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Super Syrah/Shiraz

An article about Shiraz, Exel? That big, blockblusting, clumsy, bullyboy bruiser of a red… the vindaloo of wine…?

Ah, you as well. We understand your point; we do hear that a lot. But not all Shiraz is like that. And Syrah very rarely is.

Syrah? Shiraz? Same thing, surely?

Yes and no. Yes, the same grape, but no, a very different style… it’s exactly the same story with Pinot Gris and Pinot Grigio. One is revered and regarded as elegant and classy; the other as … well, less so, and sometimes even a little … er … vernacular. Simply, the same grape develops in a different way because of different environmental factors – terroir, if you will – and is then handled differently in the winery in line with those differences. 

So, "same-same, but different"? Do go on.

With pleasure. In the very simplest of terms, you could start with Syrah = French, Shiraz = Australian. But it’s more complex than that.

Syrah’s great origin is the northern Rhone valley – the home of the appellations of Hermitage, Cornas, Côte-Rotie, St-Joseph and Crozes-Hermitage. We might think of that as a pretty warm spot, but (t)here Syrah is right on its margin of being able to ripen.  Like the other great regions of France (most notably Bordeaux and Burgundy), it is exactly that slow, steady, just-about-making-it-to ripeness that makes for wines of such great quality … in the good years. Ever present, however, is the risk of a cool or wet year and with it ‘green’, grippy, under-ripe wines. 

Fascinating. And the impact on the wines is … what?

Those great Rhone appellations - and other areas where Syrah just-about ripens (more below) - produce powerful-but-elegant reds famous for their bewitching perfume; a “heavenly, floral fragrance”, Oz Clarke calls it. That perfume? Smoke, minerality, herbiness and, in particular, pepper – overlying a potent-but-not-cloying blackberry/brambly fruitiness. The pepper thing is one of those weird flavour sensations about which some folk get most excited: it’s like the whole petrol/kerosene thing with Riesling. Indeed, there’s a great article on pepper in wine (especially in Syrah) in the current (February) edition of Decanter (www.decanter.com). Note also that alcohol levels in these wines are typically only 11.5 to 13.5% abv, except in the headiest of years.

So, that’s Syrah. And Shiraz?

Yes, yes. Now your Shiraz is altogether different: we are into very different aromas and flavours; ones that reflect much greater warmth and ripeness, with alcohol levels nearly always above 13.5% (and as high as 16% in extreme cases). Here the fruit is blacker – even straying into cassis/blackcurrant (more normally the preserve of Cabernet Sauvignon) – and altogether sweeter: ‘chocolate’ and ‘liquorice’ are two of the tasting keywords with Shiraz.  As it ages, good Shiraz develops some proper age flavours – leather and treacle are classic tones.

Clumsy stuff, yes?

We’d leave you to judge, but we’d see that as a harsh verdict. Yes, there’s occasional clumsiness where winemakers get lazy and just allow over-ripeness and grape sugar levels to climb too high. Wines can become bloated and ‘flabby’, and, although fermented to dryness, lack any sort of acidity to balance out the palate and/or provide much refreshment. And that balance is lacking in many budget-level Shirazes; Shiraz is a wonderfully easy grape to grow, vinify and transform into a super-fruity wine … which explains its huge rise to prominence on supermarket shelves in the last 25 years.

We certainly note that plenty of Syrah fans are not fans of Shiraz. And vice versa. For the former, there’s a lack of refinedness and elegance: they see a carthorse lining up for The Derby. For the latter, there’s often just not enough ‘ooomph’’ or 'octane” for them in a Syrah.

We don’t really see the clumsiness thing. After all, vintage Port is 20% abv (+) and carries altogether more punch than the biggest of even Barossa Shirazes… yet very few folk knock it for lack of elegance. It’s just a style thing: Shiraz is typically a ‘big’ wine. Drink it cautiously and even sparingly, we might advise.

So, two wines for the price of one grape, then?

Yes, exactly. Perhaps more so than for any other variety. And its all down to the sensitivity of the grape itself. It may produce ‘big’ wines, but this is one sensitive variety.

We often think first of other grapes being highly sensitive to conditions and the champions of reflecting their terroir: Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Riesling, certainly. But Syrah/Shiraz would have to be on that list. As we mentioned, the Northern Rhone is only just warm enough to ripen Syrah to a great wine; vineyards here have to be carefully sited to maximise their exposure to heat/sun and dodge the chilly Mistral. Yet, travel just 60 km further south into the Southern Rhone – home of Vacqueyras, Gigondas, Châteauneuf and Côtes du Rhone – and it’s nearly always too hot to get the best from Syrah, losing, as it does, acidity, florality and aroma. Here – and the same is true in the crus of Languedoc - Syrah vineyards need a reduced aspect to the sun, or, more normally, a site at higher altitude, to prevent that flabbiness. This explains some part of the blending of Syrah in these regions, where components lost to heat in the Syrah can be made good by the use of other varieties.

