Tim James: Voting on Stellenbosch and Swartland syrah

By , 21 June 2019



A New Zealander with an undoubted right to an opinion – Neil McCallum, founder of the famous Dry River estate – recently told a seemingly sympathetic Jancis Robinson that he believes that “the real red grape for New Zealand is Syrah”. Rather, that is, than the country’s much more widely grown and generally more lauded pinot noir.

Though Cabernet fans would no doubt vehemently disagree (and even pinot ones), surely that diagnosis should apply to South Africa too, in terms of quality. Even in Stellenbosch (with apologies to the Stellenbosch Cabernet Collective!), where a growing cohort of producers – not only in new-wave style – is making a syrah revolution, as I suggested last month on this website. An interesting Wine Cellar tasting earlier this month in both Johannesburg and Cape Town pursued this latter point, putting up six more-or-less current wines each from the Northern Rhône, Stellenbosch and the Swartland.

Three flights, each with two wines from each of those regions, with the tasters encouraged to conduct mini-competitions in each flight. So not really an occasion to make considered comparisons of terroir (if that’s what’s involved as we all hope), but instructive in the limited way that blind competitions are. A lot of individual guessing as to origins, and quick coming-to-judgement. Certainly in Cape Town there was seldom anything approaching consensus about origins or favourites.

I’ll come back to the latter question, but it’s first worth remembering the spread of excellence of Cape Syrah these days. Reminding the tasters of this was a pre-tasting half-glassful of the Mount Sutherland Syrah 2016, grown by Daniël de Waal in continental conditions (high at 1500 metres elevation, cold-wintered, inland). An excellent, elegant wine this, the best vintage yet – and, at R260, by far the cheapest syrah in the room, believe it or not. Another reminder was the presence at the Cape Town tasting of Samantha O’Keefe, whose splendid Lismore Estate Reserve Syrah 2017 from Greyton (nearly three times the price) is further testament to inland syrah finesse and great quality.

Significantly, perhaps, there wasn’t a single wine tasted, in both centres, which wasn’t the favourite of at least one person in the room – and in fact, only two wines didn’t get more than one vote, and then only in one place. I say “significantly”, but am not entirely sure what is signified – the spread of tastes? the general high quality on offer? Those both, probably, but also the usual result of tasting competitively in such circumstances.

Hartenberg The StorkBut a winner is a winner is a winner. The wine that got the most votes out of all three flights was Van Loggerenberg Graft 2018, which got 12 in Cape Town, including mine, incidentally, though it got only 4 in Johannesburg). Worth noting as the second-least expensive wine in the formal line-up, at R350. And, even more of a winner, really, the wine that easily got the highest total number of votes, adding together Cape Town and Johannesburg, was Hartenberg The Stork 2015, which got 20 – about half the room, 10, in each place.

So, glory for Stellenbosch, and it continued thus. The Van Loggerenberg got the second-highest total (16), followed by Boschkloof Epilogue (15), and three wines getting 14: Mullineux Schist Syrah Roundstone 2016, the only Swartland entry into the ranks of clear winners, and two Rhône wines. (Whether or not it made any difference or not, it should be noted that the local examples were amongst the top wines possible, that certainly didn’t apply to the French wines – the absurd price and lack of availability of them made that inevitable.)

The other local wines tasted, by the way, were: from Stellenbosch – Reyneke Reserve Red 2015, De Trafford Syrah 393 2016, and Keermont Steepside Syrah 2015; from Swartland – Boekenhoutskloof Syrah 2016, Leeuwenkuil Heritage Syrah 2015, Mullineux Granite Syrah 2016, Terracura Syrah 2016, and Porseleinberg Syrah 2017. Extremely good wines all of them, and it’s impossible to suggest that any of them are too expensive by international standards. As to Stellenbosch versus Swartland (not to mention all the rest) – well, let’s just be unutterably pleased we have both.

And worth noting that amongst the locals represented in this tasting there wasn’t a single example called “Shiraz”. Furthermore, four of the 12 (Van Loggerenberg, Hartenberg, Boschkloof, Reyneke) didn’t even mention the variety at all, at least on the display label. Way to go!

  • 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.


2 comment(s)

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    Tim James | 21 June 2019

    Rob, I subsequently mentioned to the organisers that the reason that Stellenbosch would always beat Swartland overall in this game is that there is such a lot of depth of quality in Stellenbosch. Also, I imagine that the organisers’ commercial interest plays a part in what’s selected, as they’re wanting to sell the stuff. I don’t know if Nico’s wine is on their books. But I do know that, for example, they would surely have included the Sons of Sugarland Syrah they recently raved about, only they have none left in stock. There are others too that, as you say, could have found a place at a tasting of top Stellenbosch and Swartland syrahs. As to value in all cases, well….

    Wino Rob | 21 June 2019

    I would suggest that Nico van der Merwe’s 2015 Syrah would deserve a seat at this table. IMHO that seat would be at the head of the table. One wonders how much influence marketing campaigns play in these tastings? Taking nothing away from these wines but R990 for some of those tasted in this article? Is that value? I guess if you were blown away by the experience then yes.

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