Tim James: Grape variety of the year

By , 23 December 2014



Keermont's Alex Starey.

Keermont’s Alex Starey.

I was wondering if I could find the energy, in the midst of late-year-in-Cape-Town torpor, to rustle up a list of my top local wines of the year… An alternative occurred to me: grape variety/style of the year. The answer to that is easy: shiraz/syrah.

It’s not a revolution in wine-critical thought, of course, to realise that syrah is the strongest category of red wine in the Cape – though I dare say there’d still be those rooting for good old cab, or Bordeaux-style blends, and there are some really exciting tiny categories like cinsaut. Certainly, though, for the number of world-class examples, it would be hard to challenge syrah.

Although overall white still trumps red in South Africa, over recent years the number of really fine syrahs has been significantly growing. The improved syrah class is now up there alongside white blends and chenin, arguably ahead of sauvignon blanc, semillon and chardonnay. And I’d include, for now, syrah-based blends like Sadie Family Columella, Fable Night Sky, Sequillo, Badenhorst and a few others.

This past year has, in fact, made a big difference to the glory-end of the syrah category. The release of the marvellous second vintage of Porseleinberg, the 2012, confirmed what a great source of syrah this Boekenhoutskloof-owned Swartland farm is. Underlining that point is Boekenhoutskloof’s own Syrah 2012, which this year included a small portion of Porseleinberg fruit for the first time, in an initial shift for that label from ex-Wellington towards becoming WO Swartland. Marc Kent’s excellent CWG auction wine this year was an even greater step in that direction. The 2012 Boekenhoutskloof Syrah is surely the best ever.

Swartland is certainly not the only hero, however. Stellenbosch, with a few brand new wines this year, showed the great class of the place – especially when the winemakers have learnt, possibly from their Swartland confrères, the advantages of cutting back a little on ripeness and new oak. Alex Starey has been making a decent Keermont Syrah for a while now, but with two 2012 single-vineyard wines Keermont has definitely joined the senior syrah aristocracy (moving ahead, in my opinion, of the Blueprint Syrah made by neighbour David Trafford from Keermont grapes). At the moment I marginally prefer the cool excitement and refined intensity of Keermont Steepside to the slightly richer and riper Topside – but there’s a good chance that the latter will develop even better and for longer and come out triumphant.

Another great Stellenbosch newcomer is Reyneke Reserve Red. This was previously a cab-syrah blend, but for the 2012 Rudiger Gretschel (one of the less-known names among the leaders of Cape winemaking) used only syrah to make a most wonderful, elegant wine: I wrote in Platter of it being “complex and subtly intense, melding structural austerity with grace”. I reckon this would have to be my Red Wine of the Year.

Pointing again to the wide range of conditions under which Cape syrah is achieving great results is Hidden Valley’s Shipwreck Shiraz 2009 – sadly a mere 300 bottles were made, but it serves to alert us to a growing wave of cooler-climate syrahs. Sijnn, for another example….

To write a piece like this and neglect to mention the Mullineux syrahs would be absurd, of course. Of their latest releases I’ve most admired the straight Syrah. And just think of some other names not given here, and realise that the claims of Cape Syrah (the best – there’s plenty of poor and average stuff, of course) are remarkable.

  • 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.



1 comment(s)

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    Hennie Louw | 16 January 2015

    You are right about Shiraz/Syrah. I am currently in the wine trade and did pick it up. Sauvignon for the whites. Although sometimes, I could sense that Shiraz is the trend at the time. I am a little biased (Bordeaux freek), but can clearly see how peolple drink along trends. And then the impact that the guys in the Swartland had is impressive. Naturally Shiraz terroir. I stick to my preference, old king Cab and it’s brothers. My personal favourites, Cab Franc and Malbec.

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