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Shirvington's lovely shiraz

Imagine this: an Australian accountant and his wife decide that they want a rural lifestyle to rid themselves of stress and latch onto the idea of starting a winery. Neither has any experience in making wine or growing grapes -- just a passion for drinking good wine. They search the countryside and come up with a rundown vineyard in the McLaren Vale area south of Adelaide, buy it in 1995 and replant 16 hectares of vines. Three years later they release their first wines.

A slow road to success? Not for Paul and Lynne Shirvington. Their first vintage of cabernet sauvignon in 2001 was named "Wine of the Year" at the McLaren Vale Wine Show. The following vintage, the shiraz was rated 99 by Robert Parker's Wine Advocate. Since then, no Shirvington wine has received less than 90 from Parker.

Talk about a meteoric rise to fame. How did they do it?

"It's the soil," Paul said during a recent Annapolis visit. "And the love," his son Mark, one of two sons to work at Shirvington, quickly added.

Mark is learning viticulture on the job while his parents are enjoying Shirvington's rapid rise -- and the challenges of staying on top. While other wineries build their success over time, the Shirvingtons earned it instantly and now the struggle is keeping its reputation.

In 2007, for instance, they sold off all of their cabernet sauvignon because they were unhappy with its quality and wanted to avoid a bad rap.

Cabernet sauvignon and shiraz are the only two wines they make, and the Shirvingtons don't intend to change that. Both wines come from single vineyards and command prices of more than $60 a bottle. What we tasted was well worth the price.

The Shirivingtons admit that much of their initial success is due to its first winemakers -- Sparky and Sara Marquis. This dynamic duo became known first for the Marquis Phillips wines and later for Mollydooker. Both wines achieved instant acclaim from wine critics, including us and Robert Parker.

The Marquises left Shirvington in 2004; the wines are now made by Kim Jackson.

Sparky and Sara's controversial wine style contributed success to Shirvington, but their legendary Mollydooker wines hardly resemble Shrivington wines made today. Sparky thinks that his high-alcohol, jammy fruit bombs are what American consumers like -- and the sales of Mollydooker wines prove him right. But there also is a healthy dose of skepticism about their wines' longevity and balance.

We asked the Shirvingtons which version -- his or Sparky and Sara's -- identifies the real Australian shiraz.

"Ours," said Mark. Of course.

After tasting our fair share of Mollydooker and Clarendon Hills wines, we have come to prefer the more austere style embodied by Shirvington. They do a whole lot better with food.

We loved these wines, but expect to pay handsomely for them -- if you can even find them. So goes glory.

We tasted several vintages, starting with 2002, of the shiraz and cabernet sauvignon. Australian winemakers are impacted by drought more than most and the wines often show the lack of water. However, good producers can still make excellent wines in even the worst vintages. The was the case in 2007 -- "the hardest vintage," said Paul and troubled by the "worst heat wave." Only shiraz was made that year and it is still a great wine -- dense and ripe fruit.

The 2002 shiraz and cabernet sauvignon show the durability of these wines. Ideal conditions created complex wines.

If you are curious about these incredible wines, look for the 2008 vintage. The cabernet sauvignon ($60) was showing off bright blackberry fruit, good grip and hints of spearmint. The shiraz ($67) was even better. Dense, jammy plum flavors with hints of clove and chocolate. Broad, complex flavors, supple tannins and long finish.

***

Other wines

*Chateau St. Michelle Ethos Syrah Columbia Valley 2006 ($30). A beautiful, amazing, drinkable wine. Wonderful blackberry and blueberry nose, with a very round and smooth delivery in the mouth.

*Flock (by Smoking Loon) Old Vine Zinfandel Dry Creek Valley 2007 ($15). Pleasant berry, mocha nose. Big fruity flavors of cherries and mixed berries in the mouth with a mocha finish. Smooth and generous in the mouth. Delicious and uncomplicated.

Note: Some of the wines recommended in this column may have been provided for review by their producers.

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