Is SA Shiraz world class?

Giant killer.

Giant killer.

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.”

For pics of the tasting, click here.
For Tim Atkin’s report, click here.
For Jamie Goode’s commentary on the tasting, click here.

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14 Comments

  1. David HuttonApril 29, 2015 at 11:43 amReply

    Thanks for doing this Christian (& Tim & Jamie) – good to see SA Shiraz doing so well!!
    Ja, those Swartlanders keep on surprising us, well done!!

  2. Philip MostertApril 7, 2015 at 4:34 pmReply

    What a beautiful line-up of quality Shiraz. As a big Shiraz lover and Rhone ranger, it was significant to see how the wines did. I think it was a bright idea and the line-up of taster gave the tasting credibility. Would love to compare some of these wines in our wine club.

  3. Tim AtkinMarch 31, 2015 at 8:13 amReply

    Great to see that our Syrah tasting has generated so much interest. It wasn’t perfect – no tasting ever is – and it was largely meant to be a forum for discussion between SA winemakers rather than an OIV style, controlled tasting, but it’s good to read some positive (and critical) comments about what we did.

    I think it’s significant that Mullineux, Reyneke and Porseleinberg (the three best SA Syrah producers in my book) did so well. These are all world class wines that would fool a lot of ignorant label drinkers in a blind tasting.

    For the record, I gave the Chave 95 points. It was my third favourite wine after the Reyneke and Le Sol from Craggy Range. I didn’t publish my scores because I wanted this to be a collaborative venture, not a what did Tim Atkin and Christian Eedes score these wines event.

    I showed older wines from elsewhere because I wanted to taste them and they were in my cellar. And it’s not much fun (and a waste of money) showing 2011 or 2010 Chave, Rostaing, etc. The Jamet was great but a little too young for me. It’s also worth adding that no one (apart from me) knew that the older wines in the tasting were from elsewhere.

    We are planning to do this again next year, with the same guest list (more a group of friends, really). So will be interesting to see what does well next year. The main point was to have fun and to showcase SA Syrah in a world context. We did both in a spirit of openness, friendship and generosity.

    Thanks you, Christian, for going to the trouble to source all the wines and for your insight and input. There should be more tastings like this in SA. Chardonnay? Cabernet? Pinot? White blends?

  4. David ClarkeMarch 30, 2015 at 4:54 pmReply

    Howdy – nice one guys – always great to taste some international stuff in and around the local gear. We should all do more of it.

    I really enjoy the modest title of “Great Syrah Challenge”! ;)

  5. EmileMarch 29, 2015 at 10:28 pmReply

    I think this is an exercise to be commended. No doubt great effort was taken to put the whole thing together. And I for one will be looking at SA Shiraz in a new light.

  6. keith protheroMarch 29, 2015 at 1:29 pmReply

    Yes good point Mike, I know when I was a Director of Mullineux that it was our policy to keep a library stock of 10% of production. As an investor,when our wine was in demand,this was hard on cash flow,but in the long term a sensible policy,for the reasons you mention.
    Did not realise other wineries,had a different policy.

  7. Mike RatcliffeMarch 29, 2015 at 12:53 pmReply

    Perhaps one of the matters raised by this tasting is the inability of the majority of top South African wineries to showcase consistently a reliable and comprehensive library of their wines. Why was South Africa not matching older vintages with their Northern hemisphere counterparts? The common denominator of the greatest wines of the world is that they are able to trumpet their pedigree by referring to the past. The ability of a wine to age, mature and ultimately improve over time is most reliably discussed when actually tasting their evolution. Very few top South African wineries have made the effort (and financial commitment) to hold back a reasonable amount of their wines. IMHO, this needs to communicated and accepted so that next decade is nurtured more lovingly and this commitment becomes common amongst the top wineries. Perhaps it will be this which is one of the next steps in the continued progress of South African wine?

