Tim Atkin MW chooses his top 10 South African Syrah, where Syrah is emerging as the Cape's most exciting red grape.
The best South African Syrah
If you were looking for evidence of how recently Syrah has risen to prominence in South Africa, you could do worse than visit Sijnn in Malgas and Porseleinberg in the Swartland – remarkable vineyards at opposite ends of the winelands. These very different sites are producing two of the finest examples of the grape in the country and yet their first vintages were in 2007 and 2010, respectively.
Syrah may have arrived on South African shores in the second half of the 17th century, but it’s only recently that it has emerged as the Cape’s most exciting red grape, with 10% of plantings and increasing.
Are these Rhône style? It all depends what you mean by the term. The Cape has a Mediterranean climate, so even its cooler sites, located at altitude or close to the Atlantic or Indian oceans, are warmer than the northern Rhône. And yet many of the best wines display the pepper spice, tapenade and blackberry notes that are so typical of that famous french valley.
South Africa makes Syrah in all of its major growing regions. The most elegant wines come from Elgin, Constantia, Cederberg, Malgas and Cape Agulhas, but don’t write off the richer styles produced in Stellenbosch, Paarl, wellington, franschhoek, Tulbagh and the Swartland. Think of these as more Cornas-like, if you will, although the right soils, judicious viticulture, earlier picking, whole- bunch fermentation and a gentle hand in the cellar (especially where oak and extraction are concerned) can result in surprisingly more refined and complex Syrahs.
Of recent vintages, the two coolest growing seasons were 2013 and 2012, yet South Africa is such a big place that vintage generalisations are tricky. The even better news is that the 2015 vintage is regarded by many Cape winemakers as one of the best ever – and not just for Syrah. Now is the time to try a few.