Tim James: SA’s best Syrah – not limited to the Swartland

September 11, 2017
by Tim James
in Opinion & Analysis
with 14 Comments

I started pondering the state of syrah across the Cape regions when I read Christian Eedes’s recent remark that “the Swartland has pretty much taken ownership of top-end Syrah”. Fond and admiring as I am of the Swartland, that didn’t strike me as totally true: I think, rather, of syrah as the variety that perhaps more than other has shown it can do extremely well in nearly all South African wine regions – well, all the good ones. So here I am trying to justify that thought….

Of course, the Swartland probably would have a dominant representation in my list of the very top 10 or 20 syrah, including Porseleinberg, a clutch of Mullineux, Boekenhoutskloof (the 2015 the first to come entirely from that region), Leeuwenkuil, and the first-rate maiden Swerwer. Terracura’s maiden vintage looks very promising too. There’s only a small clutch of other varietal Swartland syrahs (including some very winning “natural” ones like Testalonga’s and Mother Rock’s), and I’m obviously leaving out the syrah-based blends, which are probably more common and at least as illustrious.

Boschkloof Epilogue Syrah 2015

Keeping the Swartland honest.

But if you were to name the top 30 Cape syrahs, I’d guess that Stellenbosch wines would be by far the largest contributor. At the top end, I’d include Reyneke and perhaps Ron Burgundy’s Sons of Sugarland and Boschkloof. But also around that end are wines from estates like Rustenberg, De Trafford, Keermont, Haskell, Remhoogte, Tamboerskloof … and I could extend that list. The style of syrah made in Stellenbosch is often very different from that of the fashionable Swartland – riper, bigger, with more new oak, but the quality is there.

As to other regions producing very high-end shiraz – Christian was talking about Iona Solace from Elgin, and I’d probably push Richard Kershaw’s Elgin Syrah above that (his deconstructed versions only a touch less successful), and into my personal top ten. Not far from Elgin, Peter-Allan Finlayson at Gabriëlskloof is now starting to show how well Bot River can do with the variety – and Luddite already has many established fans. Moving along the Cape South Coast we’d have to jump across the Hemel-en-Aarde (though there are a few good blends) to Elim, where, in the face of just too much overripe picking, Trizanne Barnard is the first to really show the possibilities of cooler climate stuff with her Reserve Syrah (Giant Periwinkle Kelp Forest a lesser version, but also quite fresh). And then further along to Malgas at the mouth of the Breede River, where Sijnn Syrah (in the right vintage, mind) can be marvellous.

Constantia? Well, unless you include Groot Constantia, there’s really only one contender for a top spot, which is Eagles Nest, but that’s a pretty good advertisement for the area.

Tulbagh has a couple for top-end consideration, with Fable and Saronsberg making very different styles, but both doing them extremely well. Franschhoek? I don’t think so. As for Paarl – difficult: Bellingham Bernhard Series Basket Press, Scali Syrah, Fairview Eenzaamheid and Joostenberg Klippe Kou maybe come closest.

Other regions with at least one good-to-very-good example would include Greyton (Lismore) and Cederberg (Cederberg & Driehoek).

So, even though I’ve no doubt caused indignation by stupidly forgetting to mention some other examples, I’ve adduced enough to convince myself at least that I was right in thinking that top-end syrah is not owned by any one Cape region. And I suspect that is becoming increasingly the case. Which is a pleasing conclusion.

  • Tim James is founder of Grape.co.za and contributes to various local and international wine publications. He is a taster (and associate editor) for Platter’s. His book Wines of South Africa – Tradition and Revolution appeared in 2013.

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14 Comments

  1. SmirrieSeptember 14, 2017 at 1:30 pmReply

    Just for a small bit of further reference.

    The Tim Atkin 2017 reports list the following wines as his top Syrah/Shiraz.

    SYRAH
    2016 BLANKbottle Kliptuin, Ceres Plateau
    2015 Boekenhoutskloof, Swartland
    2015 Boschkloof Epilogue, Stellenbosch
    2014 De Trafford Elevation 393, Stellenbosch
    2015 Kershaw Deconstructed Lake District Cartref SH9c, Elgin
    2012 Hartenberg Gravel Hill, Stellenbosch
    2014 Leeuwenkuil Heritage, Swartland
    2016 Lismore, Greyton
    2015 Mullineux Granite, Swartland
    2015 Mullineux Iron, Swartland
    2015 Mullineux Schist Roundstone, Swartland
    2015 Porseleinberg, Swartland
    2014 Reyneke, Stellenbosch
    2013 Waterford Kevin Arnold, Stellenbosch

    • John HartleySeptember 14, 2017 at 1:57 pmReply

      You will have to think long and hard to make up a list of better Syrah/Shiraz currently on offer in SA! 10 Years ago 75% of these wines would not have got a look in! Styles change, consumers change – adapt or die! Just look at the styles of the CWG wines on offer currently – following tastes – makes sales!

  2. HenrySeptember 14, 2017 at 12:05 pmReply

    I understand that many wineries never enter these competitions for fear of being exposed for selling overpriced, critically overrated wines. Surely if these wines are the best, they should be able to stand up to the unbiased scrutiny that a reputable wine competition such as Top 12 or Veritas offers. By removing labels and preconceptions, one might be surprised by wines from unfashionable areas such as Robertson, Klein Karoo etc.

