Back in October last year, I had an exchange on Twitter with UK wine writer Tim Atkin MW suggesting that for all the advances made by South African wine in recent times, we were still a way off the very best in the world. “I’d happily put a top wine from @MullineuxWines up against the best of the northern Rhône,” tweeted Atkin, to which I replied “Sure. But what little Chave I’ve drunk moves me like modern SA wine has yet to.”
And thus was born the Great Syrah Challenge – a comparative tasting of 26 top South African examples (sourced largely by me) alongside 11 from the rest of the world (supplied by Atkin).
The tasting took place at Lismore Estate Vineyards last Thursday and those in attendance included me, Atkin and Lismore owner Samantha O’Keefe plus Nadia Barnard of Waterkloof, Alex Dale of the Winery of Good Hope, Peter-Allan Finlayson of Crystallum, Ruidger Gretschel of Vinimark, Francois Haasbroek of Blackwater Wines, Marc Kent of Boekenhoutskloof, Andrea and Chris Mullineux of Mullineux & Leeu Family Wines, Donovan Rall of Rall Wines, Duncan Savage of Cape Point Wines, Alex Starey of Keermont, Niels Verburg of Luddite and Chris Williams of Meerlust and The Foundry. We tasted blind and scored using the 100-point system.
The wines included in the line-up were as follows:
Flight A: 1. Leeuwenkuil Heritage 2012; 2. The Berrio 2013; 3. Vincent Pairs Cornas 2007 (FRANCE); 4. Boekenhoutskloof 2012; 5. Jean-Michel Stephan Côte-Rôtie Côteaux de Tupin 2005 (FRANCE); 6. Richard Kershaw Clonal Selection Elgin 2012; 7. Betz Family La Serenne Yakima Valley 2012 (USA); 8. Mullineux 2012; 9. Skillogalee Basket Pressed Clare Valley 2010 (AUSTRALIA) ; 10. Jean-Louis Chave Hermitage 2007 (FRANCE)
Flight B: 1. Fairview The Beacon 2012; 2. Craggy Range Le Sol Gimblett Gravels Vineyard 2007 (NEW ZEALAND); 3. Cederberg 2012; 4. Rene Rostaing Côte-Rôtie La Landonne 2006 (FRANCE); 5. Matetic Vineyards Syrah EQ San Antonio Vineyards 2006 (CHILE); 6. Eagles’ Nest 2011; 7. Clonakilla Shiraz Viognier Canberra District 2006 (AUSTRALIA); 8. Jamet Côte-Rôtie 2011 (FRANCE); 9. La Motte Pierneef Shiraz Viognier 2012; 10. DeMorgenzon Reserve 2012
Flight C: 1. Saintsbury Syrah Sawi Vineyard Sonoma Valley 2007 (USA); 2. Porseleinberg 2012; 3. Mullineux Iron 2012; 4. Reyneke Reserve Red 2012; 5. Haskell Pillars 2011; 6. Saronsberg 2011; 7. Mullineux Schist 2010; 8. Raka Biography 2011; 9. Boschendal Cecil John Reserve 2012; 10. Mullineux Granite 2010
Flight D: 1. Radford Dale Nudity 2014; 2. Super Single Vineyard Mount Sutherland 2012; 3. The Foundry 2009; 4. Radford Dale Stellenbosch 2013; 5. Luddite 2009; 6. Keermont 2012; 7. Waterkloof Circumstance 2012
Here’s how my top 10 turned out:
1.= Jean-Louis Chave Hermitage 2007 – 96
1.= Mullineux Schist 2010 – 96
3.= Keermont 2012 – 95
3.= Mullineux Granite 2010 – 95
3.= Rene Rostaing Côte-Rôtie La Landonne 2006 – 95
6.= Leeuwenkuil Heritage 2012 – 93
6.= Matetic Vineyards Syrah EQ San Antonio Vineyards 2006 – 93
6.= Mullineux Iron 2012 – 93
6.= Waterkloof Circumstance 2012 – 93
10.= Clonakilla Shiraz Viognier Canberra District 2006 – 92
10.= Eagles’ Nest 2011 – 92
10.= Mullineux 2012 – 92
10.= Saintsbury Syrah Sawi Vineyard Sonoma Valley 2007 – 92
The overall top 10 was as follows:
1. Clonakilla Shiraz Viognier Canberra District 2006
2. Saintsbury Syrah Sawi Vineyard Sonoma Valley 2007
3. Mullineux Schist Syrah 2010
4. Reyneke Reserve 2012
5.= Leeuwenkuil Heritage 2012
5.= Jamet Côte-Rôtie 2011
7. Mullineux Iron 2012
8. Mullineux 2012
9. Porseleinberg 2012
10. Haskell Pillars 2011
Some observations: It’s difficult to decide how well South Africa fared. On the face of it, pretty well with seven wines in the overall top 10. However, the highest position we could manage was third place after Australia and USA. Also, SA simply had more wines in the running – 26.9% of our wines in the line-up made the top 10 but then 27.2% of the international wines were there, too.
Chris and Andrea Mullineux enjoyed a field day – three of their four wines submitted in the overall top 10 and all four in my top 10 (effectively 13 because of ties). That my best two wines were a Chave and a Mullineux, suggests that Atkin and I were both right when we had our original Twitter conversation.
The feeling among the tasters was that there was a convergence of styles happening. “It’s harder than ever before to say what’s definitely South African,” said Niels Verburg. “You’re getting New World wines made in an Old World style and Old World wines made in a New World style,” said Andrea Mullineux.
“You can see South African winemakers are picking earlier and using more stalks rather than waiting for oumensgesiggies (literally “wrinkled faces” or desiccated grapes) and it’s leading to more balanced, elegant wine,” said Verburg. If it was easy to characterise South African wines as “rich and full” not so long ago, there were plenty of local wines showing excellent freshness, commented Donovan Rall.
Whole bunch fermentation is clearly in vogue locally and the question becomes how much stalky character to tolerate. “Stems enhance terroir. Use the technique properly and you can see deeper into the wine,” said Andrea Mullineux. An interesting line of argument but this surely remains a moot point. Rudiger Gretschel said that if there was one thing that characterised the South African wines, it was that they were “harder and more grippy”.
For Chris Mullineux, the spread of styles from leaner to richer which was in evidence was entirely legitimate as long as wines finished dry. “A touch of sweetness ultimately detracts from the drinking experience,” he said. Marc Kent, meanwhile, referred to the great drinkability almost across the board. “The use of acidity is so much better than it used to be. Just about all the wines showed texture,” he said.
If, however, an experienced palate can no longer spot country of origin (let alone site) with confidence, does it still make sense to speak of terroir? Alex Dale spoke to this when he said that for him the best wines were far less “method driven” and instead made “in harmony with nature”. His point was that winemakers seemed to be letting local conditions determine wine style rather than trying to manipulate the outcome.
Francois Haasbroek observed that Shiraz suits “sites which are cool, hellishly hot and everything in between”. He felt South Africa was now making top-class Shiraz but bemoaned the fact that the market still demanded Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. Verburg retorted that to some extent Shiraz was still a “novelty variety” in South Africa – if plantings at the end of 2013 were 10 508ha in 2013, these were a mere 1 329ha in 1997.
Atkin had the last word. “Does South Africa deserve to be seen in the context of the best in the world? The answer has to be yes.”