Over half of South Africa’s Syrah vines are less than five years old. But that doesn’t meant they can’t produce great wine, says JAMES LAWTHER MW
Ten years ago the idea of decent South African Shiraz (or Syrah as some producers prefer to call it) raised barely a murmur. Cabernet Sauvignon was considered the only serious red, and Shiraz plantings accounted for just under 1% of the vineyard area. Then came the eye-opener in 1997. In a now-famous tasting match which pitted South African Shiraz against Australian, a Stellenzicht 1994 Syrah outscored Penfolds cult wine, Grange. Other Cape competitors fared less well but the fire had been lit. Shiraz plantings have since increased seven-fold and there’s a definite buzz about the variety.
The word from producers and winemakers is that it’s a question of ‘horses for courses’, and that Syrah/ Shiraz and other Rhône varieties suit the Cape’s essentially Mediterranean climate. Add to this the fact that better clones and plant material are now available following the demise of apartheid and the KWV-controlled quota system and there’s even more reason to be enthusiastic. The new contact with international markets has also revealed to South Africans that Shiraz is a popular commercial variety.
Putting all this into perspective it has to be said that it’s still early days. The cultural claim that Australians can make for Shiraz as a truly domestic variety cannot be reciprocated in South Africa yet. At least 60% of the country’s 7,000-odd ha (hectares) of Shiraz has only been planted since 1999. The history and those fabled pockets of 100-year-old bushed-trained vines which Australian producers market so astutely are absent here.
Then there’s the question of variety linked to region. Shiraz in Australia’s Hunter or Barossa Valleys is an established fact and style. In the Cape, producers are still feeling their way. Newer regions such as Elim in the southern Cape are making an appearance, while site and style are still being tested in the traditional zones.
Stellenbosch as the centre of production for premium wines has added Shiraz to its list of varieties and probably has the lion’s share but without boasting a definitive style.
The warmer Paarl has raised its game, and, along with Swartland’s Malmesbury further west, has begun to focus more on the variety, producing a full, round style with plenty of dark berry fruit concentration. Then there’s Robertson to the east. Also credited as a warm zone, it has outcrops of limestone soil, a significant difference in day–night time temperatures and cooling afternoon breezes in the summer, all of which assist with balance and complexity of flavour in the wine. It’s in these three regions that Shiraz could well make a serious name for itself in the Cape.
How to handle the variety is another subject of discussion. ‘Syrah is more about how you treat it than regionality,’ explains Marc Kent of Boekenhoutskloof. His personal favourites are the wines of Allemand, Clape and Verset in Northern Rhône appellation Cornas. The taste of oak is a definite anathema to him. ‘We don’t add tannins or use American casks or new oak. We have moved away from that big, oaky, blockbuster style that is the South Australian way,’ he says.
There are still some heavily oaked examples but, in general, producers are beginning to use a little more restraint and giving greater expression to the fruit. The more refined French oak casks are the preferred recipients for ageing with perhaps a small percentage of American oak for structure and a complementary touch of spice and chocolate.
Another problem that needs to be resolved is the question of ripeness and alcohol degrees. (Though it should be pointed out that this applies not merely to Shiraz.) Grapes are being picked later to avoid green tannins. But this often leads to high sugar content and the danger of either sweet, jammy, confected wines that lack balance, or voluptuously ripe wines with soaring alcohol. The latter can be prize winners but a disaster in terms of drinkability.
Producers like Marc Kent are aware of the problem and are now making amends to rectify the situation through careful blending. Winemaker André van Rensburg of top estate Vergelegen is customarily forthright on the subject: ‘There’s a tendency to pick Shiraz overripe in the New World as the medals are awarded to big wines,’ he says. ‘Producers should get to the vineyard sooner as sugar levels can jump quickly. Shiraz should be treated with more respect than the Aussies show it,’ he adds.