    (this comment also posted on Jamie Goodes blog)

    • Christian EedesMarch 29, 2015 at 2:20 pmReplyAuthor

      Hi Mike, It must be said that when I approached local wineries to participate I asked them to submit current as opposed to older vintages – I have no doubt that Boekenhoutskloof to name one cellar in particular would’ve been ready and willing to submit older wines. Please understand that the whole exercise took place as a labour of love, people giving of their time and stock very generously. As so often in the wine industry, it was a not-for-profit exercise….

  8. Keith ProtheroMarch 29, 2015 at 12:28 pmReply

    An interesting tasting which of course proves nothing. No doubt SA and especially the Swartland produces some fine syrah,but no conclusions can be drawn from such a tasting,other than it must have been a jolly good time !!
    Frankly,if a similar tasting was held in a another country,with similar but of course different bottles ,and other palates,then the result would no doubt have been completely different !!
    I know what I prefer to drink given the choice between Chave,Jamet,Ogier,Verset,Clape and any SA producer you care to mention. BUT,I do believe that SA makes some really good syrah at very reasonable prices and Wien such as the Mullineux Schist and Granite will,with many years bottle age,be right up there with some of the great syrah producers in France

  9. ChristopheMarch 29, 2015 at 11:26 amReply

    Well written article and that’s the least to be expected from You but for what purpose? Even if our Syrah/ Shiraz are world class I personally have issues with an organizer( nothing personal) picking what he wishes to taste and inviting some of those producers(friends) to be part of the judging panel. We are again taping ourselves on our shoulders instead of exposing ourselves to the world… Food for thought …

    • Christian EedesMarch 29, 2015 at 12:21 pmReplyAuthor

      Hi Christophe, Thanks for your comment and no offence taken! The wines were hardly selected on a whim – as I said in a previous comment, the exercise was originally billed as SA vs the Rhone and I set about requesting wines which might broadly be considered Old World/elegant and balanced rather than New World/rich and full. I also endeavoured to include wines from a variety of growing areas to keep things interesting and it obviously made sense to include wines which already had some sort of critical endorsement – Boekenhoutskloof 2012, Boschendal Cecil John Reserve 2012, Porseleinberg 2012 all rated 5 Stars in Platter’s and Super Single Vineyards Mount Sutherland best red wine overall at last year’s Old Mutual Trophy Wine Show, for instance. I had nothing to do with the guest list (although I don’t think you can criticise the collective expertise too much) and I think the whole thing amounts to quite a bit more than self-congratulation. Tim Atkin MW with an international following including over 40 000 Twitter followers was co-organiser and gets to tell the world that SA is right up there. Many wine enthusiasts still wants to discount the quality of what SA produces and this is the kind of exercise which will change perceptions.

  10. eliasMarch 29, 2015 at 8:52 amReply

    or if the South African were older would it have faired worse? Also strange to see Raka, Fairview to name a couple when Keermont, Tamboerskloof, Boschkloof and couple of young winemakers in Swartland are making strides with their syrah.

    • Christian EedesMarch 29, 2015 at 9:21 amReplyAuthor

      Hi Elias, The tasting was originally pitched as SA vs the Rhone and then morphed into SA vs the rest of the world – the international wines were what was readily to hand from Tim Atkin’s cellar. The discrepancy in age between the local and international stuff wasn’t ideal but by the same token, we’ve come a long way in a very short space of time, Mullineux only around since 2008 and Porseleinberg since 2011, for instance.

      As for who was and wasn’t included, I tried to include as wide a variety of different growing areas as possible – so Raka in to represent Kleinrivier (Stanford) and Fairview to represent Paarl and so on. Bear mentioning that Raka came 11th overal…

  11. eliasMarch 29, 2015 at 8:46 amReply

    Lovely line-up of wines. Always believed South African shiraz up there with the rest. Christain if the international wines were bit younger in vintage would it have faired better maybe?

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