And the terroir point is interesting; Oz Clarke identifies five different terroirs in Australia’s McLaren Vale, revolving mainly around the great variety of soil types there. These terroirs produce greatly varying wines, from the peppery and spicy to the fleshy and the bold (we highly recommend Oz’s excellent “Grapes and Wines”).

You mentioned blending… 

We did. Although it’s a variety that (quite clearly) makes amazing wines on its own, there’s more blending of Shiraz out there than you may think. Almost everything red from the Southern Rhone has some Shiraz in it, here adding some bite and darker fruit to the red-fruitness of Grenache, but often boosted by tannin and acidity from Mourvedre. This same classic ‘GSM’ trio is increasingly common in both Australia and California (home of the ‘Rhone Ranger’ movement). In many Châteauneufs, Syrah plays a very minor role in a blend that can contain up to 13 varieties! In Languedoc, Cinsault and Carignan are common, mainly for economy/bulking, but also to add aroma, fruit, colour and tannins.

In Australia, Shiraz is classically blended with Cab Sauv: the latter provides the structure, tannin and acidity while the Shiraz is employed to bring fruit to the mid-palate, an area where Cab Sauv can typically struggle.

Perhaps the oddest blend is the most famous of them all: with white Viognier, as still practiced in some of the finest Cote(s)-Roties, most notably those of Guigal. A few % of Viognier, co-fermented with the Shiraz, serendipitously boosts the perfume and silkiness of the wine, and, rather weirdly, even deepens the colour.

And that’s before we mention fizzy Shiraz.

Fizzy Shiraz?

Yup. And it demands respect. It’s a serious glass of wine, the best made via method traditionelle as for Champagne. Just because it’s a fizzy oddity doesn’t make it frivolous. There’s weight, body and tannin here. We were surprised, too.

Can we go back to the naming thing? So, Syrah in France, Shiraz in Australia?

As an approximation, yes. But, really, the name goes with the style nowadays, not the geography. Where the leaner, peppery, perfumey style is made – almost regardless now of location – it’s termed Syrah. The fuller, darker, chocolately style… Shiraz. Wines made in the latter style in Languedoc are appearing under the Shiraz banner; leaner wines made at altitude in Australia are emerging as Syrahs. From South Africa, California and Chile, one will see both monikers. New Zealand mainly trades as Syrah: being the cooler climate that it is (see below), the leaner style predominates here.

I suspect you’re now going to reel off an expose of your Syrahs and Shirazes from across the world to tempt me to buy some, yes?

Oooh, you cynic. But yes, we are.

We’ve drawn together those that have most wowed any or all of a) us, b) our shop customers, c) our internet clients d) those who have attended our tastings or e) Decanter in the last year. All are 100% Syrah/Shiraz (bar perhaps the odd few % of Viognier as above). All appear at the bottom of this page. Here goes…

From the Northern Rhone, Francois et Fils’ Côte-Rotie wowed Decanter (95 points for the 2015 vintage, Outstanding, topping the Feb 18 review: we are now onto the 2016) at a price of just £41 for this esteemed appellation and great vintage (2015 in the Northern Rhone scores 97 on Wine Enthusiast (WE)’s new vintage chart). We advise snapping this up before it all goes – Côte-Rotie opportunities like this come around very seldom. Jaboulet produce wonderful specimens from all of the Rhone appellations – a varying price points, the Domaine de Thalabert Crozes-Hermitage 2014, the Grand Pompée St-Joseph 2016 (another tremendous vintage, 95 points with WE) and Les Jalets Crozes-Hermitage 2016 are a tremendous trio indeed.

Sticking to the Syrah style, we venture to New Zealand. The South Island is simply too cold for Syrah, but the North Island has two noted zones. Warm Waikehe Island (offshore of Auckland) is home to producers Man O’War, and their Dreadnought treads the divide between Syrah and Shiraz in glorious fashion. Hawke’s Bay, near Napier, is the new fortress of NZ Syrah, with a very Rhone-like climate regime. It was originally thought warm enough for Cab Sauv, but increasingly emerges as really only warm enough for Syrah, which thrives here. The famed Gimblett Gravels play host to some of the very best examples, and few are better than those of either Trinity Hill or Craggy Range: brilliant winemakers both, offering a range of price points.

