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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 2013 (94 points, Decanter), 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 2015 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 2015 (produced under their Tenet label) – again, an incredible £24 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. DWWA18 97-pointer The Director’s Cut 2014 from Heartland and Langhorne Creek is now onto its last UK stocks: we’ve not seen customers return for a wine in such numbers as this one for some while.  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 £14 – 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 Saint Joseph Le Grand Pompee 2016 (1x 75cl)

The winery was originally founded in 1834 by Antoine Jaboulet in the Northern Rhone Valley. This 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. Since the takeover, Caroline Frey has successfully transformed the entire range, putting more emphasis on greater fruit expression and dramatically reducing the amount of new oak. The only way is up for this transformed domaine.

The name Le Grand Pompée comes from Victor Hugo’s novel Legende des Siecles. In the 9th century, the Grande Pompée – the faithful companion to Charlemagne – fought against the Moors on the right bank of the Rhône. A famous line from the book reads: “And wine, that wine beloved of the Grand Pompée.

100% Syrah. The grapes for this wine are de-stemmed, crushed and fermented at controlled temperatures. The wine is aged for 12 months in oak vats before release.

The Le Grand Pompée is deep ruby red in colour with violet hues. It has a rich and concentrated nose of very ripe red fruits, sweet spices and finishes with some liquorice notes. It is a harmonious wine with rounded tannins.

£22.55

Paul Jaboulet Aine Crozes Hermitage Rouge Les Jalets 2016 (1x 75cl)

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.

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.

£20.40

Man O War Dreadnought Syrah 2015 (1x75cl)

The Man O’ War story begins with a special piece of land which has a rich history. Located at the eastern end of Waiheke Island, Man O’ War is a stunning array of coastal hillsides with high cliffs and pristine beaches forming a ruggedly beautiful coastline. It was along this coastline that Captain James Cook came to anchor during his first voyage around the islands of New Zealand in 1769. Upon sighting the ancient stands of magnificent kauri trees ashore, Cook noted in his journals that they would make ideal masts for the Man O' War battleships of the Royal Navy. Thus, the name Man O’ War was bestowed upon this unique land. With a desire to protect this treasured land’s natural beauty and sense of history for future generations, the owners purchased the four contiguous farms that now form the 4,500 acres of Man O’ War in the early 1980s. 

Typical aromas for Dreadnought Syrah include a smoky peat character that provides a savoury edge to the overt blueberry and pepper aromas, that mix of savoury and sweet that is reminiscent of the Northern Rhone is style. This wine has excellent fruit accessibility with a richly textured palate restrained with a streak of acidity and a mineral edge derived from a small portion of stem inclusion all supported by a classic Dreadnought tannin structure creating a complex and harmonious wine with plenty of ageing potential.

To see a comprehensive information sheet for this wine from the winemakers at Man O' War, please click on the blue link below.

Man O' War Dreadnought Syrah 2015 - fiche technique

£29.70

Charles Smith Boom Boom Syrah 2016 (1x75cl)

See blue link below for the excellent fiche technique/technical note from the winemakers at Charles Smith.

Charles Smith Boom Boom Syrah 2016 - fiche technique

In the maker's words: Boom Boom! exploded on the wine industry in 2007, and this spicy Syrah has been one of Washington State’s signature wines ever since. It’s a tribute to Charles’ first love lost—a woman nicknamed “Boom Boom” O’Brien—and it’s one of the biggest and boldest Syrahs of all time. It’s not surprising that wine drinkers everywhere have fallen in love with it.

More conventionally expressed: This wine is made by Charles Smith, a self–taught winemaker who brings his rock and roll spirit to the vineyards of Walla Walla, Washington. As a romantic young man, Charles Smith moved across the world to Denmark to follow his love for his girlfriend at the time. In Scandinavia, he became a recognized manager for rock bands such as The Raveonettes. While travelling on the road with these bands, he developed his passion for wine. In 1999, he moved back to Washington, opened a wine store and became friendly with a French winemaker, later convincing him to move to Walla Walla to make wine together.

Aromas of fresh picked herbs and wet earth. Rich black cherry and tobacco are followed by hints of lavender on the finish. An explosive dark cherry bomb! We'd agree with other tasting notes we've seen that read, "blackberry, boysenberry, dry-hung meat, white pepper, savoury herbs". The "crushed granite" bit... not so much.

£16.80

Columbia Valley Syrah, Chateau Ste Michelle 2016 (1x 75cl)

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.

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 2016 - fiche technique

£14.70

Tenet Wines The Pundit Syrah 2015

Chateau Ste. Michelle’s Head Winemaker Bob Bertheau and his Washington team, along with Rhône valley collaborators, winemaker Michel Gassier and enology consultant Philippe Cambie, have combined their experience to produce two wines: Tenet GSM (Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre) and The Pundit Syrah. Philippe and Michel provide expertise and use local techniques honed through centuries of experience with Rhône grapes in their birthplace, while the Chateau Ste. Michelle team provides expert knowledge of Washington fruit and the best in modern winemaking techniques. The combination of the two approaches produces wines that are balanced and vibrant and have a true sense of place. The goal is to break the old paradigms and have people look at Syrah and other Rhône varieties in a new light, leaving old prejudices behind. They share the strong belief (or “tenet”) that Syrah and its Rhône brethren can thrive in the Columbia Valley.

