James Halliday once wrote a line on the topic of Shiraz that has stuck with me. The great critic of Australian wine commented that ‘There are many good judges who see the Heathcote subregion of Bendigo as Australia’s greatest area for Shiraz, notwithstanding the far greater (historic) reputation of the Hunter and Barossa valleys.’ High praise indeed for a region that was not a major reference point at the time he wrote his Wine Atlas of Australia and New Zealand.
I have always been interested in Heathcote Shiraz as, in general, they tend to avoid the pitfalls of the variety, namely a thickness, heaviness or stewed fruit accent that can mar Shiraz from numerous Australian regions. I like the more softly expressed fruit I tend to find in Heathcote examples that capture fruits from dark berry to dark red and fragrant red fruits. The fruit character is often attributed to deep red Cambrian soil that runs through the region. The pepper and spice seem much more downplayed in Heathcote too; a subtle back note as opposed to a dominant flavour. The late Gerard Jaboulet, renowned producer of Hermitage La Chapelle, once commented that too much pepper and spice indicated under ripe fruit and a poor year! He stressed that pepper was inherent in the flavour spectrum for Syrah/ Shiraz, but it should be matched by ample depth of fruit and tannin to allow the wine to mature, in time allowing the spice to fade. These comments chime with my own views on this variety – I consider myself a fan of great Northern Rhône and selective fan of great Australian Shiraz. The key to the best Australian examples is two-fold, freshness allied to ripe, generous fruit.
When a good friend sent me some samples from a Heathcote estate that I had never heard of before, my expectations weren’t great, but how wrong could I be. I opened the entry level wine expecting to easily dismiss it, only to scratch my head wondering if I had picked out one of the higher-level bottlings by mistake. The producer in question was the curiously named Sanguine Estate, owned and run by the Hunter family. For Tony Hunter’s great grandfather, Pietro d’Orsa, who left Italy in 1868 to make a new life, it was the Victorian Gold Rush that drew him to Australia. As was the case for many in the late nineteenth century, Pietro settled down as a wine producer in a town 100 kilometres to the west of Heathcote. Fast forward 100 years to 1996 when Tony and Lyn Hunter set up their estate, originally with the intention of farming, but Tony’s interest in wine, particularly Heathcote Shiraz, led them to establish a vineyard instead. At this time, they had no knowledge of Tony’s great grandfather and his winemaking background. The story takes another turn, however, when this connection was discovered upon reading a history of Victorian Vignerons, and the family visited the site of Pietro’s vineyard and connected with family they never knew existed, as well as discovering remnant nineteenth century vines from that original vineyard. In honour of Pietro d’Orsa, the family name the reserve Shiraz after their pioneering ancestor.
Today the estate covers 55 acres to the north of Heathcote, 50 of which are planted with Shiraz as befits an estate that are widely considered Shiraz specialists.
Anyway, enough history, what of the wines? I am pleased to offer below two different Shiraz: firstly the 2019 Progeny Shiraz, essentially the entry level example for the estate, and secondly the 2018 d’Orsa, the headlining Shiraz. Please see my notes below, along with a lofty 95-point score for the 2019 Progeny in the influential Halliday Wine Companion.