Ten years ago, Australia was still the darling of the world’s Anglophone critics – especially the English ones though I suspect they’re now retrospectively downplaying their devotion to that particular brand of sunshine in a bottle. Not to mention a lot of oak and sugar in that same bottle. Things have certainly changed in Australian winemaking since that style became rather unfashionable.
I confess that my acquaintance with Australian shiraz back then was insufficient to say with confidence that the examples from the rather idiosyncratic Hunter Valley region mostly fitted into that style. But, on the basis of what I knew, I would have sworn that I could more often than not have identified Australian red wines on the basis of their (dreadful!) style.
That sweeping judgement was not a possibility earlier today, blind-tasting a mixed line-up of a dozen each South African and Hunter Valley syrahs. (The tasting was organised by Grant Dodd, Australian CEO of Haskell Vineyards – the Hunter Valley is his ‘hood, by the way – and Christian Eedes. Christian selected the local examples (necessarily somewhat controversially!), and has written about the tasting here. Apart from us three, other panellists were Hennie Coetzee and James Pietersen.) It clearly wasn’t possible for anyone to make a clear origin distinction among the wines, either through identifying a particular terroir characteristic of Hunter Valley, or through a “national” style. We all guessed, or intuited more or less intelligently as to origin, but no-one, I think, did vastly better than chance would have achieved.
And that, I’d say, is an interesting result in itself. No-one could argue, of course, that there is a particular South African style of syrah. Far from it. There was a great deal of encouragement for locals to follow the Australian model in the 1990s but many resisted, and chose to rather orient themselves to more classic patterns. Both are still being played out – though I’m sure James Pietersen was correct in saying that the more “stemmy”, red-fruited ones were more likely to be from the Cape.
For me the bugbear of the riper, richer style of red wine is a sweetness on the finish – the combination, usually, of a few grams of residual sugar and high alcohol levels (by themselves, neither factor necessarily produces obvious sweetness), with oakiness and, of course, sweet-fruitedness also playing roles. I’ve just looked through my notes of today’s tasting, to find my references to sweetness. I marked it particularly on 8 of the 24 wines – 6 of them Australian, 2 South African. Is that a coincidence? Or does it suggest that there’s still a stronger pull towards the sunshiney model in Australia than South Africa?
What is clear is that today’s team (4 locals and one Australian) overall rated South African wines higher, although it must be admitted that there was very little close consensus, as normally happens in tastings like this. But, averaging the scores, the top five wines were South African, in this order:
- Leeuwenkuil Heritage 2014 (not yet released – I’m not sure about all the others)
- Boekenhoutskloof 2014
- Keermont 2013
- Waterkloof Circumstance 2013
- Reyneke Reserve 2013
That said, the bottom 3 were also South African (these in order from 22 to 24) :
- Kershaw Clonal Selection Elgin 2013
- Tokara Reserve Collection 2013
- Mullineux 2014
Other South Africans in the top half were Mother Rock 2015 (at no. 8), Haskell Hades 2014 (10) and Eagles’ Nest (12). Lismore was in the bottom half, at no. 19. (Christian gives the Australian wines and their placings in his article.)
The tasting was a great pendant to my experience last week of tasting 86 local syrahs from 2013, and especially 2014, and a handful of 2015s (which showed the excellence of that vintage, by the way). For the record, my own top wines were, in order:
- 1. Reyneke Reserve 2013
- =2. Keermont 2013
=2. Tyrrels Stevens Single Vineyard 2014 (no one else like this much and it sank to near the bottom)
- 4. Eagles’ Nest 2013
- 5. Boekenhoutskloof 2014
- 6. Mother Rock 2015
- 7. Haskell Hades 2014
- 8. Tyrrell’s Wines Vat 9 2014 (overall the highest-scoring Australian)
- 9. Kershaw Clonal Selection Elgin 2013