Conclusions from the tasting:
If the 1989 Bordeaux got off to dubious start in the first of these two 2019 Summer FAWC ! Library Tastings, the syrahs in Pt 2 quickly revealed themselves to include some beautiful wines. On my scale of values, half the wines merit at least 18.5 = 92.5 points = gold medal in Australia / New Zealand. That is not to say there were no hitches: one of the (hopefully) top Hermitages had to be rejected for oxidation, and a second wine showed some signs of the same issue.
There were two magical facets to the tasting. The top syrahs were truly floral, a key dimension for syrah only thought about by European wine-people (and too few of them), and secondly, two of the Australian wines were sufficiently subtle and not over-ripened to be classed as syrah. But they did have the distinctive subtle floral mint note (akin to the garrigue character found in Rhone Valley wines) pointing to an Australian environmental influence, rather than the true florals associated with the intrinsic syrah grape.
For the second evening, these 1999 syrahs were simply beautiful. 20 years is the perfect time to taste well-constituted Rhone Valley wines, either syrahs from the North, or grenache-led blends from the South. At this age they show perfect maturity, yet with their youthful characters still evident, plus no sign of decay. In contrast to the 1989 Bordeaux tasting two nights earlier, fully half the wines in this tasting showed syrah of gold-medal quality. From the left: 1999 Guigal Hermitage, still beautifully floral, the wine subtle and gentle, reminders of fine pinot noir, 18.5; 1999 Mount Langhi Ghiran Shiraz Langi from the Grampians in Victoria, Australia, highly floral with distinctive flowering mint Prostanthera notes to the fore, aromatic berry and subtle oak, syrah-quality not shiraz, 18.5; 1999 Mission Estate Syrah Jewelstone from New Zealand, a rich palate outclassing the Langi and the Jamet, showing just how exciting syrah will be for New Zealand in years to come, Hermitage-like, 18.5 +; 1999 Domaine Jamet Cote Rotie, magnificent syrah florals the finest in the set, aromatic berry, full maturity, 18.5 +; 1999 Torbreck Shiraz RunRig, clearly the youngest wine in the tasting, flowering mint on bouquet, superb syrah-quality berry ripeness on palate, great richness, a great future ahead of it, 19; and 1999 Guigal Cote Rotie Chateau d’Ampuis, showing the magical combination of subtlety, finesse and power, highly syrah-varietal, slightly oaky in the Guigal style, but magnificent, 19 +.Tasters were delighted with the top French syrahs, for wines of this calibre are always a thrill. But many people were also very pleased by just how impressive and competitive the sole New Zealand 1999 syrah turned out to be. This was an exciting result for New Zealand syrah, in very respectable company. As with the 1999 Southern Rhone Valley wines reported on recently, and a 1999 pinot noir tasting yet to be published, 20 years is a lovely time to assess many wines, including syrah. The better wines are at a perfect level of maturity, and truly delightful at table at that age. You would never suspect that, given the bizarrely myopic drinking window estimates stated by so many Australasian wine-writers.
Background information for participants:
For some years now it has been apparent that syrah is a red variety exceptionally well suited to New Zealand. The key reason is that when carefully ripened, syrah in New Zealand retains both florals and spice, as in the Northern Rhone Valley. These qualities make our syrah both rare on the world scale, and exceptionally food-friendly, being just a little bigger than pinot noir. This tasting of 1999 vintage wines will illustrate the main syrah styles from its homeland in France, together with three of Australia’s subtlest shiraz wines, and one exceptional New Zealand wine. Vintage conditions in each location were attractive – more fragrant wines than the warmer-year 1998s. Australians (naturally) thought 1998 the better year, because the wines were ‘bigger’.
