Australia seems fresh on the scene, with an abundance of talent driving to the front of the pro peloton in the last ten years or so. But this big country with even bigger personality has cycling legends that date to their first true great: Sir Hubert “Oppy” Opperman. Oppy raced at the top of the sport in the 1920s and was a four-time Australian national cycling champion. Australia’s greatest cyclist by far at the time, he came to Europe in 1928 to try to test his mettle against the world’s best. He and three compatriots arrived on France’s shores with an aim of racing in the 1928 Tour and proceeded to take France by storm.
As a shot across the bow, Oppy won the 24-hour endurance race, the Bol d’Or on Paris’ Vélodrome Buffalo shortly after his arrival. The Australian set a world record time for one thousand kilometers by pedaling on after the race was over. He finished eighth in the 1928 Paris-Rennes and third in Paris-Brussels. Oppy and his three teammates lined up against the European peloton with its ten rider squads for the 1928 Tour de France. The handicap was too great to overcome, but Oppy would go on to finish 18th. The Aussie made such an impression that he would be voted l’Auto’s sportsman of the year. He would finish 12th in the Tour in 1931. His Paris-Brest-Paris victory that same year would be the highlight of his career. Opperman is bar none the most important figure in Australian cycling history and the founding father of the country’s current racing pedigree.
Grape vines have been a part of Australia since it became a penal colony in 1788. Vines were brought from South Africa’s Cape of Good Hope to Australia, on the First Fleet, the initial sailing ships that founded the colony. While the Australian wine industry’s start was an inauspicious one, Australia is now the fourth largest exporter of wine in the world. Australia is primarily known for one wine variety: Shiraz. Shiraz is not an indigenous grape to the country, but a product of the Aussie’s seemingly innate ability come up with cooler nicknames than the original. Shiraz is simply the Australianized name of French grape Syrah, perhaps with more pizazz?
This New World wine darling is made from the same grape as the famous Syrahs of the Rhône regions of Hermitage and Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Stylistically however, it is very different. Syrah from the rocky vineyards of the famous Rhône AOCs is accented by its earthy, mineral driven characteristics. Shiraz, while also quite a “big” wine, is almost purely accented by dark, sappy fruit flavors. It has become the signature wine and style of Australia, and wildly popular the world over.
Australia’s validation as a quality wine producing region would come, of course, in France. In 1878, a Shiraz from Victoria turned heads at the Paris Exhibition, and Australia later won medals at French exhibitions in 1882 and 1889. In reality though, the early days of Australian wine was built on fortified and dessert wines. A fine wine reputation has emerged, built largely on the Shiraz grape, and bolstered by the reputation of one particular wine: The Penfolds Grange. Crafted in 1951 with designs on the great wines of Bordeaux, made from Shiraz and blended with Cabernet Sauvignon, its reputation grew over time, and exploded on the world stage in the 1990s when Wine Spectator and Robert Parker declared it perhaps the world’s greatest wine.
Australia has grown both beyond the big labels like Penfolds, as well as the low expectations of kangaroo covered bargain brands. While its reputation was built somewhat on a homogeneity of the Shiraz variety, and 80% of the market is still controlled by three large companies, there are small operations making a case of high quality wines of place. Australia has shown regionality and diversity through its varying growing areas known there by their Geographic Indications. A sense of place has further been embraced as locals, both entrepreneurs and creative types have turned toward making Australian wine as a point of both national, and local, pride.
The first of these small operations that comes to many people’s minds is Two Hands Wines. The brand started by Michael Twelftree has taken to creating wines of place in Australia, and in so doing Two Hands has raised the profile of their brand as well as Australia.
While Two Hands is largely focused within the zone of South Australia, there is plenty of diversity and site specificity within the region itself that they believe their wines accent. Two Hands craft Shiraz from the Barossa Valley, home to the oldest producing vines in the world. They use grapes from the 170-year-old Freedom Vineyard, planted in 1843, as well as the Eden and Clare Valleys, the Adelaide Hills and the McLaren Vale. The mission at Two Hands is not to follow a formula, even one that has been tremendously successful commercially; an expected Australian style, the Shiraz contains viscous and intense black fruit. Instead, Twelftree hopes to showcase the individual regions, and the country’s greatest Shiraz producing vineyards. The wines are not manipulated or over-oaked; the aim is to highlight those sites that validate Australia’s place among the world’s great wine producing regions.
The Two Hands wines are stories of the best that Australia has to offer in terms of fine wine growing regions, beginning with their entry level, Signature Series up through the Flagship Ares Shiraz, which retails in the $150 neighborhood. Michael Twelftree and his team at Two Hands are firm believers that they have a role to play, and a case to make for Australia as a region that offers complexity and variety. When Australian wine boomed into popularity in the 1990s it was done on formula, aggressive use of oak and a homogeneity of style. Rather than offer wines that spoke of Australia’s regionality, export markets were flooded with blended wines with no sense of place. Two Hands is all about unravelling these misconceptions, and abandoning bland formulas. More at twohandswine.com
2018 Two Hands Angel’s Share Shiraz, McLaren Vale
At an entry level price point, the aim of the Signature Series is to over-deliver on quality and begin to build a case for regional characteristics in wines as intense and concentrated as Australian Shiraz. The McLaren Vale is a more temperate Mediterranean-like climate, in comparison with the hot temperatures and ample sunshine of the Barossa. The result is a Shiraz that is a bit more subdued. The aromas, turned soil with dried floral elements, mingle. The palate is relatively soft—approachable as Shiraz goes—with flavors of coffee, dark fruit and earth. This is a funky wine, with rich concentration. $33
2017 Bella’s Garden Shiraz, Barossa Valley
The Barossa Valley is home to some of the oldest soils and it is on the upper end of the spectrum in terms of heat and sun. The Shiraz grapes coming out of the Barossa Valley are very ripe, and often result in wines with higher alcohol percentages. Typically, regions like this are known for creating muscular, big wines, but the Bella’s Garden Shiraz balances the ripe richness with an unexpected elegance. While it’s plenty ripe and round there are aromas of minerality and smoke, as well as hints of lavender. The palate is a balance of blackberry, wild thyme and dusty spice character. $69
2015 Two Hands Ares Shiraz, Barossa Valley
Now that’s a wine. (Read that part again with a stereotypical Aussie accent.) While Twelftree has made his mission the exploration of Australia’s great Shiraz regions, he believes Barossa Valley Shiraz to be Australia’s most exalted growing region. The Ares is a barrel selection from different lots within the Barossa that Michael believes gives them an exemplary Shiraz in any given vintage. This wine is powerful, dense and concentrated. Aromas of mocha, smoke, pencil lead and violets. The palate is robust, powerful and layered. Two years of oak barrel maturity has rounded off the wine and presents a rich, opulent mouth-coating offering. Flavors of espresso, black plums and juicy blackberry. The finish is loaded with sappy dark fruit, and hints of fresh mint and lingers for quite a while. $150