    • KwispedoorSeptember 14, 2017 at 12:34 pmReply

      True, Henry, the fear of their overrated wine being exposed could quite possibly be one of the reasons as far as certain producers are concerned. Another reason would be that it costs money to enter competitions and with the fairly random nature of big competitions, certain producers can’t see the point of spending money to play Russian Roulette. One unfair bad result and a reputation can be dented. This would be an especially pointless exercise if a wine sells out, year after year, without help from competition results in any event.

      What many of these producers do instead, is to conduct benchmark tastings, where they put their wines up against some of the best competition from around the globe. More daunting, that. During these smaller tastings palates are generally less hammered than they are in big tastings, arguably yielding more sensible and accurate results.

      Anyways, the question here is not whether Robertson, Klein Karoo, etc. can produce worthy wines in general (I like plenty of them myself), but which varietal shiraz in particular, made from Robertson grapes, should be included in a list of the absolutely best 10 or 20 shiraz wines in South Africa? I couldn’t think of one that is quite good enough to be included in that small, very top bracket of this congested category. Which is why I hoped you could help by being more specific about the wines that you feel should have been included.

      • SmirrieSeptember 14, 2017 at 1:29 pm

        My only educated guess from Karoo to include is the Mount Sutherland Syrah.

      • KwispedoorSeptember 14, 2017 at 1:56 pm

        On the money, Smirrie, the last vintage I tasted of the Mount Sutherland was the 2012 and it was pretty darn gorgeous. Henry was specifically talking about Robertson shiraz in his initial comment, though.

  3. ChristianSeptember 12, 2017 at 4:06 pmReply

    Hi All, My observation about the Swartland “pretty much owning” top-end Syrah was in a similar vein to Stellenbosch’s association with Cabernet Sauvignon. There are some very fine examples from elsewhere in the country but in most people’s minds variety and place in each case are synonymous.

    It is intriguing that Mr James’s piece has elicited so much response and I think this is in large part because while local Shiraz/Syrah has show immense promise over the last decade or two, there has been relatively little meaningful discussion around it compared to other categories. Perhaps Shiraz SA could take a leaf out of the Chenin Blanc Association’s book…

  4. Tim JamesSeptember 12, 2017 at 12:05 pmReply

    Smirrie, I really rather doubt if Swartland could dominate a top 20 numerically, even if it took the top the majority of the top places. There simply aren’t enough top Swartland syrahs. You try making a list of top-end examples. If you were to talk about Swartland syrah-based blends, that would be a different story.
    Henry. Even beyond Kwispedoor’s valid point – frankly, Syrah du Monde is a total joke. A world wide competition which gets 372 entries from 26 countries? And gives a third of them medals and gives 33 gold ones? South Africa seems to take it seriously for some bizarre reason, but no-one else does – not France: there’s scarcely a single wine from the Rhône for example. And I’m perfectly happy to defend my non-inclusion of Robertson syrah – I don’t see any of the few ambitious examples approaching anywhere near the quality of the best.

  5. SmirrieSeptember 12, 2017 at 9:45 amReply

    Tim thank you for the article but i think you alluded to it but if a top 20 Syrah wine list must be picked by 20 independent people the Swartland will trump no doubt about it.

    But that is not to say that the rest of the regions are not as good perhaps the whole idea of your article/blog post.

    If i may add a wine with more than 85% Syrah in i would add the Hemel & Aarde Region and more specifically the Granum of Newton Johnson which is up there with the best.

    Long live Syrah style and Shiraz.

  6. David TraffordSeptember 12, 2017 at 9:45 amReply

    I can’t agree more with your point. There may be some debate about the producers and regions you chose to highlight, but I feel syrah is the variety that will best express the amazing tapestry of vineyards and potential vineyard sites we have in the Cape. It does well in quite a range of climates and different soil types, but vigour is a problem. Only poor soils will do for top quality, which rules out a lot of valley floors.

  7. Hennie TaljaardSeptember 12, 2017 at 9:13 amReply

    Don’t forget about Ceres. Koelfontein is under-rated and Pieter Walser made one of the best Syrah’s I’ve ever tasted from Agter-Witzenberg fruit.

  8. KrisSeptember 12, 2017 at 5:27 amReply

    Also no mention of Shiraz SA which is the organised association for the cultivar.
    Any particular reason as one would think they would have relevant insight especially if they have formed their own Shiraz competition, do you have no confidence in this or just an oversight?

  9. HenrySeptember 11, 2017 at 10:53 pmReply

    Amazing how the Robertson region, which has garnered two Golds at this years Syrah du Monde as well as Shiraz Top 12 wines in the past, once again fails to get mentioned.

    • KwispedoorSeptember 12, 2017 at 8:15 amReply

      Henry, the fact that Kanonkop Black Label Pinotage is not entered into the Absa Top 10 Pinotage Competition, doesn’t mean that it could not easily have made the top 10 if it was. Similarly, hardly any of the shiraz wines mentioned by Tim are ever entered into any competition. Often, the best wines can only lose by not winning (and the fairly random nature of big competitions is well documented), so they just don’t get entered. Which Robertson shiraz in particular would you include in the very top echelon as per the article?

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