For those who love syrah, we span Cote Rotie, Hermitage, and one of the top wines of Crozes-Hermitage. Elsewhere, nine of our wines are marked 90 points or more, two are not marked in the sources I use. The Hermitage Les Bessards should be a benchmark experience: Jeb Dunnuck @ www.robertparker.com: a full-bodied, deeply concentrated, layered and perfectly balanced wine, 98. And the Jamet Cote Rotie sounds attractive too, Dunnuck again: Sensationally rich, concentrated and full-bodied, it reveals a classic bouquet of pepper, smoked herbs, black currants and licorice, 97.
Turning to the New World, I have deliberately selected only Australian wines which have some chance of being considered syrahs. Henschke's Mt Edelstone is a lot subtler than Hill of Grace, almost Cote Rotie to Hermitage (in a sense), but it is the rare and increasingly sought-after Torbreck Runrig that I want to see, blind, with 20 years age on: Lisa Perrotti-Brown @ www.robertparker.com: this is a very elegant wine with vibrant acid and concentrated fruit, 99. But will it in fact seem an elegant syrah, or more a lumbering shiraz, in this company ? For the New Zealand wine, the 1999 Jewelstone was conspicuously one of the best in New Zealand that year, in those early days for syrah.
Our tasting includes eight French syrahs reflecting the definitive Northern Rhone syrah districts, four examples from the authoritative Hermitage appellation, three of the more ‘feminine’ Cote Rotie wines, and one of of the top wines from Crozes-Hermitage. Against them we have three subtle and careful Australian shirazes, wines which in some seasons can claim to be thought of as syrah. One of them, Torbreck Runrig, is a rare wine in any terms, and little tasted in New Zealand. Wines such as Penfolds Grange and Henschke Hill of Grace are inappropriate to a tasting such as this, which focusses on syrah in its subtlety and beauty. The twelfth wine is a particularly good one from New Zealand, where climatically our syrahs are unequivocally in the French syrah camp, not the Australian shiraz one.
1999 was an interesting year in nearly all grape-growing districts. 1998 was everywhere a big, ripe and tanniny year, making wines in a style much endorsed by the American school of wine-writers. 1999 was in contrast a much more subtle and understated season, and the wines did not initially impress those who measure quality by size. But in a country such as New Zealand, we should be looking for more in our red wines than simply the ability to impress. A key requirement for syrah is for the wine to be fragrant, versatile, food-friendly, and generally great at table, in the same style as pinot noir but a little bolder and more substantial.
The best vintage assessments in the wine world used to be provided by (the late) Michael Broadbent. With Michael’s retirement that role has now been seized by the Wine Spectator magazine and website, which presents a careful and regularly updated summary of their estimation of the quality of each vintage. And it is interesting to note that they are gradually moving away from the simple concept, that bigger is better. For our French 1999 wines, Broadbent says: The four best-known producers all agreed: “exceptional on two counts. Excellent in terms of quantity and quality.” … “comparable to 1995 and 1990”. Reds with intense colours, ripe fruit aromas, good acidity, *****. Wine Spectator has completely revised its relative estimation of 1998 and 1999 in the last few years, and now says for 1999: Voluptuous, silky vintage with stunning quality for Côte-Rôtie, 96. Taken together, these provide a pretty exciting background for our eight wines.
For Australia, the country is so huge, it is near-impossible to make meaningful statements. For Australia, Broadbent sums up with: Shiraz generally has good colour and ripe fruit character, with supple tannins. On the whole, a satisfactory outcome, *** → *****. Halliday's vintage chart in The Wine Companion website is a much more detailed affair: for our wines Eden Valley, 7/10; Barossa Valley 5/10 (noting that 1998 is 10 – so a pretty old-style view there); and the Grampians are 10.
For New Zealand, Michael Cooper’s annual Buyer’s Guide provides the best view. 1999 was still a bit early for syrah to be singled out in his account, but by saying the season was too short for cabernet sauvignon, but for some producers, good for merlot and malbec, we can infer it was also good for syrah. My most recent tasting of our New Zealand wine confirms that supposition.
