They say you shouldn’t equate money with class, and, it seems, in drinks at least, fashion with quality. OK, so trendy grapes such as Pinot Noir produce some of the greatest wines in the world, but in our Global Masters series, the least popular varieties do seem to attract the greatest proportion of top-ranking results.
In whites, that’s Riesling, a grape that is renowned for its unfashionable status, and yet, in last year’s Riesling Masters, out of around 120 samples, as many as 24 entries picked up a Gold and six gained the top accolade of Master, which is given only to those wines scoring 96 points or above. Compare that with our Sauvignon Blanc Masters, judged in the same year, and there were only 14 Golds awarded and just a single Master, from a larger set of samples. Yet few would doubt the following for this grape, which is still growing worldwide in both vineyard area and sales.
In reds, this contrast continues. It is Syrah that is both the least modish grape in our Global Masters line-up and also the best-performing. In 2015, the competition saw 21 wines receive a Gold, and three a Master. In 2016, the numbers were even better, with 24 gaining a Gold and as many as five a Master.
What makes Syrah unfashionable is not the focus of this report, but, as this year’s and last year’s results show, it certainly is not due to poor quality products. Rather, the grape’s slightly uncool state may be the reason why there is so much good wine made from it: the lesser-quality examples have been weeded out of production, with vintners only persevering with the variety in places where it naturally does well.
In contrast, Pinot Noir, which this year attracted 21 Golds and two Masters, but from a greater sample set, showed less uniform quality, with some wonderful wines, but also some disappointing entries. It was felt by the judges that this may be a result of its popularity – such has been the growth in demand for the grape over the past 10 years, some producers have been planting it in unsuitable places, and it is a famously fussy variety.
So, Syrah seems to be found mainly in environments that suit it, and it likes dry, warm “Mediterranean” climates and rocky hillsides, particularly those containing granite. Hence its qualitative peak in the northern Rhône, above all the granite soils of the Hermitage hill, but also its suitability for the granite-based soils of mountainous areas of Switzerland and Chile, for example.
However, it is Australia that has become Syrah’s most notable home outside France, with the low-fertile sands, schists and clays of the Barossa proving a notably high-quality source of Syrah, above all when harvested from the low-yielding ancient vines in this area. Today, Syrah – or Shiraz as it is most commonly called Down Under – is the country’s biggest grape in terms of vineyard area.
Furthermore, out of all the entries in this year’s Syrah Masters, it was Australia that took home the highest number of Gold medals and Masters, although it should be stated that the samples in the tasting were almost entirely from non- European sources, with just one from Hermitage – which proved useful for benchmarking the high-priced great wines of the New World.
What is notable about Syrah is not only that it has truly global representation – there are few wine producing corners of the world without it – but also its ability to create something varietally distinct and palatable at all price points, from the cheapest quaffable red to the very finest wines on the planet. This is unlike Pinot Noir, which does not respond well to the viticultural compromises required to make inexpensive reds, in particular, high yields. In fact, for those looking for balanced, berry-scented reds sub £10, there are few varieties better than Syrah, particularly when blended with Grenache.
It was also a relief to see fewer Syrahbased wines with “reduced” aromas of egg or burnt rubber compared to last year’s tasting (it is a grape particularly prone to the production of hydrogen sulphide during fermentation), while it was pleasing to witness a restrained approach to winemaking generally. As one judge in the Syrah Masters, Annette Scarf MW, commented: “Even at the entry level, the wines were really good, and, at all levels there wasn’t over-extraction, there wasn’t too much oak, and, with a few exceptions, the alcohol levels were under control, suggesting that even in warmer places people are picking early and creating enjoyable wines with freshness.”
In fact, rather than hot and jammy wines, it was observed that there was a touch of greenness in some samples, which, while far from unpleasant, was a sign, according to another judge, Miles Corish MW, that bunches are not receiving enough light exposure early on in the growing season, which means it is a trait that can be easily removed through altering the canopy management. Corish explained: “If you expose the grapes to light earlier, then you shouldn’t get any greenness, and the berries will be less susceptible to sun burn later on in the season.”