The USA offers great examples of Syrah. From California, Truchard’s is a classic New World Syrah from cool Carneros that really impressed us at a recent producer tasting. In Washington State, the ebullient Charles Smith’s Boom Boom Syrah offers fantastic value (and a wacky label), while Château Ste Michelle produce two great examples: their ‘everyday’ Syrah, which represents awesome value at just £14, and their luxury Pundit (produced under their Tenet label) – again, an incredible £25 for such a boutique wine.

When we reach Australia, we’re deep into the Shiraz style and it’s immensely hard to pick our favourites. For sheer depth, with age already built in (prime drinking window now), Two Hands’ Coach House Block 2006 is hard to beat at the price, and enormously popular with customers who have taken the plunge. Shaw & Smith’s 2015 also landed a recent Outstanding 95 points from Decanter and is is real cracker.

We adore the work of Samantha O’Keefe at South Africa’s Lismore, and their Syrah 2016 is no exception. It manages to combine the power of a New World Shiraz with the elegance of an Old World Syrah, while the ever-excellent Thelema do a wonderful job with their 2014 at just ~£15 – this wine really ought to be priced more highly!

Last but not least, we visit Chile and two brilliant wines from two northern valleys where Syrah has become the trump card. Falernia’s Reserva Syrah 2012 from the Elquí valley has some great age development now, and is a great ‘pepper’ example, while the Caballo Loco Grand Cru 2014 from Limari is as opulent style of Syrah as you could hope to find and is now drinking beautifully.

And for the sparkling... look no further than the Peter Lehmann Black Queen...

Whatever you choose, happy drinking.

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Paul Jaboulet Aine Crozes Hermitage Domaine De Thalabert Rouge 2017 (1x75cl)

Since the early 19th Century, Paul Jaboulet Ainé has been synonymous with quality wine in the Rhône Valley. Jaboulet’s Hermitages - white and red - and most of their upper wines - are the stuff of legend. The famous Rhone winery was bought by the Frey family in 2006. The Freys, owners of Chateau la Lagune in Bordeaux, saw the potential of the vineyards. They brought renewed energy to this corner of France and to one of its greatest names.

The Domaine de Thalabert Crozes-Hermitage, as the Oxford Companion to Wine describes it, remains the "appellation's principal standard bearer". It has long been seen as having the quality of nearby Hermitage, particularly in good vintages, at only a small fraction of the price.

See this link for an excellent guided tasting of the 2012 vintage by one of the world's leading sommeliers.

The Crozes-Hermitage vineyard is the largest of all the northern Rhône Valley appellations. It extends over 11 communes situated in the Drôme, on the left bank of the Rhône. Domaine de Thalabert has belonged to the Maison Paul Jaboulet Aîné since 1834. It is situated on the plain, and is the oldest in the appellation.

This estate of around 40 ha lies on a pebbly plain that is glacial in origin. The small, round pebbles store heat during the day and release it at night, providing optimum ripening of the Syrah grapes  Average vine age is an impressive 40 to 60 years.

100% Syrah. The grapes from the Thalabert estate are carefully sorted then meticulously vinified using traditional methods. Traditionally aged in wood for 12 months in Jaboulet's ancient VINEUM cellar.

Deep ruby and bright. Intense, complex and aromatic with a blend of red berries and animal notes. Powerful and fine; noble tannins; full, well-balanced finish.

ABV = 13.5%.

£25.25

Paul Jaboulet Aine Crozes Hermitage Rouge Les Jalets 2017 (1x75cl)

Awarded 92 points and Highly Recommended status by Decanter (www.decanter.com) in their June 2020 edition's Weekday Wines (see  blue link below). 

Paul Jaboulet Aine Crozes Hermitage Rouge Les Jalets 2017 - June 2020 Decanter review

Since the early 19th Century, Paul Jaboulet Ainé has been synonymous with quality wine in the Rhône Valley. Jaboulet’s Hermitages - white and red - and most of their upper wines - are the stuff of legend. The famous Rhone winery was bought by the Frey family in 2006. The Freys, owners of Chateau la Lagune in Bordeaux, saw the potential of the vineyards. They brought renewed energy to this corner of France and to one of its greatest names.

The name Les Jalets comes from the soil nature of the vineyards, located in the plain of Les Chassis, stemming from the word jalets, is the Old French word for the pebbles left by alpine glaciers, as famously found at Châteauneuf-du-Pape.

Average vine age is around 25 years. 

100% Syrah. Grapes were destemmed, crushed and subject to a thermo-regulated alcoholic fermentation then vattied over 3 weeks. Ageing/elevage  was in old French oak vats for 12 months.

See also the blue link below for the excellent fiche technique/technical note from the winemakers themselves.

