a nice old bottle of something special. The name was Koonunga Hill Shiraz Cab, 1998, so it was a 20 year old bottle. It was sensational. It was going to go straight in the cooking pot, promise you, I’m being honest. It was absolutely stunning, since that’s a £7.99 bottle of wine.
JAMES ATKINSON: Matthew says there are wines entered from all states in The Great Australian Red competition, showcasing a breadth of different styles.
MATTHEW JUKES: We have WA, we’ve got NSW, we’ve even had some really strange ones from up North. And we have cool climate, really peppery styles so we’ve had some styles from the hills. There’s no rules. In fact, the rules are that there are no rules, but it is easier to see when you’re tasting blind, you can try and predict where the wines are from. But certainly there is a vogue now for drawing Cabernet from this region (Coonawarra) and matching it with warmer, rounder Shiraz from Barossa. That’s looking like a recipe that a number of people will be using, but it depends on your resource. So no one should be constrained, I mean, you don’t have any rules here like that. So no one should be be constrained by a recipe, they should just be trying to make the best wine they can.
JAMES ATKINSON: One of the more unique wines presented on the day was the Wynns V&A Lane Cabernet Shiraz, which was made by co-fermenting the fruit sourced from Wynns’ vineyards situated along the Coonawarra landmark of V&A Lane.
MATTHEW JUKES: These grapes have been in love with each other in the vineyard. They’d been chatting, they got on and at the moment when they were both supposed to go off to college in separate directions, they put them on the same bus. And that’s what it tastes like. It is absolute joy in a glass. There’s nothing other than love and passion and harmony. And the fact that it’s 13.8% alc. we can all take a leaf out of that book because it brings with it innate freshness, which is incredibly hard to put into a wine later down the line, nay, impossible. And it also is very Coonawarra. It’s so harmonious, it’s so gentle, it’s so friendly. It doesn’t square up to you and ask you to sort of put your dukes up, or where’s your broad sword? It just says, “Look, give us a hug and then we’ll sit down and have a nice chat.” And it’s so integrated and smooth and delightful.
JAMES ATKINSON: Also highlighted was Lindeman’s Limestone Ridge Vineyard Shiraz Cabernet, a blend of 75 per cent Shiraz and 25 per cent Cabernet, another example of the seamless integration of these varieties.
MATTHEW JUKES: Cabernet tends to be the sort of upright, gentlemanly sort of Errol Flynn of the grape varieties. Shiraz tends to be more powerful, more structured, Arnold Schwarzenegger. And yet this time, what we’ve done is we’ve flipped it around. It’s not an Arnie wine though because of the limestone, because of your particular plot of land. It’s almost like a quite a fat bloke on a bicycle. So he’s a bit fat, he wakes up in the morning, but when he puts the lycra on, it all changes. And so Shiraz is this juicy vehicle, which is then given rather a narrow pedestal to stand on, and that being the Cab. And what’s interesting about this is, Shiraz-dominant Great Australian Red blends, are more plummy and fruity inevitably. But when you add the Cabernet into it, it has to do the right job. It’s not there just to make up the blend so that you can tick the box and go, ‘Yeah, I made one. Yeah, that’s The Great Australian Red blend.” Cabernet has to match like a puzzle piece in with the Shiraz. If it doesn’t fit, it sticks out like the proverbials, and I call it truck and trailer. You got the big truck and then you got a little trailer on the end, a little Cabernet waggling around on the highway. Absolutely bloody useless. It’s got to be integrated into the machine, and you’ve done a sterling job at that because I can’t even see the join.
JAMES ATKINSON: According to Matthew, one of the most pleasing developments in Australian winemaking has been the drive towards aromatic lift and vivacity, which was very much evident in The Great Australian Red wines we saw that day, versus wines showing what people in the industry unflatteringly term a ‘dead fruit’ character.
MATTHEW JUKES: I mean, I was taught about those sort of … taught because I didn’t know anything. Way, way, way back at when I started coming here and the expression told to me was dead fruit. And we talk about dead fruit, that is not an attractive term. And I knew what it meant and I didn’t like it anyway. And I associated dead fruit with dead fruit, and I didn’t want to see it anymore. And I think that the word’s got around now. And I think that lift is very important. Aromatic lift and vivacity is important, regardless of the size and the timbre of the wines.