Nett Impressions of the Tasting:
Having been vitally interested in syrah varietal expression for some decades now (1971), I have long wanted to present a tasting of a range of syrahs from as many countries as I could muster, if possible reflecting the best winestyles realistically achievable. This came to a head in March 2018, with a tasting at Regional Wines, Wellington. It seems that others share my enthusiasm for the variety, for the tasting sold out in 3 hours. In the event, the wines spoke well on the occasion, and tasters seemed to enjoy them a good deal.
The top six wines in the tasting. From the left: 2009 Aurora Syrah The Legacy, from 45° South in Central Otago, a fragrant near-Cote Rotie wine style, 17.5 +; 2002 Shadowfax Shiraz Pink Cliffs, an aromatic cool-climate Australian shiraz with suggestions of syrah, 17.5 +; 1999 Guigal Hermitage, as so often with Guigal reds, a good benchmark syrah, 18; 2001 Montes Syrah Folly, totally modern Chilean syrah, uncannily close to the Craggy Range wine, 18.5; 1994 Quinta da Lagoalva de Cima Syrah, the surprise of the tasting, in the style of the Guigal but both more beautiful and more varietal, 18.5; and 2004 Craggy Range Syrah Le Sol, simply benchmark syrah, wallflower florals, cassis berry, light black pepper spicing, 18.5 +.
In an ideal world, if we wanted to gain an impression of how syrah (shiraz) tastes when grown and vinified in different countries round the world, we would have all the wines from within roughly the same 12 months / same vintage. But that is hard to achieve ... easier in London than Wellington ... for one does not see (say) Italian or Portuguese syrahs on the shelf every day in one's local New Zealand wine-shop. Accordingly it has taken me years to assemble an intriguing / amusing cross section of wines from so many countries. So there are many vintages, from 1994 to 2009, and many price-levels too, from supermarket wines to luxury ... I had forgotten the Montes Folly cost $NZ135.
But in a sense this was never intended to be the last word on syrah varietal expression. The goal is to have a fun tasting, on the theme of: how does syrah the grape express itself in different climates and different countries ? We have 12 wines from nine different countries, but if you regard Hawkes Bay and Central Otago as different countries (from the grape's point of view) ... and likewise Victoria and West Australia, or California and Washington ... well, then we have 12 different wines from 12 different countries.
This tasting should be both fun and instructive. Have syrahs from nine different countries ever been offered for comparison in New Zealand before ?
The emphasis will be more on the syrah end of the syrah / shiraz spectrum than shiraz, with several definitive labels to help illustrate the style of this fragrant and exciting grape (when not over-ripened). They can't all be from much the same vintage, some countries being scarcely (or not) represented in New Zealand, but we've got them all within a 16-years span. Perhaps the American examples are the rarest for us in New Zealand, so I have matched their years with a top New Zealand, and a Trophy-winning West Australian.
Hopefully Guigal Hermitage will serve as a kind of benchmark for syrah itself, but it is an older vintage to bridge back to the Italian and Portuguese examples. There will be back-up bottles of the Guigal and Craggy Range Le Sol, to guarantee a taste of those, plus Reserve wines, if needed.
Since the debut of Craggy Range's Syrah Le Sol in 2001 in New Zealand, and likewise Trinity Hill's Syrah Homage following in 2002, Jancis Robinson (and occasionally others) has protested at the weight and size of their bottles. In this tasting, thanks to the generosity of Californian wine-man Mark Blake, who made available American syrahs not available in New Zealand, suddenly all has become clear. The American syrah bottles were also amazingly heavy and large. It seems that with this sad tendency for uncritical American wine people to assume that bigger must mean better, we have the equally sad phenomenon of New World producers hoping to export their premium syrahs to America slavishly following the witless American lead. Thus not only the Craggy Range Le Sol but also the top-level Montes Folly Chilean syrah were in equally heavy bottles. When it comes to fashion, conservation and the concept of a world of shrinking resources both take a back-seat. Only the discriminating wine-person notes that Maison Guigal do not deem it necessary to package their supremely fine 'La La' / grand cru syrah bottlings (at c.$US450) in such weighty glass. Time to grow up, methinks.
Particular thanks to Mark Blake, of Blake Family Vineyards, for making the American syrahs available from his syrah tasting programme, at the stage he hoped to establish a winery on the Gimblett Gravels. Such wines are unknown in New Zealand.
www.jancisrobinson.com = Jancis Robinson and Julia Harding mainly (subscription needed)
www.robertparker.com = Robert Parker and associates (subscription needed)
www.winespectator.com = various authors (subscription needed)
THE WINES REVIEWED:
# In the admin (italicised) section of each review, the first price is the current wine-searcher value (in NZ$), where the vintage is listed. Older syrah does not seem to loom large in wine-lovers' minds, for remarkably few of our vintages are listed. The approximate original release price is given in the following text.
