Tim James: On Stellenbosch Syrah
By Christian Eedes, 12 December 2016
Which area in the Cape is doing best with shiraz? The Swartland would probably get some serious votes deservedly thrown its way, but so too should Stellenbosch, given the extraordinary rise in the quality of its shiraz in the last five to ten years: with improvements in existing labels as well as new ones. Stellenbosch syrah, one should really say, rather than shiraz, as most of the top examples (as in the Swartland and elsewhere now) use that name. It was a Stellenbosch wine – André van Rensburg’s Stellenzicht Syrah 1994 – which was the first in South Africa to have the more internationally used varietal name on its label, after André had applied for it to be made an official local synonym for shiraz.
Swartland and Stellenbosch syrah (leaving aside other areas for now) have both changed, in fact, in the past decade, in line with a dominant trend in South African and international wine – becoming fresher, less heavily ripe and sweet-finishing, less powerful, less oaky. But the change in Stellenbosch syrah has been more marked, coming as it does from a more extreme position. And, interestingly, that change is perhaps more marked in syrah than in, say, cabernet sauvignon or pinotage, and related blends.
I became more aware of this pattern from the example of Boschkloof, which I visited last week – to taste a few of their wines but also the small range of Reenen Borman’s own label. Reenen, son of Boschkloof founder Jacques Borman, is now in charge of the wines (except, I must presume, for the Cape Winemakers Guild bottling…). Jacques was a fine winemaker, but Reenen is in tune with the modern approach, and is clearly taking the wines to a higher level.
In this light, it was fascinating to taste both the Sons of Sugarland Syrah 2015 and the Boschkloof Epilogue 2014. Different vintages, but the same vineyard origin on the estate. Both are fine expressions, both still very youthful, but in different styles. Sugarland, 100% whole-bunch-pressed, is less obviously “stemmy” and perfumed than many other whole-bunch wines, with pure floral and spicy characters; bright and fresh; firmly structured. Epilogue is more obviously “serious”; darker-fruited – including olive and dried herb notes, with the spicy element enhanced by some new oak (not on the Sugarland), which also helps give a richer, more tannic character. Only 30% of the stems were included here.
It was surely right to keep the Boschkloof wine thus connected to the tradition of Stellenbosch winemaking – and it’s fortunate that Reenen has a different outlet for the other style. This approach seems to have been the choice of many Stellenbosch makers of syrah – though the brilliant wines made by Rudiger Gretschel for Reyneke, for example, are closer to the Swartland avant-gardism of, say, Porseleinberg. Other top-level Stellenbosch syrahs would include, but not exclusively, those of Keermont, DeMorgenzon, Rustenberg (Buzzard Kloof), Vergelegen and Hartenberg; Rust en Vrede and De Trafford are examples of high quality at a greater distance of ripe opulence from the more “Swartland” style.
The improvement of Stellenbosch syrah has led, interestingly enough, to a situation where for some producers (including many of the above, starting with Boschkloof) it arguably features as their best red wine – despite the area’s reputation for cabernet and cab-based blends. Other examples of this that I could adduce would be Waterkloof Circumstance Syrah and Uva Mira DW Syrah. All testimony to the versatile greatness, no doubt, of Stellenbosch.
- 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.