Tim James: More fine Stellenbosch syrah
By Tim James, 15 July 2019
There was a nice bit of humorous irony, I think, when Vincent Bührer of Saxenburg wrote to me that he’d be “delighted to refresh [my] memory on the Saxenburg Shiraz”. In my article in May on the welcome revolution in Stellenbosch syrah, I’d mentioned that I wasn’t sure if Saxenburg was still making a notable bottling. (Vincent is of the family that owns Saxenburg and has been, as the website puts it, “at the reigns of the company since 2011” – both reigning and holding the reins it seems.
It is almost impossible to keep even approximately up to date with everything in this dynamic wine-world. So, I was delighted to be sent the current and forthcoming releases of Saxenburg’s standard Private Collection Shiraz and the Shiraz Select, with some comments from Edwin Grace, who’s been making wine there since 2005, and cellarmaster since Nico van der Merwe left – in 2017, I think it was – to concentrate on his own range. It was Nico who, over 30 years or so, built the reputation of Saxenburg as the producer of, most famously, big, ripe, oaky and well-constructed shiraz.
Edwin told me about not only about the continuous work in the vineyards on Saxenburg’s north- and west-facing decomposed granite soils, but also about stylistic shifts in the shiraz over recent years, “trying to move away from picking at very high sugars”, and from American oak – and the proportion of new oak in the Private Collection wines. This is, of course, part of the slow but hopefully sure revolution that’s been happening in Stellenbosch winemaking in the last five to ten years, away from Parkerised blockbusterdom in the direction of greater freshness and purity of fruit expression.
The wines are impressive, and the change is clear. Although the analyses of the current 2016 PC Shiraz and the yet-to-be-released 2017 are fairly similar, the finer quality of the 2017 vintage comes through. Both wines still tend to the rich and sweet-fruited side of things, with a subtle silky suppleness of tannins (that I’m learning seems somehow easier to achieve in the Polkadraai Hills than other parts of Stellenbosch); in both of them the oak is still pretty obvious in youth at least (though the new oak component is down to 18%, and no new American barrels are used); but the 2017 is rather drier in effect, and generally fresher and with more finesse. It’s a very good wine.
Of the grander and much more expensive Shiraz Select, I was sent the 2013 as the current vintage, although looking online it seems that the 2009 (at R995 ex-farm) is still widely available (SSS wasn’t made in the intervening vintages). Unfortunately my bottle was corked, but I can happily enthuse about the next-up 2015. I decanted it and after half a day the spicy, lightly perfumed aroma (with an edge of tobacco and vanilla) was showing beautifully. The wine is still young, and the 70% new oak is clearly showing (it’s down from 100% previously, and now all French), but so is the fruit to balance it; again with those almost too restrained and suave silky tannins, and a good fresh acidity enlivening the plushness. Not to mention that it’s rather delicious. I suspect it’ll be available only in a few years, and be even better by then.
I’m very happy to include Saxenburg amongst the growing elite of Stellenbosch syrah, on the basis of my reacquaintance! And even happier that the estate is moving to greater transparency and freshness. Of course, it would not be easy for a producer with an established clientele to quickly change styles radically, even if it wanted to – and I don’t imagine that Saxenburg is going to be making wine in the new-wave style (no new oak, a substantial wholebunch press component, fairly early picking, etc) found in some other Polkadraai Hills syrahs (Sons of Sugarland, Van Loggerenberg, Reyneke). But that’s maybe as it should be: a case can be made for Stellenbosch syrah to be made in this more traditional way – as long as it’s as well made as this. It is a stylisic choice: the oaking and sweet plushness will seldom greatly appeal to those who like the nakedness of the others.
Another producer that kindly contacted me and sent a bottle after my article about Stellenbosch syrah was Carl van der Merwe of DeMorgenzon – basically on the other side of the hill from Saxenburg, in the Stellenboschkloof, where the vines ripen to the sounds of Vivaldi and Bach. Although DeMorgenzon is best known for its magnificent Chardonnay and Chenin Blanc, Carl said that he thought the new Reserve Syrah 2017 “expresses the ripeness and muscularity that granite in Stellenbosch produces, but still expresses elegance, perfume and a sensual coolness”.
Carl almost apologised for sounding “quite poetic”, but I think he’s right in all respects. Again, in the larger picture this is more in line with tradition alongside Saxenburg in its ripe richness, but it has purer fruit – largely thanks to much less new oak influence – and a more lithely muscular structure; is drier and a little lighter, perhaps less intense. Splendid stuff.
There’s an increasingly good case to be made for syrah as the red grape that Stellenbosch does best – and, certainly in terms of weight of numbers, better than anywhere else in the country.
- 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.