Variety and variousness – stylish shiraz

You like shiraz? You got it – voluminously. Some calls itself syrah, and much under both names is good, some very good indeed. The hectarage of shiraz in the Cape continues to expand. It’s the only red-wine grape that has increased its plantings every year for the past fifteen at least and, from a miniscule contribution in the early 1990s, is now the fourth most planted variety overall.

Fashion means that producers everywhere want shiraz, from cool Constantia to hot Klein Karoo. That spectrum was fairly represented at a recent sampling of shiraz hosted by Haskell Vineyards in Stellenbosch (itself a serious contender in the syrah game). With ten wines each from Australia and South Africa, it wasn’t intended as a competition, though it’s hard to high-mindedly avoid jostling when those two are the participants. Rather, the aim was to highlight some of newer regions and styles in both countries, and to scrutinise the tendency away from chunky, ultra-ripe blockbusterism to something more elegant. (The full results of the tasting given in an earlier look at this topic: here.)

Half of the Cape contingent had coolish origins (Constantia, Elgin, Agulhas, Elgin) but the tasters’ favourite was the well-known Mullineux Syrah from torrid Swartland (the 2010 vintage, like all those mentioned below), nicely illustrating the truth that a measure of lightness and restraint is by no means incompatible with a warm climate.

In the past decade or so, of course, the Swartland has proved remarkably well suited to shiraz, in both solo roles and ensembles with the likes of mourvedre and grenache. More recently, it has shown that freshness and lower alcohol levels can be accompanied by flavourful but subtly expressed ripeness, as exemplified by Mullineux (and their cheaper Kloof Street blend) and even more by the latter vintages of Lammershoek (including its excellent-value “second label”, Lam).

As to the cooler-area wines at the tasting, Belfield from Elgin did not convince me, any more than Iona has in the past, that this area (where chardonnay, sauvignon blanc and pinot noir are so content) has yet produced a fine shiraz. Perhaps it is that the vineyards are still too young to give depth and intensity of flavour. The model, however, still seems to be the big, very ripe, tannic wines with little appeal to me, though the style has its devotees.

A more famous wine, that has already staked a formidable claim for Constantia’s shiraz potential, is Eagles’ Nest, but it showed a trifle disappointingly here – less modest than usual: too fruity and too oaky, at least in its youth.

strandveld-syrah-468897One of the youngest shiraz areas in the Cape is Africa’s most southerly wine-growing region, the windswept hinterland of Cape Agulhas. And the news is mostly positive. Lomond Shiraz, unfortunately, showed itself sweet and clumsy at this tasting, but the Strandveld Syrah was a general favourite – balanced, more brightly savoury than fruity, and with a long dry finish.

Strandveld, which makes an eminently explorable range of wines, interestingly finds that local customers gravitate more to their shiraz-based blend, the Navigator, than to the straight Syrah – and that is, indeed, an appealing, beautifully made southern alternative to the plethora of such blends from the Swartland. But if you like your Shiraz neat, you’ll do well from this winery. The cheaper, but still delicious, alternative to the top-level one (around R70, versus R160), is in the First Sighting range and called Shiraz, and also warmly recommended.

First published in the Mail & Guardian, 8-14 March 2013

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