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Australian shiraz breaks the Down Under mold

What’s in a name? The ’04 "Innocent Bystander" recalls a memorable Rhône red.

Those wine names and labels. Don't they drive you a little nuts after a while? I bet your wine store looks a lot like Noah's Ark these days with so many animals on so many labels, competing for your attention with bottles that depict everything from cars to flying saucers to, yes, Marilyn Monroe.

Honestly, I'm less inclined to try such wines as those with more plain, straightforward packaging because they make me wonder whether precious budget money has gone into marketing concepts at the expense of grape quality and winemaking. And yet, sometimes I'm pleasantly surprised.

Now, what would you think if someone offered you a taste of a wine called Innocent Bystander? For me the name conjures up sinister thoughts. Did someone stumble across a crime being committed down in the wine cellar? (Perhaps I've worked on too many police stories over the years.)

Old Bridge Cellars

It turns out that Innocent Bystander is a line of Australian wines from central Victoria, and the 2004 Shiraz is notable. It reminded me immediately of a Gigondas, the wine named after the village in France's southern Rhône Valley that is marked by distinctive peppery notes and is made from syrah (the same grape as shiraz), along with grenache and mourvèdre.

When I first tried Gigondas at a French bistro in New York many years ago I never forgot it. Innocent Bystander has that kind of individuality, which separates it from a sea of Australian shiraz. It's priced well at $20.

Although I often think Australian shirazes are a world apart in style from their French syrah cousins, the gap is bridged nicely here. For one thing, Innocent Bystander has a complexity and an elegance that I don't often find in those typically big-fruit, high-alcohol Australian reds (Innocent Bystander weighs in at a relatively modest 14 percent alcohol).

That complexity is marked by notes of blackberry, cassis and plum as well as hints of black licorice and mint. It has good structure from noticeable tannins (the remnants of the solids of the grapes) but is smooth and easy to drink.

The wine is technically a blend, with three percent of it viognier, a floral and spicy white variety that is sometimes combined with shiraz to give it a little extra dimension.

It's made for meats and other full-flavored foods, from peppery steaks and lamb to the bitterness of sautéed broccoli rabe with garlic. Even on its own, it's one of those wines that you'll keep swirling around and sipping, searching for another layer to taste. Innocent Bystander is interesting and delicious and, with its name, may even conjure up a tale or two at the dinner table.

Edward Deitch's wine column appears Wednesdays. He welcomes comments from readers. Write to him at EdwardDeitch