As for the wines that performed the best in the day’s tasting, it was interesting to see inexpensive samples from Sicily providing an appealing if relatively simple taste of Syrah, without any oak influence. After all, it was once believed that this Italian island was the source of the grape in Europe, with the variety thought to take its name from the historic Sicilian city of Syracuse.
But these wines, which came from the excellent Settesoli cooperative, earned Silvers, and, under £10, just one winery gained a Gold, and that was the oakinfluenced Syrah from Berton Vineyard in Padthaway, Australia, highlighting the country’s expertise with the grape even at lower prices.
Between £10 and £15, and it was Australia again that took a Gold, although so too did Portugal (in the blends category), another country gaining good results with Syrah, particularly where there is granite/ schist mountainous terrain, such as the Alentejo’s Serra de São Mamede, and the Douro.
Moving up a price band to £15-£20, and again, Australia triumphed, with Gemtree and Taylors gaining Golds, alongside Washington State, with Ste. Michelle receiving a high score for its Syrah from the Colombia Valley, representing a ripe but restrained take on the grape from the United States.
Our first Masters were awarded in the next price band (£20-£30), proving that Syrah can produce truly fine and exciting wines at relatively affordable prices. One of these top awards went to Bird in Hand, a producer of first-rate Chardonnay and Cabernet from the Adelaide Hills, and, as this tasting proved, Syrah too; a credit to the skills of the brand’s winemaker, Kym Milne MW.
But the other Master went to New Zealand, where Syrah specialist Elephant Hill showed why Hawke’s Bay is fast gaining a reputation for the grape, made in a more northern-Rhône-like manner, with moderate alcohols and a prominent, appealing white pepper spice.
Among the Golds in this band were some interesting results, including a firstrate sample from Switzerland’s Jean-René Germanier, a ringer for top quality Côte- Rotie, and a delicious Syrah from Saronsberg in the little-known region of Tulbagh, an excellent spot in South Africa for the grape.
Argentina also proved it is capable of crafting top-quality Syrah, with Mendoza’s Pascual Toso getting a Gold, along with Valdivieso in Chile’s Limarí Valley, a place to look out for when it comes to good Syrah (and also Chardonnay). Meanwhile, McGuigan Wines made sure Australia was well represented among the Golds in this price band, picking up two top medals for its Shorlist and Handmade labels.
The same producer also featured when the wines got more expensive, with its Tempus Two brand gaining a Gold in the £30-£50 category, along with two further wines, showing not only that Australia has expertise with Syrah, but that McGuigan is a go-to source of wines from this grape, whether it’s using fruit from Langhorn, Barossa or the Hunter Valley.
Jacob’s Creek, with two Golds in this price band, further reinforced Australia’s reputation for Syrah, while displaying the brand’s own strong winemaking credentials.
But among the Aussie wines in this price band was a notably different sample, both in terms of source and style. Indeed, it was an entry that represented a really exciting find for the judges.
Hailing from the Maremma coast’s Sustinet IGT, a Syrah from Conti di San Bonifacio showed a typically Italianate, slightly sour finish and dense tannic texture, along with pristine red and black berry fruit and cedar aromas, proving that it is not just Bordeaux varieties that perform brilliantly in this area of Tuscany – and also that Italy can produce great Syrah.
Over £50, and we awarded a series of Golds to Wakefield/Taylors for two different vintages of the wonderful St Andrews Shiraz, a show-stopper from the Clare Valley.
But we also gave out a clutch of Masters for magical wines. These included Kym Milne’s top expression, the Nest Egg label, along with the incredible example from Château Tanunda, using Syrah from vines over 100 years old.
Finally, towards the end of the judging, we tasted a truly benchmark wine from the world of Syrah: Michel Chapoutier’s Monier de la Sizeranne Hermitage.
Importantly, it showed how it is possible to achieve complexity and persistence with Syrah, but without huge concentration.
After the day’s tasting was over and the producers had been revealed, it was satisfying for the judges to see they had correctly identified greatness: the competition winners had featured some of the world’s top Syrah producers.
And, importantly, it also ensured that new sources of brilliance had been identified, alongside some of the toughest benchmarks in Syrah.