Paul Jaboulet Aine Crozes Hermitage Rouge Les Jalets 2017 - fiche technique

Bright ruby red in colour with a violet hue. Round and concentrated. This fruit-driven red Crozes Hermitage is a classic. It shows the real typicity of the area (red berries, liquorice, spices, peppers). On the nose, it is intense but approachable, with perfumes of red berries and a touch of spice. On the palate, it is smooth and rich, with more liquorice on the finish.

ABV = 13.5%.

£20.80

Columbia Valley Syrah Chateau Ste Michelle 2017 (1x75cl)

Please click on this link to see a most informative video about this wine which has been made by Ray McKee, red winemaker at Chateau Ste Michelle.

"Great wine can only come from Italy or California" was the misconception Chateau Ste Michelle’s founding fathers set out to prove wrong when they first broke ground and pioneered the Washington wine region, shortly after the repeal of Prohibition in the USA. They have certainly opened our eyes to some of the wonderful wines that Washington State has to offer.  Chateau Ste. Michelle is one of the few premium wineries in the world with two state-of-the-art wineries, one for red and one for white. The whites are made at the Chateau in Woodinville, WA, while the reds are made at their Canoe Ridge Estate winery in Eastern Washington.

100% Syrah.

To read Chateau Ste Michelle's excellent tasting note and information on this wine please click on the blue link below.

Chateau Ste Michelle Columbia Valley Syrah 2017 - fiche technique

ABV = 13.5%.

£14.20

Caballo Loco Grand Cru Limari 2015 (1x75cl)

Awarded a high 17 points (of 20) on Jancis Robinson's Purple Pages (www.JancisRobinson.comreviewer Alistair Cooper MW - in Feb 2020 (see blue link below).

Caballo Loco Grand Cru Limari 2015 - jancisrobinson.com May 2020 review

Awarded 86 points and Recommended status by Decanter in their October 2020 panel tasting of South American Syrah (see blue link below).

Caballo Loco Grand Cru Limari 2015 - October 2020 Decanter review

The Caballo Loco Grands Crus were created by Valdivieso to show the different wines that are fundamental components of the icon Caballo Loco wine. For this reason, specific wines from specific valleys wine were born, where each strain/blend reflects the maximum expression of that valley.

One can arguably see these wines as understudies for the "true" Caballo Loco, but they are more than that, being quite superb - and full-throttle - wines in their own right, made with all the care, attention and know-how of the NV/"solera" version.

This Grand Cru Apalta represents all the fruit power and smoothness of the Limari Valley, showcasing the excellent Syrah (100% here) of this region.

For full details, see the blue link below for the excellent fiche technique/technical note from the winemakers themselves.

Caballo Loco Grand Cru Limari 2015 - fiche technique

A big, full-bodied wine with delicious aromas and flavours of ripe red cherries, coffee and dark chocolate. It has a luxurious texture and a lingering finish.

ABV = 15.0%.

£24.15

Peter Lehmann Masters `Black Queen` Sparkling Shiraz 2013 (1x75cl)

Peter Lehmann, with 33 vintages already under his belt, started his own winery in 1979, partly as a means of helping with the glut of grapes then afflicting the Barossa. "I'll take your grapes and turn them into wine," he told the desperate growers, many of them conservative farmers of Silesian descent who regarded their old vines as part of their patrimony. "But I'll only be able to pay you when I sell the wine." They gratefully accepted. Without this deal, it is widely thought that the Barossa would have lost a huge chunk of its old vines. The 'Masters' wines are made from the parcels regarded by the winemakers as the best Semillon, Riesling, Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz of the vintage.

Peter Lehmann Wines works with over 140 growers across the length and breadth of the Barossa Valley region, with access to over 750 individual vineyard sites. The Black Queen is made from Shiraz grown on old, low-yielding vines in premium vineyards in the Moppa and Light Pass districts.

Often referred to as the jewel in their/his crown, Lehmann's lack Queen Sparkling Shiraz is a unique and indulgent wine using grapes sourced from premium vineyards in the Barossa region, used to craft this exceptional wine.

See blue link below for the excellent fiche technique/technical note from Peter Lehmann.

Peter Lehmann Masters `Black Queen` Sparkling Shiraz 2013 - fiche technique

100% Shiraz.

Residual sugar = 30g/litre (ie medium-dry, technically)

Bright red with a dense black core, the aroma is abundant with Christmas cake and mulberries. The palate is quintessential for what Black Queen Sparkling Shiraz is known for - a gentle mousse, naturally low in tannins, soft and abundant in rich blue fruits. Best enjoyed now, however, will comfortably develop further in the cellar for a further 5-10 years.

ABV = 14.0%.

£22.80
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