Twenty years ago you would have had to hunt far and wide to find much Australian shiraz in this country. These days it has become so popular that hundreds of selections are available...

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Twenty years ago you would have had to hunt far and wide to find much Australian shiraz in this country.

These days it has become so popular that hundreds of selections are available. One reason: It is one of the few wines that holds enormous appeal at both ends of the price spectrum.
Cheap shirazes such as Yellow Tail and its many imitators, which sell for around $7 a bottle, export millions of cases a year to the U.S. alone. At the same time, the number of Australian cult wines seems to have grown exponentially, to the point where they all but outnumber the cult cabs of the Napa Valley.

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Amon Ra, Clarendon Hills, Jim Barry “The Armagh,” Giaconda, Glaetzer and Henschke “Hill of Grace” are among the most expensive and desirable; and the list goes on: Kaesler, Kalleske and Kilikanoon (sounds like an old-time vaudeville act), Paracombe “Somerville,” Tatiarra, Torbreck and Two Hands.

The point is that you don’t have to look that hard to find shirazes selling for $50 and up; and more and more of the wines that grab the big scores from Parker and the Spectator are priced over $100 and still hard to come by.

With so many brands, regions and prices to consider, comparison tastings turn up wide variations in both quality and style. I don’t expect a $10 shiraz to out-perform a $50 bottle, but there should be some commonalties.

Recommended shirazes

Cheap and good

The Black Chook 2003 Shiraz/Viognier; $15.
Hits the bull’s-eye, with dark, spicy, sappy, puckery red fruits and loads of black pepper in the finish.

Yalumba 2002 “Y” Series Shiraz; $10.
The best $10 shiraz on the market, this is like a bite of fresh-baked berry pie. Juicy and tangy, not too sweet, it holds down the flavor court in mid-palate and demands you take another swig.

Rockbare 2002 Shiraz; $15.
This McLaren Vale bottling is smooth and creamy, with menthol and vanilla notes, and a soft, pleasing mouthfeel.

Woop Woop 2003 Shiraz; $10.
Fruity and forward, with delicious pomegranate and raspberry flavors.

Tyrrell’s 2003 “Moore’s Creek” Shiraz; $11.
Really nice! Bright, snappy cherry/cranberry fruit holds up a solid middle, and the finish is crisp and clean.

Angove’s 2002 Bear Crossing; $7.
Despite the cutesy critter labeling, it’s a moderately serious effort, with sharp, tart cherry fruit and good penetration. Needs food.

Take out a second mortgage (but it’s worth it!)

Torbreck 2002 “The Struie” Shiraz; $50.
A huge, assaultive nose hits you full throttle with scents of meat, smoke, toast and chocolate. Minty, concentrated fruit compote meets massive tannins, all wrapped in seamless oak that resonates for a full minute after swallowing.

Glaetzer 2002 “Bishop” Shiraz; $40.
A more elegant and refined style than is usually associated with Barossa shiraz, this polished effort mixes lifted fruits and streaks of mineral and earth. The result is a textured, precise wine that rewards those who pay attention.

St. Hallett 2002 “Blackwell” Shiraz; $40.
A standout in my tastings, this thick, dark, inky wine has serious espresso and bitter chocolate underpinnings, and the jammy fruit to go with the big tannins.

Paracombe 2001 “Somerville” Shiraz; $80.
Fascinating flavors! It starts with the expected jammy, super-ripe fruit; then the Port-like raisins and prunes are joined with licorice, mint and menthol, in a gloriously sweet, hot, delicious finish.

Giaconda 2002 “Warner Vineyard” Shiraz; $90.
Dark, saturated and juicy, this superbly fruity, sappy syrah balances its amazing fruit with decent acid and keeps the oaky flavors in check.

Jim Barry 2001 “The Armagh” Shiraz; $120.
This is as sure-fire as it gets as far as delivering consumer satisfaction. It’s a big, broad, tannic, powerful wine, with long, classic flavors that have earned it huge Parker scores. Scores aside, it is a wonderfully delicious bottle, immediately accessible yet built for aging.

Hazyblur 2002 McLaren Vale Shiraz; $40.
You’ve got to love a winery that unapologetically names itself Hazyblur. With 15 percent alcohol, you can see why. For those who like the big bruiser style, here’s one that Helen Turley would be proud of. Packed with dense fruits, coconut, spice and vanilla flavors.

With wines such as cabernet sauvignon and pinot noir and even zinfandel, hints of the pricey flavors can be found in the best budget wines, but high-end and low-end shirazes often seem like creatures from two different planets.

Yellow Tail and its imitators (of which there are dozens) are wines that manage flavor the way any mass-produced product manages flavor. They key in on sweetness, vanilla and toast, and they have found ways to create those flavors cheaply, without having to use expensive grapes or new oak barrels. The wines have won their popularity by being flavorful, consistent and affordable.

Expensive Aussie shiraz has a flavor profile that is the envy of the new world. The best are wines of extraordinary grace and power, with amazingly rich, sappy, succulent fruit, generous underpinnings of toasty, mocha-flavored oak, and enough alcohol (15 percent and higher) to give them Port-like authority.

In their youth, they are almost irresistible. Yet they don’t seem to suffer from the problems that plague high-alcohol wines from California and even Washington, which rarely hold together for more than a few years. For example, the 1997 Napa cabs and the 1998 Washington cabs, both very ripe, alcoholic and highly regarded vintages, are now peaking; in some cases already past their peak.

The Aussie wines from 1996 and 1998, to name two recent examples, are steaming along sweetly, moving into secondary fruit flavors and tasting just fine.

Apart from high scores, pricing offers consumers a way to sift through the enormous numbers of Australian shirazes in the market. I find that tasting wines in price peer groups is the fairest way to evaluate them. Those listed here are from the under $15 and over $40 groups. Though dramatically different, both lists hold wines that offer exceptional pleasure.

The vast middle ground — wines priced between $15 and $40 — is where many of the truest expressions of Australian shiraz can be found. They are not diluted, over-extracted, overrated or overpriced. They are simply delicious.

Supporting local guide-dog training organization

Dog lovers in search of the ultimate mutt wine might want to stop into Compass Wines in Anacortes this coming Friday. Owner Doug Charles is premiering his 2002 Bow Wow Lembarker ($13). It’s a very soft and smooth drinking lemberger, which features his dogs, Minnie and Henry, on the label. Two labels, same wine.

The added bonus is that a portion of the proceeds will go to benefit Summit Assistance Dogs, a local guide dog-training organization. Charles’ puppies and a Summit dog will be in the shop on Friday from 4 to 7 p.m. to sign pawtographs. (1405 Commercial Ave., Anacortes, 360-293-6500).

Paul Gregutt is the author of “Northwest Wines.” His column appears weekly in the Wine section. He can be reached by e-mail at