Broadbent, Michael 2003: Michael Broadbent’s Wine Vintages. Mitchell Beazley, 223 p.
Cooper, M. 2002: Michael Cooper’s Buyers Guide to New Zealand Wines. Hodder Moa Beckett, 373 p.
Livingstone-Learmonth, John 2005: The Wines of the Northern Rhone. University of California Press, 704 p.
Parker, Robert, 1997: Wines of the Rhone Valley. Simon & Schuster, 685 p.
www.winecompanion.com.au = James Halliday and now associates, but reviews not initialled, subscription needed
www.drinkrhone.com = John Livingstone-Learmonth … subscription needed
www.robertparker.com = Robert Parker and increasingly the associates … subscription needed for reviews
www.jancisrobinson.com = Jancis Robinson and Julia Harding … subscription needed for reviews
THE WINES REVIEWED, SYRAH and SHIRAZ:
The first ‘price’ given is the current wine-searcher value. Where there is some evidence, an approximation of the original purchase price is given in the text. Because John Livingstone-Learmonth now has a knowledge of the Rhone Valley that matches or surpasses the excellence of Robert Parker’s earlier contribution, I have reported his views nearly in full, where available. There is much to learn from his very individual mode of reporting.
1999 Henschke Shiraz Mount Edelstone
1999 Mount Langi Ghiran Shiraz Langi
1999 Torbreck Shiraz Runrig
FRANCE, NORTHERN RHONE VALLEY:
1999 Domaine du Colombier Hermitage
1999 Delas Cote Rotie Seigneur de Maugiron
1999 Delas Hermitage Marquise de Tourettes
1999 Dom. A. Graillot Crozes-Hermitage La Guiraude
1999 Guigal Cote Rotie Ch d’Ampuis
1999 Guigal Hermitage
1999 Domaine Jamet Cote Rotie
1999 Domaine Michel Ogier Cote Rotie
NEW ZEALAND, HAWKES BAY
1999 Mission Syrah Jewelstone
Ruby, some garnet and velvet, above midway in depth, but below midway in the ratio of ruby to garnet. Bouquet is simply magnificent, syrah at its dramatic best, picked at the perfect point of ripeness to retain florals in the grapes, and grown in a year without undue heat, further enhancing the florals. The floral analogies are old-fashioned carnations and other dianthus, wallflowers, and an underpinning of dusky red roses. Fruit and berry characters are centred on aromatic cassis browning now, some dark plums, and cedary oak. The whole bouquet is spiced by faint black pepper. This is a simply mouthwatering smell: what syrah should be about, and so rarely is. Palate is equally magnificent, not at all big and heavy, more the size of great Cote de Nuits pinot noir, but the cedary oak a little more noticeable. Tasters liked this wine, four first-places (the highest vote) and two second. The subtle power of the wine was such that nine tasters thought it Hermitage, rather than Cote Rotie. Though a bit oaky in the Guigal style, this wine was a joy to taste. Fully mature now: will fade gracefully for maybe 15 years. GK 11/19
Ruby and velvet, clearly the deepest and freshest / reddest wine. Bouquet is amazing, no hint of over-ripe Australian boysenberry, instead the characteristic flowering mint Prostanthera floral note confuseable with, and (in moderation) just as attractive as, garrigue complexity, on deeply cassisy exquisitely fresh plummy berry, plus cedary oak of a beauty and subtlety to match the top Guigal. That is saying something. In mouth the velvety fragrant quality of cassisy berry is of a quality rarely encountered in Australian reds. Only to the late palate is there the slightest suggestion of acid adjustment. This is wine-making of the highest degree, the wine exhilarating. Tasters reacted well to this wine too, three first-places and two second. Yet to my absolute astonishment, 16 tasters correctly located this wine in Australia, at the blind stage. It is the richest wine in the set: a dry extract figure would be illuminating. It is approaching early maturity, with 20, maybe 30 years cellar life ahead of it. This lovely wine is a pointer to what could be achieved in Australian winemaking, if the country’s winemakers tasted more widely. GK 11/19
