A Syrah By Any Other Name

By / Wine + Drinks / December 7th, 2007 / 4

As South African wines take up more space in our cellars, the way we look at Syrah versus Shiraz promises to get a lot more interesting. If you’re finding it more difficult to navigate the aisles in search of a new Syrah/Shiraz to take home, you’re not alone. Many ask, “Wait, they’re both from the same grape? What is the difference between the two?” Well, it’s semantic. The varietal is Syrah in France, but the Australians created a winemaking style from the same grape and dubbed it Shiraz — I guess Fruit Bomb would have been too big a moniker. Since then a lot has changed. Some French winemakers have taken to labelling their product Shiraz to cash in on the enormous popularity of Australia’s now-signature style. Likewise, several Australian wineries are going for upmarket Old World appeal by adopting the more sophisticated Syrah name.

There is nothing deceitful about any of this, but it does make it harder for us. Of course, the final test will always lie with what’s inside the bottle. For those who enjoy sipping both wines but have grown slightly bored with the Old World structure of a French Syrah or the in-your-face jamminess of an Australian Shiraz, South Africa could be just your ticket.

 “The biggest difference in terms of how Syrah is vinified is its handling by the winemakers,” said Laurel Keenan, Canadian director for Wines of South Africa. “South Africans have been making wine for more than 350 years. Their style is much more of an Old [World] meets New World. It does not have that upfront fruity jamminess that Australia has become so popular for. It’s a little bit more elegant in structure. More complex.” Yet not so structured that it could be mistaken for a traditional French Syrah.

Describing what South African Shiraz (and in some cases, Syrah) is not is certainly easier than defining what it is. One of the reasons Syrah is so popular worldwide is that it’s a chameleon grape that lends itself to a whole variety of winemaking. Here at least, South Africa has copied a page from everybody’s playbook and is running the gamut from very light almost-rosé to big, highly extracted wines to something that fits somewhere between.

The excitement around this new find has made South African Shiraz one of the most anticipated highlights at this year’s Santé Wine Festival in Toronto. As this year’s featured growing region, South Africa is bringing a very large contingent of its winemakers to Canada: they will be pouring about 100 wines.

“The wineries coming to Santé include some of the most-well-reputed wineries from the country,” Keenan tells me. “Festivals like these are an excellent opportunity to showcase many of our premium labels.” Special events include “Escape to the Cape,” sponsored by Wines of South Africa; “Sun-Drenched Sensations,” an interactive educational seminar; and “Deconstructing Dinner” at Yorkville’s Pangaea, where six wines will be paired with a customized five-course meal.

And it’s with pairing that this buoyant red really makes its mark. Unlike most Australian Shiraz (and in certain instances of French Syrah), the “betwixt and between” qualities of the South African style work seamlessly with food. While the smokey notes of some bottles lend themselves perfectly to barbecue, South African Shiraz has evolved, able to match varied culinary tastes — including game, lamb and curry — seamlessly. Still, fundamental rules apply: the dish has to match the weight of the wine. And although South Africa may be starting to feel the weight of the world’s gaze, it’s its ability to mix Old and New World that will lighten the load.

Nineteen of the 100 South African wines being poured at Santé are pure Shiraz/Syrah along with a handful of Shiraz cabernet blends. Tidings offers notes on eight.

Graham Beck The Ridge Syrah 2002, Robertson ($24.95)

It is easy to understand why this wine has been selected for Santé’s “Ultimate Winemakers’ Dinner.” The wine is an impressive full-bodied Syrah built on a fruit and oaky frame. Complex and elegant, it certainly has the legs for cellaring, but why wait? Drink it now.

Frisky Zebras Shiraz 2005, WO Western Cape ($13.10/1 l)

It’s almost summer and who wouldn’t want a few Frisky Zebras running around the deck? Seriously, this is a great Shiraz for everyday. This medium-bodied wine is ripe with sweet black-cherry, raspberry and dark-chocolate aromas. A mineral layer on the palate and finish prevents the sweet fruit from running away (always a problem with Zebras). It is a food-friendly wine that will fit in perfectly at your next barbecue.

KWV Cathedral Cellars Shiraz 2002, Western Cape ($17.15)

Remember when KWV was a quasi government co-op producing lakes of low-quality plonk just because it could? (Insert shudder here.) That has all changed. KWV has become a supplier of quality wines and the Cathedral Cellar Shiraz is worth noting. Yes, the fruit flavours are strong, but tempered with a light, juicy, fruity palate. The wine flows nicely to a very clean, firm finish. You would not go wrong serving this wine alongside a rack of lamb or a plate of roast beef.

Diemersdal Shiraz 2004, Durbanville ($22.95)

Another Santé “Ultimate Winemakers’ Dinner” selection, this Shiraz hits all the high notes. With its very elegant, fresh style, this wine combines a subtle oak spice with tobacco, dark chocolate and a hint of autumn dry-leaf aromas in the background. Well-structured with a velvety smooth palate and firm mature tannin. Serve it with roast duck breast and try preventing guests from refilling their glasses.

Delheim 2003 Shiraz, Simonsberg, Stellenbosch ($19.95)

Stellenbosch is one of South Africa’s finest wine regions, and this family winery has produced a real charmer. Deeply coloured with black berry aromas and flavours and well integrated oak spice and dark chocolate notes. It represents what people have come to enjoy about South African shiraz; great flavour intensity but medium-bodied and pairs beautifully with liver and onions, game or a meaty pie. Best 2007 to 2013.

Durbanville Hills 2004 Shiraz, Durbanville ($13.15)

The cooler hills of Durbanville are perhaps better known for some of South Africa’s finest Sauvignon, but this recently listed Shiraz is certainly worth a try. This wine has both intensity and concentration. A wild berry core is enhanced with hints of chocolate, mossy earthiness and caraway. It is a mid-weight wine, slightly tart and not too heavy on the tannin.

Bellingham 2003 Maverick Syrah, Wellington ($34.95)

An extremely well-crafted wine with fruit, oak spice and tannins all nicely balanced. Expect the aromas of cassis, dark chocolate, fresh herbs and just of touch of black pepper. This is a mid-weight wine with an elegant structure and very clean finish with some ripe tannin and fresh acid. It goes nicely with steak or roast beef.

Waterford Estate 2003 Kevin Arnold Shiraz, Stellenbosch ($39.95)

For those whose tastes lean toward dark, spicy Rhône-style reds, this is an impressive wine. It carries scents of blackberry fruit, dark chocolate, and basil with a hint of mint. A palate brimming with soft ripe dark berry fruit is kept in check by a good acid and tannin balance. It is a lovely addition to any meal featuring game or duck. Best from 2007 to 2010.

Bellingham Sauvignon Blanc 2006, Stellenbosch, South Africa ($11.95)

Lies stylistically between the bracing acidity of the Loire and the lush passion-fruit flavours of New Zealand. A wine with the taste of green figs, limes and cut grass. Very crisp and refreshing and great with fish, seafood or goat’s cheese. A real bargain. (TA)

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