Jancis Robinson, 2006: Good Hermitage is always majestic. Slow to mature, very deep in colour, magnificently and hauntingly savoury rather than sweet and flirtatious, the quintessential Syrah.
This tasting was held in the Lake Dunstan Boat Club's pleasant rooms in Cromwell, on the shores of the lake, on Monday 29 Sept. 2014. My goal in this tasting was to highlight how very beautiful the syrahs of the classical Northern Rhone appellations Cote Rotie, Hermitage and Cornas can be, as illustrated through a diversity of producers. The sub-theme will be that syrah can perhaps be regarded as pinot noir on steroids, aromatic pinot noir maybe, and the winestyle in maturity has much in common with fine pinot noir from the Cote de Nuits. But then, a claret lover would point out that in the later 1800s, it was exactly the cassis-like aromatics of perfectly ripe syrah which allowed it to be used to reinforce the great wines of bordeaux: hence Lafite-Hermitagé. A sensory dilemma, but a pleasant one.
Syrah as it ripens displays a consistent sequence of bouquet and flavour characters, which develop in complexity with increasing ripeness in much the same way pinot noir does. I published an account of this sequence in The World of Fine Wine, London, a couple of years ago, and will include a photocopy with the notes at the tasting. And like pinot noir, with over-ripening there is loss of florality, beauty and complexity in syrah, and increase in weight. It can be argued that for syrah grown in Australia, in a climate often too hot for the grape to retain these attributes, they made the mistake of seeking to restore aromatics in the wine via oak. And like pinot noir, too much oak obliterates beauty in syrah. Marketing it as shiraz therefore makes sense, and helps New Zealand exports too ! Thus we have no Australian wines in the tasting (though occasional syrah-like examples do exist). I hope the wines will amplify these viewpoints.
The tastings will be presented in a format I have found works, using smaller samples which both allows more wines to be reviewed, and reduces the cost. Please note therefore the pours are only 30ml, which can easily be consumed before the wine is even tasted. The logistics of bringing the wines from Wellington are such that I cannot have duplicate bottles for each wine. For some, there is not one. So it will be just like a wine in your cellar: in paying for the tasting, participants accept the risk of corked bottles. I will bring some reserve bottles, so you will get 12 wines, but the exact wines listed cannot be guaranteed. Prices shown below are the current average in New Zealand dollars as recorded by www.wine-searcher.com Local auction realisations are usually much less. Tonight's pricing reflects that.
The introductory notes for the matching pinot noir tasting two days later will suffice for this tasting too. I will just repeat a couple of important details. The following notes and rankings reflect my views alone, not the group's – though some clues as to individual taster appraisals are scattered throughout. Further, the descriptors describe the wines at their best, variously on the night or the next day.
These two tastings came about thanks to the long-standing interest and encouragement of Blair Walter of Felton Road. Once on the spot, there seemed no limit to the efforts he made to facilitate my stay in the district as well. Antony Worch of Alexandra Vintners and Natalie Wilson of Central Otago WineGrowers Association in turn also helped enormously in all the administration and logistics involved in presenting tastings with 250-odd glasses. Thank you.
Broadbent, Michael 2003: Michael Broadbent's Wine Vintages.
Mitchell Beazley, 223 p.
Livingstone-Learmonth, John 2005: The Wines of the Northern Rhone. University of California Press, 720 p.