Ruby, garnet and velvet, the second-deepest wine, and above midway in redness. Bouquet is less floral than the top three, but still fragrant and pure, on clear cassis-led berry browning now, plus the subtlest oak. Two winemakers noted trace brett, but at this level it is positive complexity. Palate is magnificent, a bigger, plumper, rounder wine than the Langi or the Jamet, yet retaining subtlety and freshness, in exemplary oaking. The nett impression the wine creates is Hermitage-like. It seems certain that in the 1999 vintage, this is the greatest syrah in New Zealand. But it is also one of New Zealand's great syrahs, needing only a touch more florals to match great Northern Rhone Valley syrah. Much credit is due to winemaker Paul Mooney. Again, tasters responded warmly to this wine as well, two first-places, three second. It is at peak maturity now, and will fade gracefully over the next 10 years or so. GK 11/19
Ruby, some garnet and velvet, above midway in depth and just above midway in ruby versus garnet. This wine is even more syrah-specific-floral than the Ch d’Ampuis, showing a magnificent depth of wallflower and dianthus floral aromas without the stalky whole-bunch notes that so often bedevil the Jamet approach. Off-hand this is the most perfect Jamet syrah bouquet I have seen. On palate, the berry qualities behind the florals are not so clearly defined as in the top two wines, but there is good medium-weight fruit, with now just a hint of stalk, and subtle oak. There is also an intriguing near-mint suggestion in the berry aromatics, pointing the taster in quite the wrong direction. Palate is lighter than the top two wines. Tasters liked this wine too: two first-places, and four second. At a peak of maturity now, but should fade gracefully for another 10 years. GK 11/19
Garnet and ruby, below midway in depth, and one of the least red wines. Like RunRig, but a little moreso, the initial bouquet on this wine is dramatically floral and aromatic, but more Prostanthera flowering mint than carnations. This floral slightly aromatic character gives a lightness and lift to the bouquet which is endearing, when not too pronounced. This wine is to a max. Berry quality here is not so clearly cassis-led as the top two, just good aromatic berry, with a firmness to it. At the altitude of the site, it is hard to know if the acid is natural or adjusted. It tastes harder than the Jamet, so probably it is. The two wines make an interesting pair. Again this is syrah from Australia, not shiraz – glory be. This wine too was well liked, three first-places and four second. It is further along its plateau of maturity than the Jamet, but should have another 10 years in it. GK 11/19
Garnet and ruby, just above midway in depth, below midway in redness. This wine has a very pretty floral bouquet, such that you instantly think of wallflowers and Cote Rotie. When you actually sniff it side-by-side with the Ch d’Ampuis, the much greater new cedary oak loading on the latter wine is apparent, making it seem much firmer and more Hermitage-like. Below the beautiful florals is silky near-cassisy berry. In mouth the wine is supple and gentle, a smaller scale but beautiful example of Guigal's village Hermitage label, and redolent of syrah the grape as it should be. Tasters were not so attracted to the fragrant subtlety of this wine as I was, one second-place ranking. Seven thought it Hermitage, though. This wine is well along its plateau of maturity, but it should hold for several years yet. In its subtlety and charm, it really bridges the link to good pinot noir. It is so supple it would be [ and is ] magnificent with food. GK 11/19
Ruby, some garnet and velvet, midway in both depth and redness. This is extraordinary wine, displaying a pinpoint precision of cassis-like syrah varietal character which is most unusual. As with most reds from Crozes-Hermitage, it is not as floral and fragrant as good Cote Rotie or Hermitage, but the berry and fruit flavours are exemplary. It is richer than the Guigal Hermitage, and just as beautifully oaked. It is a most unusual, and very demonstrative, Northern Rhone. A pity that the La Guiraude label is so scarce. Two tasters had this as their top wine, and two their second-favourite. It is just coming up to peak maturity, with 10 – 15 years ahead of it. A far cry from the average Crozes-Hermitage. GK 11/19
