I have only recently come to realise how much I love Syrah as a wine. It has now joined my personal pantheon of Nebbiolo, Pinot Noir, Sangiovese (and quite a few other tannic Italian varieties) and the very best examples of Chardonnay, roughly in that order. These are the varieties I want to cellar and drink, not just admire (e.g. Riesling); they are the ones I would save as my Dessert Island wines. Grenache is probably next in line. But the point is that Syrah has jumped confidently into the lifeboat.
Andover Wine Friends recently had a tasting of the wines of the northern Rhône. The selection was great in the sense that at mid-price points there are wines of real character and interest to drink, for example, Jaboulet’s Domaine de Thalabert. It may have humble Crozes-Hermitage AOC on the label but at around £25 a bottle is does deliver ‘extremely defined, pure and attractive’ (James Suckling). In the course of that evening a plan was hatched to taste the world’s greatest Syrahs. The centrepiece was a generous offer by one of our tasters to bring a mature bottle of Penfolds Grange to which we could add great examples from Côte Rôtie, Hermitage itself, Eden Valley, Barossa Valley and so on. The organisation of the event followed, willing tasters recruited, Doodle Polls completed to find a date, bottles sourced, food prepared. And did the event live up to the billing? I delighted to say that it did.
Taittinger, Comtes de Champagne 2007 – of course it’s not actually made from Syrah but this wine of remarkable savoury depth made a perfect appetiser. It just needs another decade in the bottle to bring it to its majestic peak.
Billecarte Salmon Rosê Champagne Brut NV – despite a hint of shell pink in the colour, still no Syrah, but we can wait. The perfect contrast to the Taittinger as this wine is fully ready to drink on release. Creamy with red apple fruit alongside fine brioche notes, good if not outstanding length, a perfect balance between fruit and acidity and a soft landing with a hint of sweetness.
Fable Mountain, Shiraz, Tulbagh, Western Cape, South Africa, 2011, 14.5%
South Africa has quickly become a great source for top quality Syrah, think Boekenhoutskloof or Mullineux. At a more affordable price point and close to but not in fashionable Swartland, Tulbagh is a very good find. Altitude is the key here, 450m to provide some night time relief to vines and humans and a longer growing season for the former for more developed perfumes. This opens with tobacco and butter notes; ripe blackberry and cassis fruit follow. Warm and full-bodied, the whole is set off by lively acidity. Very creditable indeed.
Syrah, Trinity Hill, Gimblett Gravels, New Zealand 2015, 13%
Not all our bottles were of the same quality. Inevitably there was a bit of gap filling with well made but not the greatest examples from certain locations. Our Kiwi was an example of this; it was a shame we didn’t have Trinity Hills’s Homage bottling but at least this was the mid-tier Gimblett Gravels bottle. Intense purple-tinted ruby red in the glass, a pristine nose with hedgerow fruit and evident red fruit character, ripe medium tannins and a fine, refreshing finish. Note the low 13% abv, quite a rarity in this company outside of the northern Rhône.
Pierre Gaillard, Côte Rôtie AOC, 2005, 13%
A definite mushroom and underbrush development here, then lavender and raspberry fruit, more than a hint of vanilla and cinnamon new oak, lifted aromas, an elegant body and mouth-filling fine tannins. There were so many good things about this but (yes, it was coming) I find this just too oaky. The wine is 90% Syrah and 10% Viognier and I don’t think it is improved with 18 months in French oak, 50% new. The veneer of new oak is still rather obvious after more than a decade in the bottle. But there were no more disappointments after this and even this was only a stylistic disagreement.
Chapoutier, Le Méal, Hermitage AOC, 2006, 14.5%
Garnet rim, a hugely complex and imposing bouquet of dried flowers and baked damsons, wonderful acetic lift followed by a remarkably full body and robust but fine tannins. The alcohol here is 14.5% but it is offset by great flavour intensity and brisk acidity. This was as great as its reputation and clearly could be kept for several decades more if you wish, in the hope of yet more complexity.
Mount Edelstone, Shiraz, Henschke, Eden Valley, 2006, 14%
Nearly three years ago I had the privilege to visit Henschke in the remote-feeling Eden Valley, one of the most remarkable and moving estates I have ever been to. So there is no hope of objectivity here! By Henschke standards the vines in this vineyard are a bit younger, having only been planted in 1912! Between the time this vintage was made and our tasting the vines have become centenarians. I expect the Henschke family had a suitably bibulous party to celebrate the landmark. By contrast, our 12-year old wine was remarkably youthful. Deep ruby colour, menthol notes, ripe blackberry, a hint of blackcurrant with tobacco and, with a bit of time in the glass, leather tertiary notes. There is evident vanilla and coconut oak here but it works really well with the powerful and elegant fruit, so much better than in the northern Rhône. Quite superb.
Basket Press, Shiraz, Rockford, Barossa Valley, 2004, 14.5%
Rockford was another highlight of my 2016 visit. If you had a train set as a child, you cannot but love the nineteenth-century mechanical technology of their original basket presses! Very ripe but not jammy fruit, savoury, layered depth, blackberry to black plum fruit, balancing acidity, still youthful ripe tannic structure. A magnificent wine and the epitome of balanced, powerful and drinkable Barossa.
Atkins Farm, Shiraz, McLaren Vale, 2015,
Another place holder but a good example of the milk chocolate attractions of McLaren Vale Shiraz. This was really great value at under £10: berry fruit, coconut oak notes, decent balance. Because of the fruit ripeness, this was able to hold its own in the rather grand company.
Penfold’s Grange 1992, Australia, 13.5%
This famous wine is made from the very best Shiraz fruit grown at various locations around South Australia, sometimes with 5% or so of Cabernet Sauvignon from Coonawarra. So it is South Australian in provenance, rather than coming from a single vineyard or estate. This flexibility allows a consistently exceptional standard to be maintained. Our 1992 vintage was still a deep colour and fully mature: ripe black plum and liquorice, a touch of coconut (Grange matures in 100% new American oak – but in this case this was more than a quarter of a century ago), remarkable complexity and lush, structuring tannins. But it is the quality and dominance of the fruit that really shone through. The apogee of ripeness handled in a cultured Australian manner.
La Landonne, Guigal, Côte-Rôtie, 1979
I am happy to say this was my first ever ‘La La’, one of the three top single-vineyard wines with which Eric Guigal beguiled Robert Parker and re-invigorated the entire Côte-Rôtie appellation. Normally a first means a sip of a just-released vintage, being shown to the trade, a bit of tease about what a great wine can become. By contrast, we were tasting a nearly forty-year-old wine. This was in full-on old wine mode, pale garnet in colour with a wide rim, very fragrant and rich on the nose – mushroom, leather, earth – and very fine, lacy, tannins. This was a great climax for our line up of Syrahs.
We finished up with a couple of sweet wines, a fine, Tokaji Aszú 5 Puttonyos, Disznókó, 1995, savoury and sweet by turns, and a creditable Crusted Port, bottled in 2004 for Berry Bros & Rudd by Dow’s.
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