It shook me when an acquaintance asked recently what “syrah” signified on a wine-label. He pronounced the first syllable as in “cyber” rather than, correctly, as in “synergy”, which made the knock harder. This man is a fairly keen, if not deeply interested, winedrinker, and I would have assumed that he knew that syrah is another name for the grape variety better known in South Africa (and Australia, though not the rest of the world) as shiraz.
Yet why, actually, should my winedrinker-in-the-street, as it were, know this? Who would have told him? That was the really unsettling thought. There are clearly many producers of “Syrah” unknowlngly excluding potential customers peering at the shelves in search of shiraz and not wanting to risk buying, or mispronouncing, this other stuff.
Anyway, if you also didn’t know, now you do. The interesting thing is that there is often a good reason for winemakers choosing the locally lesser-known name. The choice only became possible in South Africa in 1994, in fact, when winemaker André van Rensburg, now at Vergelegen but then at Stellenzicht, thought that his precious shiraz was far too good and special to be called the same as all the others. He wanted to use the French “syrah”, and had it accepted by the authorities as a synonym allowed to appear on labels.
Since then many producers have followed suit. Sometimes, frankly, it’s just because they or their marketers are pretentious; but sometimes the aim is to signal to consumers about the style of wine in the bottle – making the enormous presumption that consumers will understand the signal rather than stare at it blankly and move on to a bottle labelled shiraz. The idea is that a big, bold style of wine – sweetly ripe, powerfully built and flavoured, often heavily oaked – should be called shiraz, as it was the Australians who made such wines an international hit in the 1990s. But if you make a more delicate style of wine from the same grape – less massive, oaky and full-blown – you can associate it with the great syrahs of France’s northern Rhône valley (Cornas, Côte-Rôtie, Hermitage, etc) by using the French name for the grape. Geddit?
Sadly, this clue is in the hands of marketers and not always a reliable guide. One wine for which it is entirely valid is Circumstance Syrah – which actually underwent a name change from Shiraz for the 2008 vintage. Circumstance is an intermediate-level label from Waterkloof, a young Stellenbosch winery (one you will hear more of, as it is destined for greatness and already offering many fine wines). At aproaching R150, the Syrah is not cheap, but fair value. You’ll get delicacy and strength, lovely aromas of roast meats, red berries and violets, supported but untramelled by oak, and a forceful but soft structure.
The Swartland area makes most of the running with stylish, elegant shiraz these days, but another Stellenbosch producer offering finesse is Quoin Rock, the property owned by businessman Dave King (I think – but he might have told SARS he doesn’t own it, so don’t quote me). Quoin Rock Syrah is actually the finer and more profound wine now (at about the same price) – but I’m holding my breath for a full-blown Waterkloof Syrah in a few years when their vines mature.
Originally published in Mail & Guardian, 20-26 August