Southerly shiraz

Not too many sweeping conclusions should be drawn from a recent minor match between Australia and South Africa, with shiraz the game. But a few tentative ones might be allowable perhaps.

The occasion was organised primarily by Grant Dodd, the Australian MD of Haskell Vineyards in Stellenbosch – which makes the highly successful Pillars Syrah, and the Aeon Syrah which was tasted here. It was emphatically not a competition of all the best examples from each country (imagine what that would have cost, especially the Oz wines!), but mostly designed to explore some areas less renowned for the grape (Tasmania, Hunter Valley, Elgin, Elim, etc) as well as some better known ones.

Grant generously brought along 11 Australians, while Christian Eedes was charged with selecting the local players, and found 11 ranging from the very well known to some, er, less renowned wines.

Tasting alongside Grant and Christian were Michael Fridjhon, Angela Lloyd and myself (winemaker and MW Richard Kershaw wasn’t able to make it in time). We tasted blind, of course, and scored out of 20. The top scorer was Mullineux Syrah 2010 (hardly a newcomer, or unrenowned, of course), with Clonakilla Shiraz Viognier 2010 following, just ahead of Strandveld 2010 (from Elim) and De Iulius Steven Vineyard 2011, tied for third place. (A great result for cool, wind-ravaged Strandveld, a wine I’ve admired before, but comparatively little known, even in South Africa.) Then were three more Oz wines.

spitter-biggerAlthough most of the foreign wines are unlikely to mean much to most people here (the names certainly didn’t mean much to me, most of them), I’ll give the whole list and their (overall, averaged) scoring (thanks to Christian for putting the results on a spreadsheet):

  • 1. Mullineux 2010 (17.8)
  • 2. Clonakilla Shiraz Viognier 2010 (17.2)
  • =3. De Iuliis Steven Vineyard 2011 (17.1)
  • =3. Strandveld 2010 (17.1)
  • 5. Glaetzer Dixon Mon Père Shiraz 2010 (16.9)
  • 6. Dalwhinnie Moonambel 2009 (16.5)
  • 7. De Bortoli Reserve 2010 (16.4)
  • 8. Sami Odi Hoffmann Dallwitz 2010 (16.3)
  • 9. Eagles’ Nest 2009, Constantia (16.1)
  • =10. Fable Bobbejaan 2010 (16)
  • =10. Tyrrells Old Patch 1867 2009 (16)
  • =12. Marius Symphony 2010 (15.9)
  • =12. Raka Biography 2010 (15.9)
  • =14. Bests Bin O 2010 (15.7)
  • =14. Groote Post 2011 (15.7)
  • =14. Haskell Aeon 2010 (15.7)
  • 17. Forest Hill Block 5 2010 (15.4)
  • =18. Belfield 2009 (15.1)
  • =18. Scali 2008 (15.1)
  • =20. Larry Cherubino Laissez Faire 2011 (15)
  • =20. Reyneke 2011 (15)
  • 22. Lomond Conebush 2009 (14.3)

My only significant divergences from this ranking, as far as the locals were concerned, is that I was more generous to Raka and less generous to Eagles’ Nest

Although it will be noticed that the South Africans were possibly a little predominant in the bottom half of the list, national honours overall were reasonably well spread, though looking at that was not the point of the exercise at all. More interesting was the spread of styles, of what one might call aesthetic approaches, evident.

Before the tasting we discussed what we might expect and if it was likely we’d be able to identify country of origin in most cases. I mentioned what my prejudices were: amongst other things, I expected to find, I said, that most (but not all) of the ultra-ripe, sweetish wines would be Australian – despite all acounts of Australia moving away from the “Barossa-style”, and that the more elegant ones would be local; I also expected that if there were clumsily made wines, they would be South African!

As it happens, a principle that I used a good deal – and it seemed to work – concerned acidity. If the acid seemed to me out of balance, especially if it was clearly added in an attempt to give vivacity to very-ripe fruit, I marked the wine as Australian. I generally tend to find that, in good Cape wines, the acidity is very convincing and well integrated – it’s one of the things that blissfully just happens well here (not by any means always, of course), even in hot regions like the Swartland, whereas I don’t think it does as often in most other New World countries.

Using these principles as well as a bit of instinct and sometimes sheer guesswork, I correctly got the origins of 17 out of the 22 wines. Some clear mistakes, revealing the inadequacy of general principles and prejuduces: I thought the Eagles’ Nest was Australian on grounds of great ripeness and rather too much oak. Two of my three top scorers (along with Mullineux) were De Iulius and De Bortoli, and I marked them as South African because of their freshness and unshowy, unpretentious appeal. So there! I shall have to handle that particular prejudice with a bit more care in the future….

But yes, there were certainly a few of the South Africans that I found rather clumsy and outclassed in this lineup; two of my three lowest scores stayed in the Cape.

On the whole, like the other tasters, I found it not easy to be confident about origin. What is clear, perhaps, is how much the making of syrahs in both countries has improved in recent years. Which is good news for everyone.

Incidentally, there was a good discussion after the tasting, with many of the local winemakers involved, who’d also had a chance to sample all the wines. Thanks to Grant Dodd and Haskell for an event which can only help us all to understand what is happening both here and elsewhere in the world.

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