"See Syrah through our eyes. Discover a wine that defies conventional wisdom, announcing to the world that it's time to take flight on the winds of change, leave old notions behind and experience something truly revolutionary. The Pundit expresses finesse and balance, uniting a traditional Rhône style with all the attitude of the great Columbia Valley wines. You'll never look at Syrah in the same way again."

Approximately 25% of the lots were fermented as whole clusters, with the remaining lots fermented as de-stemmed grapes. The inclusion of stems during fermentation contributes earthy, savoury aromas and flavours that perfectly complement the pure fruit character of the grapes. To further enhance these complexities, about 20% of the lots also underwent extended maceration. After fermentation, the majority of the young wine was placed into neutral French and American oak barrels and large barrels called puncheons for ageing, with the remaining wine aged in tight-grained new French oak barrels and puncheons. The use of neutral and tighter-grained barrels helps to preserve the unique character of the wine itself. The use of puncheons allows the natural characteristics of the fruit to shine. The assembly of the final blend was a true collaboration of winemakers Bob Bertheau, Michel Gassier and Philippe Cambie, combining their decades of experience to produce a wine that demonstrates why Washington State is one of the best growing regions in the world for Syrah.

The colour is deep ruby with garnet highlights. Raspberry jam and citrus with soy and earthy undertone aromas are complemented by a brambly, subtle meaty character. A smooth mouthfeel glides into a long silky finish with flavors of juicy blueberry, hints of tobacco and subtle gamey undertones.

£25.20

Two Hands Coach House Block Shiraz 2006 (1x 75cl)

Quality without compromise is central to the Two Hands philosophy, driving all the decisions from fruit and oak selection to packaging and promotion. "We strive to differentiate ourselves; to be unique, fun and innovative in our business approach while maintaining a high degree of professionalism and integrity."

The Coach House Block Shiraz comes from an estate grown single vineyard near the tiny hamlet of Greenock in the Barossa Valley. It is generous and supple whilst soft and approachable upon release. An ultra-rich, heady, mouth-filling Shiraz that combines balanced acidity and mid-palate texture.

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

Two Hands Coach House Block Shiraz 2006 - fiche technique

Simply an outstanding wine. Once decanted, you can smell this beast from three feet away. Black fruits highlight the full bodied palate with bits of spice, tobacco and licorice. The finish goes on through desert and part of the journey home.

£32.00

Thelema Shiraz 2014 (1x 75cl)

Cabernet may be its trump card, but the origins of Thelema owe more to the wines of Burgundy than Bordeaux: it was a bottle of Puligny-Montrachet that lured Gyles Webb away from accountancy in Durban to winemaking in Stellenbosch. Armed with a winemaking degree and influenced by travels in Tuscany, Bordeaux and California, Gyles and his wife Barbara – a noted triathlete – bought Thelema, an old fruit farm high on the slopes of the Simonsberg mountain, in 1983.

This is the wilder side of Stellenbosch, where spotted leopards roam the vines and a combination of elevation and eucalyptus trees creates a much-prized style of Cabernet with a distinctively minty freshness. These days Gyles is Cellar Master, with the talented Schultz brothers (Rudi and Werner) responsible for the winemaking and vineyards respectively. But the philosophy remains true to Gyles’ original vision, centred on the principle of what he calls ‘benign neglect’ – minimal fining and filtration, and no use of commercial yeasts in the red wines. True too to the Thelema name, taken from the idealised concept of a new world order imagined by 16th century French monk, physician and writer Rabelais.

For the full data sheet and technical information from the winemakers themselves, click the blue link below.

Thelema Shiraz 2014 - fiche technique

£15.40

Vina Falernia Syrah Reserva 2012 (1x 75cl)

Viña Falernia is located in the Elqui Valley between La Serena and Vicuña, 520 km (323 miles) to the North of Santiago and it is at present Chile´s nothernmost winery estate. Chile is isolated geographically, with the long and high ridge of the grandiose Andes Mountain Range acting as a barrier to the East, and the deep and immense Pacific Ocean to the West. The vast Atacama Desert to the North and a long chain on rocky islands reaching south to the Antarctic, complete the protective ring. Viña Falernia was founded in 1998 after Aldo Olivier Gramola realised the potential for producing superb wines in this semi-arid valley. The driving force has been his passion for wine and the challenge of transforming a tract of desert into green vineyards with enormous potential. Utilizing the latest technologies, Viña Falernia has succeded in transforming itself into a premium wine producer.

Viña Falernia is highly committed to improving productive processes with the lowest environmental impact in the vineyards and in the winery as well. The winery is located in the Vicuña area and is equipped with state of the art technology. Despite the use of technology throughout the production process, grapes are exclusively hand picked, harvested in small bins of 15 kg each and delivered directly to the winery for processing within minutes of being picked.

To read an excellent information sheet and tasting note about this wine from the winemakers at Falernia, please click on the blue link below.

Falernia Syrah Reserva 2012 - fiche technique

£14.65
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