www.drinkrhone.com = John Livingstone-Learmonth
www.erobertparker.com = Robert Parker and increasingly the associates
www.jancisrobinson.com = Jancis Robinson and associates
THE WINES REVIEWED – Syrah:
Ruby and velvet, glowing, the third deepest, some age showing. This wine has the most beautiful floral components of any of the batch. The bouquet is sweet, combining red roses with boronia and lilac in a rich, velvety almost pinot noir-like way, but then adding a depth not found in pinot noir. That depth includes shadows of cassis and sweet cracked black pepper corn, almost subliminal. Palate is richly fruity, cassis and bottled plums again all faintly spiced, with some oak framing the fruit. It has reached a perfect peak of maturity, which it will hold for some years. An absolutely glorious wine achieving true Cote Rotie florality and burgundian softness, yet without any viognier. Remarkable. Cellar 5 12 years, though the balance is so perfect it will hold longer. Decant well beforehand. Top wine for two people. GK 09/14
Ruby and velvet, the second deepest wine. Bouquet is rich, dark and exotic on this wine, yet within the bounds of syrah, not shiraz. It is wonderfully pure and fragrant, but not exactly floral a function of the hot season it seems safe to say. Instead there is this deep translucent berry and dark fruit aroma, more aromatic than bottled black doris plums, more bottled omega. Additionally there is exotic note to it reminiscent of canned blueberries or even guavas. In mouth it is velvety rich, with surprisingly low oak and no new oak apparent at all, contra the general understanding. Grape tannins are soft and furry, and acid balance is slightly on the soft side, so with the low apparent oak it may not cellar ideally for the longest term. But though it may lack a little typicité, it is a gentle giant of a wine, and surprisingly fresh for its style. It is engaging now, and should be lovely over the next 5 15 years. Top wine for three people. GK 09/14
Mature ruby with appreciable garnet, exactly midway in depth. This is an understated wine, yet it is so immaculately tailored, and so keeps on blossoming in the glass, that it works its way up the ranking. It opens up with air to be nearly floral, with lilac and dianthus suggestions, on red more than black fruits which initially are a little chestnutty, but clear dramatically. In flavour it is model Cote Rotie, not dramatically big or powerful, but beautifully fruited and fragrant in mouth. The oak is really clean, shaping the wine delightfully, but unobtrusive. A masterly example of the Guigal style, at a perfect peak of maturity and complexity (once breathed), for people who like old wine. Some will consider it a little too old. Will cellar some years yet, fading gently with time. Top wine for four people, and certainly a perfect food wine. This bottle perhaps best answers the question in the title for the tasting: Does Syrah Age ? GK 09/14
Ruby and velvet, just above midway in depth. A little unusual, this wine. Initially opened there is a leathery quality, and trace oxidation was suggested. Not so, said one perceptive taster, think of it as a cola quality, reflecting good ripeness. Sure enough the next day the wine had breathed up considerably, to reveal good berry still with this brown cola note, and nearly cassis in a browning way. Flavour shows a beautiful berry / fruit / oak ratio, and excellent richness giving length and persistence. Despite being a lesser year, there is not exactly black pepper, let alone white, but there is a hard-to-characterise aromatic quality. Interesting wine therefore, in its flavour profile contrasting vividly with the warm-year 2003 Hermitage, this much 'cooler'. There is still plenty of life ahead of it, to cellar 5 15 years say. Open and decant this wine well beforehand; it was much better and more 'classical' several days later, and the score reflects that though for most the wine didn't show it on the night. The top wine for two. GK 09/14
Mature ruby and garnet, the second to lightest. Bouquet is highly varietal, clearly browning cassis and fading dianthus florals, really fragrant, as great Hermitage should be. Two of 19 tasters thought there was trace brett, but not to detract. Flavours are leaner than the Guigal of the same year, yet more clearly cassis though browning, slightly more new oak and slightly higher acid, in a sense more clearly syrah varietal, but not so generous. This case of Hermitage has been a delight from day one, each bottle opening consistently, except one or two have had slightly more brett metabolites aroma detectable. Fully mature now, and starting to dry. Top wine for one person. GK 09/14
Ruby and velvet, still bright and youthful, clearly the darkest and youngest wine. Bouquet is ample, reflecting astonishing richness and ripeness for a year widely-considered poor in Hawkes Bay. Berry quality is clearly in the cassis grading to bottled black doris plums zone, with some hints of sur-maturité as syrah. Fine detail on bouquet is obscured by some VA, but only four or so tasters were worried by it. Fruit in mouth is as rich and strong as the Yann Chave 2003, but cooler in ripeness profile, thus closer to the (well-breathed) J L Chave. The complementarity of the three wines is phenomenal, though none is 'perfect Hermitage' (in style). Even though this Block 14 is slightly flawed, when considered alongside the 2003 Yann Chave Hermitage, it illustrates dramatically just how patronising the British wine writers are in comparing our syrah mainly with Crozes-Hermitage. This should cellar a further 5 15 years, VA not usually increasing in bottle. GK 09/14
