I’ve just realised once more, sampling Fable’s Syrah and Starry Night (syrah-based blend with mourvedre and grenache) a basic truth that’s of relevance to a lot of Cape reds, and also whites to an extent. To wit: you can get away with ripe, even very ripe, fruit, and big alcohols, as long as the wine is fermented completely dry (as completely as possible). But have big alcohols and also too much sugar and you forgo anything approaching elegance and genuine seriousness. An obvious sweetness, compounded of alcohol and sugar, is, to my palate, the besetting sin of far too many Cape reds.
Your wine might be delicious and very acceptable to some people (I have to admit this – after all, Australia built an international reputation for at least some time on this basis, blockbuster Argentine Malbec seems to bamboozle a lot of tasters who should know better, and only too many Cape wines have followed suit), but if you’re aiming at something a bit more lofty, then no. Emphatically no.
In terms of numbers, I’d say a rule of thumb is that if your alcohol-by-volume is over 14%, then you must definitely keep your residual sugar level below 2 grams per litre. Well below, if possible.
I’d venture that no red wines can escape this rule. Some whites can, but it’s a perilous game of balance then, entirely dependent on the level of acidity. The current fashion for “natural fermentations” has at least a theoretical charm (for example, Swartland Independent have made it a rule, although the links between terroir and yeasts are not, I think, firmly established). But, usually, if I had to choose between (a) a wine that was “naturally fermented” and had more residual sugar than the balance required and (b), a properly dry wine that needed yeast inoculation to get to that point – well, I’d unhesitatingly choose the latter.
Sadie Columella and Glenelly Lady May, are just two successful red examples that come immediately to mind. And I mentioned Fable as a lesson here. I’ll shortly be writing more about this amazing Tulbagh property, but happily affirm here that, although the reds have alcohols well over 14%, they are beautifully, properly dry. As a consequence their delicacy and poise is not compromised in the least – and, given their triumphant balance and dryness, I’d defy another set of abstract people, those who refuse to drink anything over 14% alcohol, to easily identify, blind-tasting, these wines as culprits.