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Tim James: Cheaper Syrahs

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Cheaper SyrahsAs most serious wine lovers agree, Cape white wines are generally superior category to Cape reds, and this is particularly relevant at the lower level. Finding an eminently drinkable cheap co-op chenin blanc is not hard, but the same isn’t true for reds. Syrah is possibly the likeliest candidate, given its widespread planting, its apparently greater adaptability than the alternatives (notably merlot and cabernet) to a range of climatic conditions, and because there are enough prestigious examples of unoaked, modestly ripe syrahs around to encourage winemakers to avoid ruining a possibly decent wine by overdoing things in vineyard or cellar.

I was recently sent by a bottle of False Bay Old School Syrah 2017 by the producer – it’s from the same stable as Waterkloof, and also made by Nadia Barnard. (A particularly good value False Bay Chenin came too, also at R60-odd, but unfortunately not the rest of the range, which would have been interesting – in fact, Christian contrived to taste them all here). I decided to compare it with a few others in that price range, and went out to buy bottles of Leeuwenkuil 2016 and Boekenhoutskloof’s Porcupine Ridge 2017, so I could taste them together.

The good news is that they’re all pretty good. If you want a decent syrah, and you baulk at spending  around R150 for it – that’s where the serious examples seem to start gathering – you needn’t despair.

At under R50 from my local Checkers, Porcupine Ridge, ex Swartland, is just the cheapest of the three, and the cheapest-tasting (and my least favourite), in that it comes across as a touch sweeter and is more softly structured – clearly intended for early consumption. As I suppose they all are, though all would probably benefit from a year or two longer in bottle; I reach that conclusion primarily from having tasted them over two days and finding them all decidedly less raw on the second evening when a bit of oxygen had started its maturing-destructive business. The other two had a little more inherent challenge to them, however.

Another generalisation worth making is just how much all three benefited from an hour in the fridge to cool them down, especially the False Bay and Porcupine Ridge, which have rather higher alcohol levels, declared at 14%.

After those ideal few years, I suspect I might relish the False Bay Syrah most of all, because of its flavour concentration and some depth of savoury characterfulness. From Stellenbosch and Swartland fruit, made with little cellar intervention and matured for six months in older foudres (I wish it had stayed in them for a bit more softening time), its RRP of R58 is really modest.

At least in youth, though, the Leeuwenkuil Shiraz 2016 (R52) was the one I enjoyed most, though it was undoubtedly less intensely fruited than False Bay. It was correspondingly lighter and more elegant, however, with a dry herbal and spice quality complementing the plummy notes, and the extra year in bottle gave it more drinkability than False Bay. Very much in the modern Swartland style, and a (very) junior and easier-going version of the top-rank Leeuwenkuil Heritage Syrah.

To give some perspective to this little experiment, I also opened a bottle of the recently released second vintage of Carinus Syrah (R140), made from Stellenbosch grapes by Lukas van Loggerenberg. The 2017, all whole-bunch-fermented, is as fresh and elegant as the maiden – perhaps even better – with pure and lovely aromas and flavours. The tannins are subtle but informing, and the whole is harmonious and poised for a good few years’ development.

It’s hard to think that anyone tasting Carinus alongside the others wouldn’t rate it higher – certainly than the Leeuwenkuil, which is the most similarly styled; though the obviously greater fruit intensity of the False Bay would have its admirers. But I could certainly appreciate the position of those for whom price matters and who’d rather have two (nearly three) bottles of any of those wines for their money. I suspect they wouldn’t have such a viable alternative with cabernet.

  • Tim James is one of South Africa’s leading wine commentators, contributing 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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  1. Hi Tim,

    On a work visit to Dubai recently (I cant think of another reason to visit really), I was taken out to dinner and I recall seeing a False Bay wine on the menu, which I remarked was probably a R60 wine back home. I did not have the pleasure of ordering it though, as we were on an Argintinean red. But the price? 325 AEDs. Now there’s a markup!

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