Ruby and velvet, still youthful, nearly carmine, in the middle for depth. Bouquet is reference-quality young syrah (second only to the 2013 Yann Chave Hermitage used as a study wine while writing up this tasting), combining the three essential varietal elements for the variety, when grown in an optimal climate: sweet wallflower florals, aromatic cassisy berry, and suggestions of black pepper, in a lightly aromatic bouquet of sensational purity. This smells vibrant and exciting. Flavour highlights the pure cassisy berry plus hints of black pepper, suggestions only of blueberry, oak a little noticeable, and a natural acid texture in the long finish. The only slight negative is the high alcohol. These flavours at 13.5 14% would add greatly to the wines suppleness and charm. Far too young to be good with food, yet. Clearly the top wine of the tasting for the group, nine first places, two second. Cellar 10 20 years. GK 03/18
Mature ruby, the same weight but slightly older than the 1999 Guigal Hermitage, the second lightest wine. Bouquet is extraordinarily beautiful, sweetly floral (though not the first bloom of youth), browning cassis, in one sense remarkably like mature bordeaux with cedary oak, the whole bouquet epitomising the concept winey. Palate has remarkably young-tasting fruit reflecting the bouquet exactly, beautifully varietal, markedly fresher than the Guigal, superbly subtle oak, great length with some varietal black pepper noticeable to the late palate, yet the whole wine scarcely weightier than a good Cote de Nuits pinot noir. Very beautiful mature wine at a peak of perfection, gentle alcohol, natural acid, stellar with food. Four people rated this their top or second wine in the set, and more thought it French than any other. Will hold for some years. GK 03/18
bottle weight dry 955 grams; www.monteswines.com ]
Ruby and velvet, remarkably youthful for its age, uncannily close to the Le Sol, in the middle for depth. Bouquet shares clear-cut aromatic cassis berry with Le Sol, but is more aromatic, to the point of a light balsam component. There is some black pepper, and aromatic oak a little greater than the Le Sol. Palate is close to the Le Sol too, in terms of cassisy fruit quality and precise ripeness, and high alcohol, but new oak becomes more noticeable to the finish. This wine too has the good texture of natural acid. This was clearly the second favourite wine in the tasting, eight people rating it their first or second wine. It is still too youthful to impress with food. The best Chilean wine I have tasted, both on purity of fruit and quality of cooperage. Cellar 10 20 years. GK 03/18
Ruby, fresher than the 1999 d'Alessandro, the lightest wine. Bouquet benefits from decanting, to show fragrant but not quite floral red grading to dark berries, suggestions of browning cassis and fading black pepper, and some oak but not obviously new. In mouth the components come together attractively, mellow winey wine at full maturity. There is not quite the magical fruit sweetness and varietal quality of the Quinta da Lagoalva, but close. The tannins are just a little more furry, spiced by the black pepper. This is representative good French syrah rather than a dramatically fine example. It would be superb at table later confirmed. Will hold for some years. GK 03/18
Ruby and velvet, just above midway in depth. This is one of those Australian shirazes which tiptoes towards syrah, but is given away by the aromatics. Here they are sweetly floral, reminiscent of Australian flowering mint Prostanthera, in the style of many vintages of Filsell. Thyme was mentioned, too. Below is fragrant fruit ripened more to the blueberry level / just beyond an ideal cassis point of ripeness. Palate is beautifully oaked, supple, not heavy, on a par with the Dos Dedos but fresher, but a little too aromatic / minty, though the acid seems nearly natural. A much more attractive food wine than the more manipulated Xabregas. Cellar 5 15 years. GK 03/18
Maturing ruby, just below midway in depth. Bouquet is light but exciting, beautifully clean, showing light but clear wallflower florals, and ripe red fruits grading to some cassis in a fresh aromatic style, but white rather than black pepper. Palate follows perfectly, a cool-year Cote Rotie styling of syrah, good fruit weight, appropriate oak and new oak, total acid just a little high. As an aside the acid is a textbook illustration of how much more attractive and winey fine-grained natural acid is, than the addition of tartaric acid as in so many Australian reds, with its spiky texture to the finish of the wine. This is a wonderful achievement from Otago, simply because at 45° South one feared a wine in the style of upland Les Collines Rhodaniennes, that is, wines which are so often much more stalky and white peppery than in Cote Rotie proper, in the valley below. This Aurora wine avoids that completely. Already good with food. Cellar 3 10 years. GK 03/18