Finding pockets of older vine Shiraz is a bit like looking for the proverbial needle in a haystack, but occasionally they do come to light. Graham Knox spent a number of years sniffing out old vineyards when working for Winecorp developing the Savanha brand. Now in partnership with Bruce Jack of Flagstone he’s unearthed 4 hectares (ha) of 30-year-old Shiraz in the Malmesbury area for their joint venture Jack & Knox label. ‘The vineyard was more or less abandoned by the farmer but we get two tonnes per ha of small tight berried grapes which are fantastic,’ he explains. The Outsider, as the wine has been named, is clearly going to be one of the Cape’s more serious Shiraz propositions.
At present Shiraz, as is the nature in the Cape, tends to be but one wine in a producer’s extensive portfolio, with few real specialists in the game. Among the specialists is Paarl-based entrepreneur (wine and cheese producer), Charles Back. Whether it be under his Fairview, Goats do Roam or Spice Route labels, Shiraz and other Rhône varieties play a prominent role. ‘I’m for varieties that suit our climate and that means Rhône and perhaps other Mediterranean cultivars,’ he says. ‘Stellenbosch would be a lot better if it had more Shiraz instead of Cabernet and Merlot,’ he adds with a provocative smile.
For Fairview, he has sourced a number of single-vineyard Shiraz, taking pride in knowing the history and terroir of each farm and site and ensuring that good labour relations are also part of the package. The Beacon Shiraz, for instance, comes from an estate in Paarl called Leeuwenkuil (or Lion Creek) which has been farmed by the Dryer family for seven generations. The parcel he sources has bush-trained vines planted on rocky shale soils not dissimilar to the galets roulés of Châteauneuf-du-Pape. There’s a generous concentration of spicy, dark berry fruit in the wine and a firm but elegant finish. Jakkalsfontein Shiraz, on the other hand, from a vineyard on the granite slopes of the Perdeberg hills, has more minerality, a lovely fresh finish and firm, grippy tannins.
Spice Route, near Malmesbury, is solidly linked to the Rhône ethic, with an expanding vineyard of these varieties. ‘If I had to start all over again I would just plant Shiraz, Mourvèdre, Grenache and Carignan in Malmesbury,’ he says. As it is, he not only has Shiraz but also 60% of the Mourvèdre found in South Africa today and 30ha of Viognier.
The Spice Route Flagship Syrah is a big, warm-hearted wine with notes of black cherry and even a little gaminess with a couple of years bottle age. A new venture to be released this year is the Spice Route Malabar, a Shiraz-led blend, produced in a tailor-made fashion which he hopes will make a statement about what South Africa can achieve at the highest level. The 2002 combines power and sophistication, offering the exuberance of New World fruit honed to a velvety texture with an elegance and complexity of bouquet.
Another self-styled Shiraz specialist, but on a smaller scale is Eben Sadie.
The former Spice Route winemaker crafts a single red wine, Columella, from Shiraz and a percentage of Mourvèdre. ‘Syrah on its own makes great wines but you need to blend in a little Mourvèdre or Grenache to get greater complexity and the full expression of terroir,’ he reckons.
The fruit for Columella comes from eight low-yielding, organically cultivated sites located in Malmesbury and the Paardeberg Mountain area of Paarl. The latter is warm but with a bigger range between day and night temperatures. Sadie also makes wine in Priorat in Spain so the notion of terroir is fully ingrained. Winemaking is labour intensive and meticulous and the wine, which spends two years in French oak barrels, is ripe, smooth and redolent of Shiraz fruit and spice.
Shiraz/Syrah undoubtedly has a future in South Africa, as each new vintage demonstrates. The quality of the young fruit is encouraging and the wines can only improve with greater vine age. Styles will vary but given the warm climate there’s always going to be a fullness of flavour and fruit that offers a note of southern climes rather than the marginal nuance of the Northern Rhône. And, following the flow of Charles Back and Eben Sadie, it could well be in a Mediterranean-style blend that Shiraz will truly find its greatest expression in the Cape.
Written by James Lawther