It is almost impossible these days to go shopping for wine in either the grocery store or at your local specialist retailer without running across at least a handful of bottles labeled Shiraz. A brief decade or so ago, there were but two or three commonly available; now there are literally dozens to choose from. What’s the reason for this explosion in popularity of a previously little-known grape variety? Before answering that question, a brief history is in order. Shiraz began its life in France in the early years of the first millennium, when it was used by the Roman settlers to make wine, and was subsequently documented in the fourth century A.D. In France, specifically in the Rhône Valley, it is known as Syrah, a grape that has a reputation for producing some of the longest-lived and noblest wines in the land. There are some who believe that the grape took its name from the ancient capital of Persia, but the only evidence (although plausible) to support such claims appears to be archeological, and not strictly scientific. More likely (at least for the time being) is the theory, supported by DNA evidence, that Syrah/Shiraz is a hybrid of two lesser known French varieties, the Dureza and the Mondeuse Blanche. Fast forward a few centuries to 1833; Australia was still a relatively young colony of Great Britain. A wine enthusiast by the name of James Busby, eager to see what might grow in the Antipodes, planted cuttings of over 400 grape varieties, including Syrah, which was at the time spelt Scyras. It’s not a great leap to see how the name quickly found itself changed to Shiraz, and thus the new history of this fascinating grape began. Until the 1950s, when Australian winemaking underwent something of a sea change for the better, the local tastes in wine tended towards the sweet and fortified styles reminiscent of port, sherry and Madeira. Although lighter whites were enjoyed by German settlers in the Barossa Valley, the average red tended to be heavy, thick and alcoholic. In the early 1950s, a pioneering winemaker at Penfolds, Max Schubert, decided to experiment by producing a Bordeaux-style wine using the practically ubiquitous Shiraz. The success of this project wasn’t fully realized until many years later, by which time it was almost too late for this remarkable grape variety. The emerging Australian wine industry made the unfortunate collective decision in the 1960s that their destiny lay in the planting of Cabernet Sauvignon, a decision that almost sealed the fate of the noble Shiraz. The uprooting of ancient shiraz vines continued until the early 1980s, when a handful of maverick producers, led by the likes of Charles Melton and Bob McLean, began purchasing blocks of ancient vines (some at the time almost a century old) in order to make small quantities of intense, concentrated and revolutionary wines that almost immediately became amongst the most sought-after by collectors in Britain and Australia. It wasn’t too long before the larger producers like Rosemount and Penfolds began to realize the value of Shiraz. Now the Shiraz grape is considered Australia’s vinous trademark, and one that is very much here to stay. The popularity of Shiraz owes itself to the grape’s remarkable adaptability to Australia’s ironstone soils and myriad climates. It is a grape that thrives in warm climates, but does well in cooler regions, too. Generally it produces rich, ripe, fat wines with relatively low acidity and soft tannins. In addition, it has a strong affinity with oak, and when aged properly in American oak barrels, it becomes greater than the sum of its parts, with a character simultaneously assertive and inviting. Here are a few examples of Shiraz readily available in the Indiana market. Wines marked # are available at many grocery stores, while the rest are available at Kahn’s Fine Wines. Wines are rated on NUVO’s five-star scale. Rosemount Shiraz South Eastern Australia # ($10) 2 stars From the time of Rosemount’s first commercial release of its Black Diamond label Shiraz in the late 1980s, production has increased from just over 3,000 cases to, it is estimated, over 300,000. This is a great beginner’s Shiraz: It’s full of juicy blackberry fruit, soft tannins and low acid. Although the quality may have slipped in recent years, it’s typical of the Rosemount style, with just a hint of sweetness to round things out. Yellow Tail Shiraz South Eastern Australia # ($6) 1 star When this new label emerged with the 2000 vintage, it caused quite a stir. Great packaging, great marketing and pretty decent wine all for under $6 … what more could a wine drinker want? Well, consistency, for one thing. Such has been the success of Yellow Tail on the international market (and it’s about all you hear about in Australia, too) that they are unable to keep up with demand. Now onto the 2002 vintage (think about it), the wine is thin, pale and dilute, a far cry from its former self. Caveat emptor! Hardy’s Stamp Series Shiraz South Eastern Australia # ($6 per bottle; $15/3 Liter Box) 2 stars I remember drinking Australian Chardonnay out of a box about 20 years or so ago, and thought that would be the last time. Well, the box is back, and in a big way. Look out for new labels to emerge over the next few months. Hardy’s is one of the big, well-established names in the Australian wine business, and their pioneering efforts are well-recognized. This wine is less overtly juicy than some, and is a little on the light side, but it has attractive red berry aromas and a moderately juicy palate, aided in no small way by gentle acidulation. A good everyday wine, this is one to put in the fridge and enjoy with a slight chill. De Bortoli “DB” Shiraz South Eastern Australia ($7) 3 stars This is the best Shiraz on the Indiana market for the money, hands down. Juicy, plump and ripe, eminently drinkable with lovely overtones of red fruits and licorice, it’s as close to being the ultimate cheap all-purpose red as you can get in these parts. Not that it’s cheap, of course, merely inexpensive. Made by Australia’s second largest family-owned winery, the quality is consistent, and consistently high. If you like them soft and easy, then this one’s for you. Willowglen Shiraz South Eastern Australia ($7) 2 1/2 stars Also from the De Bortoli family, this one is a little less polished than the DB, but still worth every penny. Slightly fuller, but also a bit more “chunky,” Willowglen really needs a hamburger or a slice of pizza to knock off some of the tougher edges. Still a great value, though. Yalumba “Y” Series Shiraz South Eastern Australia ($10) 2 stars A pleasantly quaffable little Shiraz, which offers attractive soft red berry aromas and flavors, a gentle mouth feel and nicely integrated American oak. The latter imparts a creamy vanilla quality to the mid palate and finish. With a good depth of flavor and nicely balancing acidity, this is an excellent all-purpose red. Yalumba Shiraz Barossa Valley ($20) 3 1/2 stars Barossa has a reputation for producing some of the ripest, thickest Shiraz on the Australian continent. Although not in the same league as the small artisans, this offering from one of the nation’s giant producers is a model of typicity and balance. The wine is a deep, opaque purple, showing good levels of ripeness. Upfront aromas of black fruits and cloves are echoed on the palate, where they are complemented by licorice and sweet cherry flavors, with ripe, soft tannins on the finish. The addition of a touch of viognier gives a slight floral lift to the nose. Mak Clare Valley Shiraz ($20) 4 stars At the very outer limits of the Cork Dork’s chosen price range comes this wonderful example of cooler climate Shiraz. Made by Rob McDonald, one of the world’s acknowledged experts on Australian wines and all-round bon-vivant, this wine is in its first vintage. The aromas are deep and concentrated, and tend towards the ripe raspberry and plum. There are subtle overtones of spice and a hint of anise. The aromas are echoed by raspberry and blackberry flavors. The palate is long and broad, with high levels of natural acidity, giving this luscious red a crisp, almost appley mouth feel. Still very much in its youth, this wine should round out with three or four years in the cellar. Hear Neil Charles each Friday morning at 9 on WXNT-AM, 1430.