Outstanding, 95-point South American Syrah - Oct 2020

The October 2020 Decanter ( - officially released on Friday 28th August - makes its usual, detailed, panel-based, blind-tasted analysis, this time of the Syrah grape in South America.

For other wines we stock in that Decanter (and there are many, perhaps a record for us), please see this page.

There are some truly super New World wines here. One might foresee unhinged FBBs (Fruit Bomb Blockbusters) made for pure immediacy and without structure: a cut-price take on big Australian Shiraz, if you will.

If that's your expectation - and unless that's really what you seek - be prepared for a very pleasant surprise. These are classy wines.

The headline: We offer two of the top four wines from the review: two, officially-Outstanding 95-pointers, one from each side of the Andes. One of these - we'd say the classier and certainly more structured of the two - is available only from us. We also offer another 5 contenders.

The pre-amble

Think of Syrah/Shiraz and (unless you're a specialist Latin American Syrah importer) you won't immediately think of South America (NB: for the whole Syrah vs Shiraz distinction, see this article we penned; it's a topic that comes up again later below). Chances are you'll plump first for the Northern Rhône and South Australia.

Put it the other way round: think of South America, and you don't typically think Syrah: you think Malbec in Argentina, Carmenere (and a host of international varieties) in Chile and Tannat in Uruguay.

But, to pinch a term from Decanter in this review, that's to miss South America's "Cinderella" grape (I might have used "underdog", but I prefer "Cinderella"). As they also state, "Syrah has huge potential in South America", (and now I paraphrase) offering resilence to extreme growing conditions, amazing perfume/aromas and an ability to be crafted into a dazzling array of styles (confirming how Syrah is a superb vehicle/vector of terroir).

Of course, South American Syrah - like all South American wines - has to overcome prejudice and some degree of stigma. Just like screwcaps, some die-hards will always regard it as "just not proper". Yet, as some of the top wines that emerge amply demonstrate, serious and classy wines can be crafted here, giving the Rhône's Cornases and St-Josephs a serious run for their money. After all, few now doubt the quality of top Argentinian Chardonnay or Malbec (eg the top Catena wines).

A run for their money? In fact, for quite a lot less money. There is some serious value out there for such fine wines; our two Outstandings average £17.

What explains South American Syrah coming up on the rails? I'd offer the following:

- increasing use of cool-climate locations (especially altitude) - if you want classy, structured Syrah, you need top sunlight, timely heat but, ultimately, a cooler climate than you might imagine. Go too hot, and you get flabby Syrah which lacks the crucial acidity and enticing spice (this being the struggle for Syrah in Languedoc and the reason for the increasing pursuit of higher sites). The Hawkes Bay/Gimblett Gravels story in NZ also bears this out. Originally targetted for Cab Sauv (and Bordeaux blends), it has emerged over time that only the warmest sites there yield fully ripe Cab Sauv because the region now emerges to be just a little cooler than its pioneers reckoned upon. All to the the benefit of... Syrah, with this region now turning out some very top Syrah (eg those of Trinity Hill and Craggy Range).

- vine age - if we know one thing from Barossa, McLaren Vale and many of the esteemed Northern Rhône appellations, it's that the very best Syrah and Shiraz invariably comes from low-yielding, old vines - sometimes in excess of 100 years of age. South America has started from scratch with Syrah, but the oldest vines are now just starting to grey a little. There is clearly thus better to come yet.

- craftsmanship - the steady increase from the 1990s onwards in investment, technology and (especially) expertise - much of it from Syrah-inspired France - is now feeding through to wines that that are the equal of their Old World counterparts.

- differentiation - let's say you're a new producer in Malbec-saturated Mendoza. Do you want to join the Malbec bunfight? Or strike a pose in a field a little more off-piste? This, too, lies behind some of the top wines in this review.

Use of oak is also an interesting question. Such is its prevalence in the finer Syrahs of the Rhône and Shirazes of Barossa/McLaren Vale that you'd think it was mandatory for anything top-flight in South America. But this is not so. Some of the new winemaking technology arriving (eg concrete eggs) seeks to provide ageing/elevage that interferes less directly with the wine's flavours. Instead, it allows a greater, unfettered expression of the Syrah fruit and terroir (this is not to be confused with similar, euphemistic terms used in the marketing often used for £6/bottle Rioja jovens). With Syrah, given its lighter, fragrant and more nuanced character (cf, say, Malbec and Cab Sauv), such avoidance of oak (especially the powerful effects of new oak) in very top wines shows the appliance of intelligence over pure tradition. Again, we see this in the top wines of this Decanter review.