Garnet and ruby, some velvet, the second to lightest, and second to brownest wine. This was a confusing wine, there being an aromatic garrigue complexity note in the nearly floral bouquet which (just in passing) hinted at Australia (as well as nasturtiums). Below, this is another wine to clearly spell out browning cassisy berry on bouquet, with shaping oak. Palate is a size larger and firmer than for example the Guigal Hermitage, and it speaks more clearly of syrah and Hermitage. Fruit length on appropriate oak is good, and much fresher than the colour implies. The nett impression is plainer than the top wines. Tasters did not respond to this wine, with no votes in favour. The wine is well along its plateau of maturity, and will fade gracefully for another 10 years or so. GK 11/19
Ruby and garnet, some velvet, one of the lighter wines but also one of the redder. Bouquet is small-scale, but pure, neat and fresh, nearly floral, red fruits of no clear analogy, delightfully fragrant, subtly oaked. Palate introduces just a hint of white pepper into the red fruits, so a wine not quite as ripe as most, but the weight of berry and ratio of fruit to oak is attractive. Real Cote Rotie, in a petite way. This was another wine to not attract any positive votes, but no least votes either: just an attractive small-scale Northern Rhone at full maturity. It will cellar for several years yet. GK 11/19
Ruby, garnet and some velvet, just below midway in depth, but well above midway in its ratio of ruby to garnet. In an international syrah tasting, this wine is just too blatantly Australian to be able to compete. The minty aromatics here are pretty well euc'y, and there is excess vanillin from American oak as well. The actual ripeness of the fruit is careful, with suggestions of cassis as well as loganberry, and richer berry and more oak than most. Thus in mouth it is a bit big, and the tail is tending shrill on acid adjustment. Set amongst Australian shirazes it would look good, but here it seems lacking in charm. Its more obvious character appealed to some, one first-place and two second. It was one of two only wines where nobody thought it French. This will cellar well for another 20 years, or longer. The cropping rate must be very conservative. GK 11/19
Ruby and garnet, some velvet, below midway in depth but above midway in redness. Bouquet is rather different from the set, being intensely savoury and reminiscent of a rich venison casserole with portobello mushrooms, on drying berry. Palate shows surprisingly good berry fruit in a browning cassisy way, gentle oak, but rather a lot of brown mushrooms / leather / horse stables savoury aromas and flavours too. So this was our most bretty wine for the evening, and as always, some love it, some hate it: two first-places, two second-places, four least places. This wine is nearing the end of its plateau of maturity, the fruit starting to dry a little. Best finished up in the next year or two, noting that bottles will vary considerably, now. Be careful who you open it with ! One winemaker described the wine as ‘gross’, and another taster was emphatic that it smelt of the elephant enclosure at the Auckland Zoo. As my score indicates, I am less fussed: bretty wines are great with savoury foods, the aforementioned venison casserole, grilled dishes with parmesan, ratatouille and the like. GK 11/19
Garnet and ruby, some velvet, the lightest wine, and the least ruby / most brown. And as soon as you smell it, the reason is clear. The browning berry aromas are displaying a Bovril edge suggestive of oxidation. Fruit flavours in mouth are still perfectly serviceable in a plain dry way, the wine is richer than the Delas Cote Rotie, but it didn't look too good in a formal tasting. The 1999 Les Bessards Hermitage (hoped to be a top wine of the tasting) also from Delas had to be rejected for even worse oxidation, so presumably the importers Eurovintage failed to import these two wines in a temperature-controlled container. Disappointing. Least wine for 11 people, three times as many as for the bretty wine – interesting. If this bottle is representative, not worth cellaring any longer. GK 11/19