Ruby, some carmine and velvet, above midway in depth. Initially opened the wine is tending reductive, but responds well to simple jug aeration. It opens to dark fruits, nearly cassis but a little hotter / riper, some blueberry, some oak aromatics. The following day it had opened up a good deal, nearly floral in a dusky way. Palate is a little drab, the entrained reduction again, but fruit concentration and flavour are satisfying. Oak is at a maximum, for expressive syrah. Finish is dry or nearly so, but perhaps there is a little acid adjustment. Syrah is a grape variety prone to reduction in elevation, so this wine points to an exciting future for syrah in Spain, rather than achieving it. It is clearly syrah, not shiraz. Too oaky and young to be good with food, yet. Cellar 10 20 years. GK 03/18
Older ruby and velvet. Bouquet is more a typical Australian shiraz, the grapes ripened beyond optimal syrah characters to simple boysenberry shiraz, but then lifted by a minty going on euc'y aromatic quality, and quite high oak. Palate is soft and round, maybe not bone-dry, both oak and euc more apparent in now nearly jammy boysenberry flavours. Finish is roughened by added tartaric acid. For many people, this is what Australian red wine is all about, and this is a well-made example of that style. It is ageing faster than I hoped West Australian shiraz would, fully mature now, cellar 3 10 years. GK 03/18
Rich ruby and velvet, nearly carmine still, the second deepest wine. Initially opened, the wine is reductive, and needed splashy jug to jug aeration. It opened up well, to reveal a huge, nearly fragrant but not floral wine ripened way past any cassis analogies, or even blueberry, to darkest bottled black plums and nearly prunes, plus some chocolate, far far too ripe for varietal accuracy. There is a slight aromatic balsam lift. Palate continues the over-ripe impression, alcohol beyond any subtlety for table wine, but saturated dark fruits and suggestions of chocolate flavours. The interesting thing is, the coarse boysenberry flavours of over-ripe Australian syrah / shiraz are not present. Oak is in good balance to the huge styling, but the whole wine is simply too big, over-ripe and burly, in international syrah terms. You wonder if a second glass would appeal at all. Nonetheless there is a certain lighter plummy impression on the finish, such that I would like to see it in 20 years or so, when it may have fined down. At the tasting proper, the wine also showed trace TCA, but at a level only two of 21 tasters detected it. It cleared completely in 24 hours. This wine was liked more by the group than me, with four second places, one first. Cellar 10 30 years. There may be some added acid to the nearly sweet finish. GK 03/18
Colour is darker but older than the 1999 Guigal, and below midway in depth. Bouquet is very fragrant, but partly because of the lifted Oxo cube suggestions and some brett, plus some oxidation too. Below is browning berry. As is often the case with such wines, in mouth the nett flavours and subtlety of the wine, with its browning cassis fruit appropriate to mature syrah, lovely low alcohol, gentle oak and natural acid finish mean this would be simply superb with (say) roast beef, roast vegetables and (genuine) gravy. Difficult wine to score, purists damning it on technical grounds, totally overlooking its great food-friendlyness and drinkability. At the tasting, a questioner asked if maybe that bottle was a lesser one, the cork ? The following night I checked a second bottle: it was conspicuously more bretty. Fully mature to fading a little, dry to the attractively lingering finish. GK 03/18
Ruby and velvet, just below midway. Bouquet is pleasantly winey, tending hot-climate in style, quite good berryfruit but a little oxidation, not really varietal, all lifted by trace balsam aromatics. Palate reflects the bouquet, fair browning fruit, older flavours nicely balanced with older oak, not obviously acid adjusted, could as easily be over-ripe cabernet as syrah. An attractive weight with food. Mature serious beverage wine, dry. Will hold for several years. GK 03/18
Ruby and velvet, very dense and dark, older than the Washington wine, much the deepest wine. Bouquet is simply hugely over-ripe non-varietal yet fruity wine, smelling of molasses and licorice and moist / steamed date and muscatel pudding. It is lifted by high alcohol and oak, but this is a massively hot-climate wine from a district described by Californian wine people as cool climate. Flavour is better than bouquet, very rich fruit, some moist prune and coffee flavours with even darkest bottled plums hiding below. Nett flavours are reminiscent of black forest gateau, the blackest cherries in the world, saturated with chocolate. Oak is in good balance to the fruit, the whole lifted by high alcohol, but it is hard to imagine main course foods suited to such a thick black winestyle. Interesting as red wine, but a long way from syrah varietal expression or quality. Bigger is not better, in international wine quality terms, for those to whom the Northern Rhone Valley is the yardstick in syrah expression. The finish is intriguing, though, not too obviously acid-adjusted, and seemingly dry. Cellar 10 20 years, but will it lighten up ? GK 03/18