The review itself

We knew this review was coming. In fact, given the pandemic, we knew about this one a long time ago. And these reviews tend to go one way or the other: a total jamboree of high scores (eg Australian Riesling) or a Real Kicking (Gruner Veltliner). Much as I've/we've run into some amazing Syrahs from south of Caracas, I feared we might see this review slap down its subject(s).

Anything but. The judges were much wowed by what emerged. To quote two of the judges:

- "When South American Syrah is good, it’s certainly as good as Australia and New Zealand". (Alistair Cooper MW); and

- "A few wines right at the top could rival any wine from anywhere. But in the middle there were also a lot which were exuberant, rewarding, easy to drink – and very consistent." (Dirceu Vianna Junior MW).

The stats are:

  • 79 wines went under test...
  • ... being 56 from Chile, 18 from Argentina, 3 from Uruguay and 2 from Brazil.
  • There were 4 Outstandings (95+ points) with a highest score of 96.
  • The 4 Outstandings averaged £30 in cost (panic not: there is good news here: our two below are markedly less!)...
  • ... and came from all of Argentina, Chile and Brazil. Yes, Brazil.
  • 15 were Highly Recommended (90+ points) - we offer a few of these for diversity-hunters.
  • The move towards less high-octane, full-throttle wines was a central theme of the review. Whilst all four chart-toppers are still fairly big wines, none are monsters/FBBs. As Peter Richards MW commented: "Today we saw a move towards a lighter touch, to people reining in the extraction and not thinking that Syrah has to be a powerful beast. It can be food-friendly, or it can be an unassuming wine".

I'd make the observation that the three MW judges here were (probably rightly) looking more for elegance and and structure then power/blockbuster appeal. Another three judges may have seen it differently. It's notable that a clutch of bigger, Shrirazzy players - ones that normally do well with Decanter, Atkin, Suckling, Jancis et al - eg the Caballo Loco Limari - scored only modestly here.

map courtesy of Decanter, 

The Outstanding wines

Two of the top four are pricey options at £38 and £45 a bottle. The panel test makes clear that these are properly-super-duper. I'd certainly love to try a bottle of both.

The one 96-pointer is no longer being imported by its UK importer (unfortunate timing).

Invariably, we have to work out what the Exel customer will go for. Here, as a commercial proposition, we decided to eschew the pricey wines. It may just be a little early in the popularity development of South American Syrah to hope that many customers will pursue these wines when there are excellent, similar/equal-scoring alternatives at just 30-50% of the price. Maybe we're wrong. We'll listen to any appeals on this point, of course.

Which means that these are our two below, pictured at a recent home-working taste test (when writing this, in fact). There's a lot to these wines, some of which is fleshed out below, but we've also recorded a video tasting of the two for a little more thought and insight (click link or the photo below).

The two are:

Emiliana, Salvaje Syrah (/Roussanne), Casablanca, Chile 2018

UPDATE - after a huge surge in sales on the release of Decanter, UK stocks have all gone. This is the end of the line on this one - it's all gone in Chile, too ...

This is fascinating, this one, on many levels. It is certainly the more innovative and modern in approach. Allow me to resort to bullet points for (intended) brevity:

  • It's from Chile's Casablanca Valley. This is pretty unusual in itself. Although the warmer parts of this almost-coastal valley are used for red grapes (esp Merlot, increasingly Syrah), Casablanca is predominantly about white wine, particularly Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc (and even then, in a 'cooler' style for those grapes). The coolness of this region stems from the proximity of the cold ocean currents of the nearby Pacific and the fogs that blanket the valley for periods of each day and year. The pursuit of acidity over fruit opulence is clear here.
  • It's organic, biodynamic and low-sulphite. There's more on the product page.
  • It's not (quite) 100% Syrah. A sneaky 3% of Roussanne (that classic white Rhône variety) is in there. Rhône (and esp Côte-Rôtie fans) will be aware of the co-fermentation of the Syrah there with Viognier (ie both grapes fermented as a blend, rather than fermented apart and blended downstream in the process). The co-ferment thinking in the Rhône goes back many years: it's partly to soften the tannic Syrah a fraction (accepted) and it has long been found/believed that co-fermentation with the white gives deeper/better colour to the wines. I'm of a strong view that this is more classic French tradition/shibboleth than fact/science as expounded here for those (including this ex-chemist) that like a scientific paper. That said, this is a great wine, as are the majority of the Côte-Rôties that use this method <am dismounting high horse now>.
  • No oak (at all) is used, only steel. (Fine wine buyers tend to flee when reading this. I too was pretty sceptical until I tried it. Let's bear in mind that £200/bottle Riesling sees no oak either, for the same reasons). The Salvaje does not want for it; the lack of oak definitely does not deliver a crunchy, unhinged or overly green/youthful wine. The idea to Let The Fruit Do The Talking here really works, and does not denigrate the end result.
  • That said, it's really quite 'black'. It has a major depth of colour (it's not the Roussanne, I tell you) and a powerful blackberry/cassis/Ribena(?) hit on/to the nose that you'd swear was Cab Sauv in any tasting exam you ever faced.
  • Even more weirdly, it has a very attractive/addictive aroma of sandalwood and cedar (last experienced in a Glenmorangie I tried) that you'd normally swear was about the use of new oak (but must, you'd have to conclude, be part of the inherent spice notes of the Syrah).
  • Although impressively structured for a 2018, and with quite some years yet ahead of it, this is the more immediate/crowd-pleasing of our duo.
  • Elsewhere, on tasting notes and praise, let me hand you over to the Decanter review which pulls no punches:

  • It's not just Decanter that like(d) this one. Of the previous vintage, Jancis's Purple Pages (, when reviewed by their South American specialist, Ferran Centelles in August 2019, the verdict (on awarding the wine a high 17/20) was: "Very spicy, intense, with black fruit, deep and with plenty of character. Super-well worked with layers of tannin and fruit. Very good maturity and sweetness. It is a compact wine with a lot of flavour. I love the touch of herbal freshness that it has. Great feeling of violet flowers, very attractive. Lots of liveliness. Bravo!"
  • At £12.95, it's an absolute steal.

Finca Las Glicinas, Terciopelo Syrah, Paraje Altamira, Argentina, 2018


This is undoubtedly more 'classic' than the Salvaje, but no less delicious. What it lacks in absolute immediacy/hit value, it more than makes up for in complexity, 'smoothness' (a term we try not to use but which customers adore) and lasting appeal. Here's a bit more:

  • It's exclusive to us. We tried it and thought, "this, we have to have". So, we're making it so.
  • Much as we'd like to let you have it today, it's only just been released from the producer after barrel ageing and bottle hold (more below) ...  so it's not here yet. See "Availability" below.
  • It's from Paraje Altamira, a southern sub-zone of the San Carlos zone in the sub-region of the Uco Valley of the region of Mendoza in Argentina. Confused? I'm not surprised. This excellent presentation from Wines of Argentina makes it all make sense.
  • It's a single block/vineyard wine (rather than a cross-zonal blend).
  • Altitude is the key here. Whereas the Salvaje derived its (lesser) structure from cool ocean currents, the Terciopelo does so by being over 1000m above said ocean.
  • Structure, elegance and complexity are the story here (vs the Salvaje's more immediate gratification). The Decanter  team much stress that. Sometimes these terms are euphemistically banded about, rather betraying a thin-ness to a wine and suggesting some form of compensation for its lack of punch. Compared only against the Salvaje, that could tenuously be argued, but it would be easy to read too much into this. This is still a big New World Syrah with plenty of potency. It may not punch you on the nose as hard as the Salvaje, but it scraps harder overall.
  • It smells wonderful. The Salvaje has black and spicy aromas. The Terciopelo is redder in nature (although still full of plums and ripe richness), more floral and more fragrant generally.
  • Terciopelo is Spanish for 'velvet'. The wine is well named. It has a very alluring softness/smoothness and balance to it. Despite being a mere 2018, it has the softness of a (good) Rioja Reserva (compared with a more Crianza-y approach in the Salvaje). Of the two, it is more suited to better meals and food, where it will be more in balance.
  • That softness, one would attribute to its 18 months in old/used, French and USA oak barrels. And then another 8 months in bottle before release. That's why it's only just leaving Paraje Altamira now!
  • (not entirely relevant note in a Steve Backshall kinda-way: the terciopelo is also a particularly venomous and grumpy snake in Central America - I had an anxious altercation with one when studying in Costa Rica). 
  • Again, I leave you with the Decanter praise. Make me choose between this and the Salvaje and I choose this, the Terciopelo. Although reflected in the £21.50 price tag (it would be £25+ if coming via the usual intermediary!), it's the better wine.

That's not quite all...

We've other rated wines from this panel. They may score less well, but the great diversity of Syrah styles available makes a tour of other wines highly interesting, especially if you are a blockbuster fan. Below, you'll find more details of (all Chilean):

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