Hurrah for Syrah

by | Nov 2, 2021 | Article, News, Wineland

Tim Atkin called Shiraz “the Cape’s most exciting red grape” in his latest report, and awarded it five of the top spots among 23 wines scoring 97 points and above. What does he see in it, and what makes this grape such a favourite among South African winemakers?

Whether you want to call it ‘Shiraz’ or ‘Syrah’, the potential for greatness was always there, says Shiraz SA, the organisation promoting the variety in South Africa. “Growers are increasingly finding the best spots to grow world-class Shiraz, and more importantly, discovering how to manage this generous variety. Shiraz style reacts considerably to picking timing and other cellar practices like stem contact and vessel material. Winemakers are steadily mastering all these variables towards the best results for their particular area.”

It’s precisely this variability that caught winemaker Jean Smit’s attention and sparked a lifelong fascination with this variety. “As Chenin is the chameleon for white varieties, Shiraz is certainly the one for red,” he says. “It has so much personality, and will showcase the site wherever it’s planted.”

Soil

So what gives the Shiraz the advantage? “In one word: soil,” says Evan. “We have some of the oldest soil in the world, and Shiraz is a variety that can really show this off.”

“I’ve worked in a vineyard where the same clone of Shiraz was planted in two different blocks, 40 meters away from one another, and the differences in style were remarkable. The one block produced a big, rich style of Shiraz that reminded me of the wines from the Barossa Valley, and the block right next door produced fruit that made wine not too dissimilar to the wine from Châteauneuf du Pape. I can only assume this was due to the incredible diversity of soil within a very close proximity.”

Climate

Shiraz thrives in warmer climates, which is abundant in South Africa. Its versatility also enables it to grow in cooler conditions with maybe lower yields, but exceptional results as seen in the Northern Rhône in France, according to Shiraz SA.

“SA also has its cooler regions. Where elevation, proximity to the sea, our unique winds or more southern cooler areas combine with the correct soil, you find quality which can compare with the best in the world as proved by many growers. Results in the annual Shiraz Top 12 competitions show a surprising rotation of growing areas producing the winners. It proves that good conditions for Shiraz are widely spread over the Cape Winelands.”

Vinimark’s export director, Evan Alexander, concurs: “Our most exciting Shirazes are comparable to some of the great wines from the Rhône valley.”

But although the variety is relatively drought resistant, the expressive grape also has weaknesses. “I worry about the effects of climate change in the future,” Evan says.

Shiraz or Syrah?

Shiraz’s chameleon-like abilities can also be source of contention. Although the numerous wine styles Shiraz can produce can be used to South Africa’s advantage, Evan says it can also become a hurdle if winemakers can’t reach a consensus on the way forward. “From a commercial point of view, our incredible diversity of styles may be potential disadvantage if we can’t pinpoint a specific style of South African Shiraz. I think we should celebrate the diversity, but consumers often struggle to classify us as New World or Old World.”

Shiraz SA prefers to see Shiraz and Syrah as synonyms. “Having two names for the same thing is unnecessarily confusing for consumers. Very few consumers understand the attempts from winemakers and wine writers to communicate two extremes in styles and everything in between with two names.”

Winemakers and wine writers often struggle to brand a particular wine because of all the overlapping style characteristics in a wine, the organisation says, but it concedes the distinction is interesting enough to speculate about. “It does bring in meaning and understanding amongst professionals in tastings and discussions about Shiraz/Syrah.”

For Jean’s Damascene Vineyards, which places emphasis on site, distinguishing between Syrah and Shiraz comes naturally. “Swartland schist produces something that’s almost like a different variety from the typical South African Shiraz produced two decades ago, but so does Shiraz planted on certain cooler granitic slopes in Stellenbosch. Vineyards a mere 50 meters away will produce a more fruit-focused wine, but that’s not the style we strive for,” Jean says. ”We’re focusing on a more savoury, earthy and perfumed style, which we label as Syrah.”

“Commercially, the richer, more full-bodied styles are doing well, where on the premium side the more austere, Rhône-like wines are getting the attention of wine scribes and sommeliers. These are usually grown on schist or granite soils,” Evan says. “Either way, South Africa offers incredible value for money.”

Future

As the envelope for quality is pushed even further and different regions and styles come into their own, South African Shiraz can begin to shine in every market it meets. “I think we need to be more focused when it comes to selecting certain clones for certain terroirs,” says Evan. “I would like to see the reliance of new wood decrease, to give a more pure and honest representation of the variety.”

Shiraz vied with Cabernet Sauvignon as the most planted red variety in South Africa for about 30 years, peaking at 10 508 ha in 2013. Since then, it has declined steadily to about 9 151 ha as white varieties gained ground – going from 10.54% of total plantings in 2013 to 9.95% of total plantings in 2020. But with popular blends and rosé categories leading to renewed interest, Shiraz SA expects the area planted under Shiraz to stabilise in the coming years, perhaps even overtaking Cabernet Sauvignon. “You can trust Shiraz’s amazing potential to produce good and consistent wines over all price categories in most of the growing areas,” says Shiraz SA.

“It’s the most exciting red grape in the Cape for me right now; I think Syrah has masses of potential in South Africa,” concludes Tim Atkin. “It’s grown successfully in a greater range of regions and climates than Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir and is already producing a handful of world class wines as well as some very good examples at cheaper price points.”

As Evan says: “The future is bright, and the possibilities endless.”

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