Tim James: A look back to Cape Syrah a few decades ago

By , 7 February 2022

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“The first important contribution to modern Cape Syrah”.

Sometimes it’s only too easy to forget how rapidly things have changed, and that is certainly true for many aspects of South African wine. A case in point that I alluded to last week is the position and prestige of Elgin, and when I was looking in old Grape magazines (old = 20 years!) for a relevant article, I also came across a few about syrah that reminded me that the undoubted present achievement of the variety in the Cape was only getting underway back then.

”Cape shiraz: the material of champs?” was one such article, from 2003, and the question mark was an essential part of the title. In the light of the growing reputation of the variety, a rather eminent panel of judges tasted 13 shirazes from the 2000 vintage that had performed particularly well in local and international competitions and in Platter’s. “Only a few of the established big names were missing”, it was noted, “most notably Saxenburg and De Trafford”. Of those present, a few of the names will not ring very loudly today for Cape syrah aficionados.

Graham Beck Coastal and Glen Carlou were the only wines to rate four stars (out of five, translated from a score out of 20) in a generally low-scoring line-up. Next came Delheim Vera Cruz, Boekenhoutskloof, Lievland Syrah, Anthony de Jager Homtini and Simonsig Merindol. Sadie Columella (included despite having 18% mourvèdre) and Stellenzicht both scored three stars. Then came Lievland Shiraz, with Neil Ellis, Blaauwklippen and Hartenberg dolefully wagging the tail.

The judges were not very enthusiastic on the whole, with a few pleading hopefully that the wines were in something of a “dumb phase”. Angela Lloyd also noted that 2000 was a notably tannic vintage generally, but thought that “possibly the variety is hyped in the media beyond what it can yet produce in the bottle”, especially from young vines. Cathy van Zyl foresaw great strides forward “when winegrowers and makers have learnt more about their sites and the grapes”. Michael Fridjhon also referred to young vines and corresponding overwork in the cellar, and also looked forward to a future that respected site and fruit. Rod Easthope, the New Zealand winemaker then at Rustenburg, thought the local standard fairly high, but was generally rather dismissive of Cape shiraz (including its lack of proven ageworthiness).

Remington Norman MW, the British author of Rhône Renaissance and widely experienced in international syrah, was another judge, and Grape reported his views at some length. He thought that great progress had been made since 1994 – including improved plant material and viticultural practices, and better quality oak barrels – but saw a need for reducing crop levels, not to mention waiting for the vines to age. A general deficiency he saw in the current crop of wines was “the lack of good texture and a tendency to ‘solid’ wines without much elegance”. Less new oak, and less of it American, would help. Remington also stressed the importance of winegrowers “tasting more widely wines that are generally regarded internationally as of top quality”. He added: “Knowing where you are going is an essential pre-requisite of getting there.”

Lessons, these, that have been learned in the past 20 years, I think, as demonstrated in the ever- increasing offering of fine Cape syrahs – and also, now, with other varietries and blends.

It’s interesting, of course, that Lievland had both a Shiraz and a Syrah on the tasting. The other wines were all “Shiraz” except for Boekenhoutskloof, Simonsig and Stellenzicht. I’d guess that labels at a top tasting would tell a different story now. It was Stellenzicht’s famous 1994 that was the first Cape wine to be called Syrah, with winemaker André van Rensburg (later of Vergelegen) having applied for the name to be allowed as an official synonym. He wanted to highlight a distinction, insisting that his wine was different from “old style sweaty, horsy shiraz”. Increasingly, the French rather than Australian version name came to be used for wines that (sometimes not very convincingly) their producers deemed to be in a pure-fruited yet also restrained, classic style.

Retrospectively, that Stellenzicht 1994 seems like the first important contribution to modern Cape syrah, in more than just the name, and primarily in terms of ambition and respect for a single site. It alerted local producers and winelovers as to the grape’s potential here. Syrah became fashionable here from the latter 1990s (and not just in South Africa) – some of the appeal, no doubt, because of Australian international success with the variety and the fact that forces at the time were pushing the Australianisation of South African wine as a means to pleasing the international market.

From about one percent of the total vineyard area in 1995, syrah’s share grew phenomenally, to over ten percent by 2010. Noting this in my 2013 book on South African wine, I added that “Fashionability has meant that Syrah is planted heavily in all parts – from cool Elgin and Elim to the hot Klein Karoo.” I also suggested that “the picture of Syrah in the Cape will be different in ten and twenty years’ time, with more mature vineyards, and a better sense of terroirs most suited to it”.

Admittedly a not very difficult prediction to have made, but it is gratifying just how the quality of Cape syrah has come on in the past ten years, especially in Stellenbosch and perhaps the Cape South Coast, and I’m sure that the spread of genuinely excellent examples will be even greater at the end of the next ten.

  • 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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  • Billabong8 February 2022

    I still have a bottle of Stellenzicht Syrah 2003, in my cellar. I think I’ll try it on 2023 to see if any longevity kicked in.

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