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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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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

Trinity Hill Gimblett Gravels Syrah 2016 (1x75cl)

Awarded 95 points and Gold status at the 2019 IWC (International Wine Challenge) in May 2019 (see blue link below for review and their tasting note).

Trinity Hill Gimblett Gravels Syrah 2016 - IWC 2019 award and review

Since its inception in 1993, partners John Hancock, who has been making wine in New Zealand for over 35 years, and Robert and Robyn Wilson, owners of The Bleeding Heart and The Don in London, have made Trinity Hill a byword for quality and consistency. Winemaker Warren Gibson has been with Trinity Hill since 1997. He is also in charge of the 80 hectares of vineyard owned by Trinity Hill, of which 47 are in the Gimblett Gravels. The Gimblett Gravels, planted on the former bed of the Ngaruroro River, is now a highly sought after sub-region renowned for the quality of its wines. The Trinity Hill wines have an elegance, balance, drinkability and precision of flavour. This estate was one of the first to plant grapes on the Gimblett Gravels in 1993.

The Gimblett Gravels winegrowing area is a small sub-region in the Hawkes Bay of New Zealand defined by a very unique stony soil type. This wine is made from estate grown grapes from the Tin Shed and Gimblett Stones vineyards.

A very late beginning to the season was followed by a very warm summer and early autumn period. The warm days were also combined with warm night-time temperatures and high humidity. It was definitely a season to be close and vigilant with the vines.

Grapes were hand harvested from a range of individual sites and clones and then fermented separately before blending. A range of maceration periods allowed for increased complexity. 20% whole bunches were included in the fermentations which contribute to freshness, aromatics and structure. The wine was aged for 14 months in a mixture of new and old 228 litre French oak barriques and larger 5,000 litre oak casks. This barrel ageing regime includes stirring of the lees and very minimal racking.

This Syrah is deep and vibrant crimson in colour, with wild raspberry, blueberry, cracked pepper and hints of vanilla bean on the nose. Powerful, ripe tannins give the wine great structure. Oak plays a supporting role to the wine's pure fruit expression. This purity combined with refreshing natural acidity mean there is excellent potential for ageing. Development of mineral, gamey characters will result from bottle-age.

This wine is suitable for vegans and vegetarians.

£20.20

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

Shaw + Smith Shiraz 2016 (1x75cl)

The 2015 vintage was awarded 95 points and Outstanding status by Decanter (www.decanter.com) in their November 2018 article on Australia's Adelaide Hills (see blue link below).

Shaw + Smith Shiraz 2015 - Nov 2018 Decanter review

Established in 1989 by Martin Shaw and Michael Hill Smith MW, Shaw + Smith's aim is to make contemporary, high quality wines that stand among the best of their type in Australia. The wines are made exclusively from fruit grown in the Adelaide Hills, one of Australia's coolest and most exciting regions. Shaw + Smith specialise in grape varieties suited to cooler climates, such as Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay, and also make fantastic wines from Shiraz and Pinot Noir.

The fruit was sourced from vineyards in the warmer, drier parts of the Adelaide Hills, notably Macclesfield and from low yielding vineyards in Balhannah, near the Shaw and Smith winery. Soils here are shallow red/brown loam over schist and clay. The vines are planted at a density of 2,700 - 5,500 vines per hectare and are hand pruned with vertical shoot positioned canopies. Low yields of two kilos per vine were achieved by aggressive pruning and pre-harvest bunch thinning.

September’s start to the growing season was warmer than average, leading to good canopy and fruit development. January rainfall provided relief from earlier high temperatures and was timely to aid fruit development through the ripening period, resulting in healthy fruit being harvested two weeks earlier than average.

The grapes were hand picked and fermented as a combination of whole berries and whole bunches in open fermenters, with gentle plunging and minimal working. The wine was aged in French oak for fourteen months, of which one third was new.

100% Shiraz.

Fresh and vibrant on the nose, with red fruit aromas and some dried herb notes. The palate shows bright cherry, raspberry, and mulberry, a hint of dark chocolate and plenty of structure, with grippy tannins that build through to the finish.

£24.85

Lismore Estate Cape South Coast Syrah 2016 (1x75cl)

Samantha O'Keefe left California with dreams of starting a family and finding paradise. Tucked into the foothills of a dramatic mountain range at the bottom of Africa, Lismore Estate Vineyards was born alongside her nascent family. A passionate vision, combined with vines planted at 300 metres, which are chilled by winter snow and nourished by the African summer sun, produces classic, cool climate wines which are rich, complex and lovingly hand crafted.

While 2016 presented the third year of drought for most regions of South Africa, the Overberg received sufficient rainfall to produce a harvest with average yields and an above average quality. The Greyton region saw a long ripening season with very little stress in the vineyards, resulting in excellent quality fruit.

The vineyards are planted on slopes at the base of the Riviersonderend Mountain Range, where the Syrah is planted in heavy schist soils with no irrigation. The combination of elevation and climate make for an extended ripening period which is approximately three to four weeks later than the more traditional wine growing areas in the Western Cape. Extreme diurnal temperature shifts in these vineyards promote complexity, depth and concentration and presents a Syrah that has a very distinct sense of place.

The grapes were picked at optimal ripeness. 40% were fermented in whole bunches in small open vats and 60% were destemmed and fermented in a 5,000 litre wooden fermenter with gentle pigeage (cap immersion) throughout. The free run wine was drained off and the fermented grapes were then pressed in a traditional wooden basket press. The wine was racked into barrels where malolactic fermentation took place, then blended into a 3,000 litre wooden vat, where the wine was aged for 10 months.

An exotic experience which shifts your mind to another place. Cassis, blackberry and cherry on the nose with hints of white pepper, ground herbs and the strong floral perfume of crushed violets. Light and elegant, but structured with a fresh acidity.

Delicious with a slow-roasted shoulder of lamb and gratin dauphinoise; wood-fired pigeon or a warm lentil salad with Portobello mushrooms. To experience the best this wine has to offer, decanting is suggested.

This wine is suitable for vegetarians and vegans.

£28.15

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

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

Beautifully deep in colour with a persistent fine bead. The bouquet shows hints of satsuma, plum and black cherry leading to an explosion of dark exotic fruits on the palate. A very special sparkling red for times of celebration.

£22.80
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