Ruby and garnet, below midway in depth. This is one of the older-smelling wines, and freshly opened there is a little bottle-stink / decay, quickly evaporating with decanting. It clears to a fragrant version of mature syrah, good browning cassis, clear dianthus florality also browning, and great purity. In mouth it is lean and focussed, subliminal cedary oak giving it a character very reminiscent of (for example) Grand-Puy-Lacoste the way it used to be, before it put on weight. Thoughts of Pauillac, in other words, and though petite, a lovely depth to these mellow mature yet still fresh (in a sense) flavours. Intriguing wine, fully mature to fading a little now. The top wine for four people. GK 09/14
Light garnet and ruby, but wonderfully clear, the lightest colour. Considering that Robert Parker implied this wine should be finished up in 1986, reflecting the American consumerist norm, the first thing to say is: decant the bottle the day before, prepare a lightly-styled main meal, poultry or veal for example, and prepare to be enchanted. Once breathed, the faded carnations / dianthus florality on this wine 35 years later is an absolute delight. There is clear cassis also browning, delicate cracked peppercorns, and lovely flesh considering its age. I used it for a birthday dinner recently, and it pleased greatly. The wine is light but pure and wonderfully true to its appellation, clearly burgundian in structure. Incidentally, nobody rated this is their least wine, so these notes are not too fanciful. Fully mature to fading a little now, naturally enough. GK 09/14
Ruby and garnet, below midway in depth. Bouquet is pleasing in an old-fashioned way, all tending mature and a bit leathery, but no faults. There is no clear varietal berry, and certainly no flowers or aromatics, just older wine. Flavours are burly, tending tannic, still astonishing fruit richness, but the whole winestyle does reflect the oft-used descriptor for traditional Cornas rustic. There is plenty to like, but the wine doesn't quite suit a clinical tasting in which winemakers predominated. Conversely, several commented the wine cried out for food. Portobello mushrooms would be a great place to start. Fully mature, but still rich with lovely fruit, no hurry at all, cellar another 5 10 years. GK 09/14
Ruby and garnet, well below midway. Bouquet is clean, clearly cassis-related though browning now, and fragrant, a good wine to use as a sighter in a tasting like this, you'd think. In mouth however, the fruit shrinks, the total acid is a bit high, and the whole palate becomes a little hard with some phenolics showing. Some of the tannin can be interpreted as black pepper / spice, and hence the wine is in one sense true to its variety and appellation. It is not quite in balance, however, and past its prime. It will hold its present style for some years to come, becoming shorter and drier. GK 09/14
Garnet and ruby, one of the lightest. For a small wine, there is an awful lot going on in the bouquet. There is an impression of fading berryfruit, a redcurrant note, a kind of dianthus florality, a suggestion of stalks, and something reminiscent of shellfish / iodine. The flavours are petite, again red fruits, the wine possibly even chaptalised, a stalky undertone, clear white pepper to the later palate, so in one sense it is a highly varietal wine, but way sub-optimal on my ripening curve. Because there is actually still quite good flesh, despite these less than ideally ripe characters, the wine is perfectly pleasant with lighter foods, at least for non-wine-snob people. This does need finishing up, though, in 2014. It was the least-favoured wine, though fault-free. GK 09/14
Mature ruby and garnet, about midway in depth. Freshly opened and decanted, this wine is floral and fragrant, the floral notes very close to carnations, quite beautiful. A couple of hours later, this particular bottle had deteriorated. The good side is the dianthus florals, cassis-like berry notes, and suggestions of black pepper, all spot-on. In mouth there is initially good berryfruit, then suddenly gamey and bretty flavours appear, and as the wine lingers on the tongue, hints of the dreaded mousey spoilage flavour from the wild yeast formerly called Pichea become apparent. With air this bottle also developed a suggestion of TCA. What a worry the Tardieu-Laurent bottlings of that era are. The best are marvellous, but too many are not. At the time I wrote to the New Zealand importers and said that the percentage of corked bottles from Tardieu-Laurent was way too high. They didn't agree. So this 1998 Hermitage is a great teaching wine, but $100 teaching wines are a mite expensive. Wine amateurs (in the strict meaning of that word) can draw comfort from the fact that even in a room of winemakers, only a third of the tasters (roughly) objected to each of these three faults. All three were subtle. This is the diversity that is wine appreciation. An interesting bottle, therefore, and noteworthy that this was not the wine recording the most 'bottom' rankings. Needless to say, no northern hemisphere winewriter mentions any of these factual faults, in discussing this wine. Not worth cellaring. GK 09/14