The glories of Swartland shiraz

My most conclusive response to Leeuwenkuil Shiraz 2010 (and I’ll be writing more about Leeuwenkuil’s lovely wines shortly) was to yet again celebrate tannin – one of the glories of the Swartland. It’s not flavours and aromas that most characterise Swartland shiraz for me, but the quality of the tannins.

That might sound pretentious, but I really don’t think it is – what I mean is that the Swartland somehow produces shiraz where there’s a tannic grip, a real firmness that is a spine for whatever flesh may be offered, but which is also silky, smooth and gorgeously integrated from youth in a way that is extremely rare from other Cape regions. (Right: a pic of the Swartland in green and sunny winter.)

I think this is the basis of the excellence of Sadie Family Columella, incidentally – the latest release of which, 2010, has been getting some deservedly great notices from people who haven’t always seen the light about these wines (perhaps they’ll say it’s the wines that have improved, rather than their perceptions!).

As I say, I’ll come back to Leeuwenkuil soon (in brief: great value, lovely wines), but I’ve also recently been having a few older Swartland shirazes. Actually both wines  call themselves Syrah, something about which I have mixed feelings. Ordinary South African winelovers call it shiraz, and I’m sure than many don’t know what “syrah” means, which maybe means that it’s little more than pretentious and elitist to use the fancier name. On the other hand, for international audiences, using the French version rather than the one associated most with Australia, makes sense, if you’re aiming at finesse rather than power. Which a few local wines are, thank heavens.

Interestingly, the wines I’ve tasted are all very much of the past, in different ways. The 2005 and 2006 Tulbagh Mountain Vineyards Swartland Syrahs were made by Chris and Andrea Mullineux before they set up shop in Riebeek Kasteel on their own account. It was making a few wines from bought-in Swartland grapes for TMV (now called Fable under new ownership) that prompted their relocation and independence. The wine’s maturation in only older oak barrels is a common theme between then and now, perhaps – a big difference is the alcoholic power: at a declared 14.5%, the TMV wines have a good percent more than the shirazes of Mullineux Family Wines.

And it shows. A little too much ripeness and power, especially in the 2005, which no longer (my bottle anyway) showed much freshness or bright fruit; past it’s best, I think. The 2006 TMV Swartland Syrah is, however, drinking very well indeed still, though I wouldn’t see any advantage in keeping it longer. Not as elegant as the current Mullineux creations (especially not the two single-vineyard Schist and Granite wines, which are the most elegant wines to have come out of the Swartland, and the best straight shirazes to have come out of the Cape), but rather delicious, beautifully structured and balanced – with a fine integrated acidity and those magnificent Swartland tannins!

The style of wines made at Lammershoek has changed even more radically. I love the lighter, fresher, less-oaked wines that Craig Hawkins has been making there since 2010, but drinking the 2007 and 2008 reminded me how much I enjoyed the older style made by Albert Ahrens too. The 2007 particularly is drinking very well now. Powerful, yes, but the oak is integrated and the balance is great. I can think of so many other shirazes that I would like to change their style – I’m rather sorry I can’t have both the old and new versions of Lammershoek.

I used to measure how much I enjoyed a wine by whether, drinking by myself, I would have more than a third of a bottle in an evening. Inflation has unfortunately meant that the standard one-third has crept up to one-half. So my enjoyment of the Lammershoek Syrah 2007 is indicated by the fact that I drank nearly the whole bottle. (I avoid scores as much as possible these days – such a crass business it seems to me, and not much to do with what I want out of wine.) Second place in the four wines I’ve mentioned went to the TMV 2007, not far behind.

In fact I have a glassful of the TMV beside me as I write, two nights later, and it has improved with the time open. A little too “big” perhaps, but lovely, fragrant Northern Rhone-style notes of lilies (that fascinating floral-herbaceous character that is what I love most in fine shiraz), along with subtle red fruit. Really well balanced and harmonious. I think I was wrong in suggesting it would not benefit from further ageing, given what’s now revealed after a few days. Perhaps this is my favourite after all. An excellent wine that’s a tribute to Mullineux sensitivity to shiraz as well as to the terroir of the Swartland …

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