Asian Syrah Masters 2017: the results

Syrah, the noble grape variety that has expanded from its home base in the Rhône Valley to inspire ‘Rhône rangers’ in California and feverish followers in South Australia, came under close scrutiny at our Asian Syrah Masters competition.

A cherry-picked panel of judges blind-tasted and assessed a wide array of Syrah samples at Hip Cellar on 29 August. From left to right: Francesca Martin, founder and director of BEE Drinks Global; Ivy Ng, publisher of the drinks business Hong Kong; Jude Mullins, international development director of the WSET; Darius Allyn, Master Sommelier; Amanda Longworth, head of Marketing & Wine Services, Berry Bros & Rudd, Hong Kong; Eddie McDougall, The Flying Winemaker; Ying-Hsien Tan MW, executive director of Taberna Wine Academy Pte Ltd; Jennie Mack, co-founder of AWSEC and Natalie Wang, online editor of the drinks business Hong Kong (observing).

Many industry heavyweights such as Jancis Robinson MW have suggested the red grape has, “two distinct personalities” – the powerful, rich, and concentrated Shiraz from Australia and the fresher and more perfumed Syrah from the Northern Rhône.

Never having being eulogised as an immensely fashionable grape, as Pinot Noir is, or an overtly adaptable variety like Cabernet Sauvignon, the grape has had its fair share of boom and bust.

Outside of France, in the late 1990s, staunch followers in California dubbing themselves ‘Rhône rangers’  pushed up plantings 400 acres in 1992 to 6,800 acres, followed by waves of increased plantings in Australia and Chile. Yet, almost during the same period in the Languedoc, a mysterious vine disease affecting the grape led critics to speak of “Syrah decline”.

But the resilient red variety has never strayed too far from centre stage and has steadily climbed to be one of the world’s six most planted varieties of either colour. As shown in our Asian Syrah Masters, the grape’s consistency and malleability ranging from almost Pinot-like elegance to high-octane powerhouses demonstrate the variety’s enduring appeal.

This probably explains why the Asian Syrah Masters is the best performing red grape variety competition in our Asian Masters series so far. A cherry-picked panel of judges including wine educators, a Master of Wine, a Master Sommelier and top merchants in Hong Kong, handed out five Masters and 15 Gold medals, 21 Silvers and 29 Bronzes after blind-tasting samples from Switzerland, South Africa, Chile, Australia, Italy and France.

Winemaking skills 

Unlike Pinot Noir, where care and attention is essential in crafting a fine wine, Syrah is relatively more forgiving, which is not to say the variety is tolerant of winemaking faults. In fact, if picked too early, the wine can be too astringent and take on unpleasant whiff of burnt rubber; and due to the fact that it is reduction-prone, without sufficient racking and aeration during fermentation, it can reek of rotten eggs or dirty drain.

But given the choices available to winemakers such as whole bunch fermentation, freedom with new or old oak, use of stem and extraction technique, styles of Syrah can vary vastly, making it, “one of the more exciting varieties for winemakers to work with,” commented Francesca Martin, director of BEE Drinks Global and one of the judges for the competition.

Indeed, from the lighter, fresher style in Hermitage and Côte-Rôtie, to lesser known examples from the Valais in Switzerland or Washington State in the US, to the upcoming Swartland in South Africa, and eventually to Australia, there are abundant styles that vary enormously with climate and winemaking techniques.

“In terms of the styles I’m coming across from around the world, the finest examples still show these varietal and regional characteristics that make for interesting individuality,” commented Ying-Hsien Tan MW, executive director of Taberna Wine Academy Pte Ltd.

Darius Allyn MS was one of the judges for our Asian Syrah Masters competition

Amanda Longworth, head of Marketing & Wine Services at Berry Bros & Rudd Hong Kong, agreed: “It can have a lot of colour, and also a lot of tannins – so depending on where it’s from, producers may treat it more like Pinot Noir – to gently extract tannins, or treat it more like Merlot with more assertive extraction techniques such a pumping over.”

“I noticed in this tasting that there were more and more wines that have the distinctive notes of whole bunch and carbonic maceration techniques. It’s really obvious to pick out the wines that are really going for a style that reflects those of the classic Cornas or Hermitage,” added Eddie McDougell, the Flying Winemaker.

But the challenge for winemakers when dealing with the grape is not to mask its regional and varietal characters with excessive winemaking techniques, Tan noted.

“There also seems to be a convergence of techniques by winemakers around the world that emphasises depth of colour, rich fruitiness and in some non-European countries a focus on tannic structure that tends to first, anonymise the wines subduing their regional and varietal distinctiveness and second, a tendency to produce wines that seem to be over extracted without such firm, dry tannins. It often feels like one is chewing on a twisted muscle,” he elaborated.

Nonetheless, “It was interesting to acknowledge how Syrah/Shiraz wines can produce various expressions that could appeal to a wide range of wine drinkers. It is quite rare that Syrah/Shiraz wines disappoint,” Jennie Mack, co-founder of AWSEC asserted.  

The world’s best Rieslings from the Masters 2017

Riesling is beloved by the wine trade, and our latest Riesling Masters showed why. With wonderful expressions from a wide range of countries and regions, there was something to appeal to every palate and budget, writes Patrick Schmitt MW


It has been said before, but if there is one thing that marks out a wine professional, it is a love of Riesling. While consumers will often declare a preference for a particular grape, very few outside the trade tend to pick Riesling as their favourite variety – and this is something the wine industry has found puzzling for decades.

What is it that the sommelier or wine writer adores that the consumer doesn’t – or has yet to discover? Following our Riesling Masters tasting this year, this grape’s traits could be summed up by a combination of two key aspects: it has both personality and precision.

Riesling, when made well, is instantly identifiable, bursting with aromas of lime zest, white peach, sliced apple, and fresh flowers. It may be pale to look at, but it has an intense and distinct character. And it also has a sharp edge – Riesling cuts, rather than covers the palate. It provides a tangy, taut and recognisable sensation.

One wonders whether such features may be alienating consumers? Riesling may simply have too much personality and an overload of cold precision. Perhaps. But it can’t be a lack of quality that’s putting people off. Indeed, like previous Riesling Masters, this competition yielded some of the highest proportions of Gold medals – and, in this latest round, as many as five Masters (which is the very highest accolade of the series, and awarded only to truly outstanding wines).

As one judge, Patricia Stefanowicz MW, said: “Even a rather dismal, rainy day couldn’t dampen enthusiasm for an amazing group of Rieslings.” Notable is the range of sources for highquality Riesling.

Even within Germany, the number of great regions for Riesling is broad. Of course, the Mosel and Rheingau shone, but so too did warmer areas such as Pfalz and Baden. Beyond this nation’s borders, France, with samples from Alsace, showed the quality attainable elsewhere in Europe, with the biodynamic wines of Domaine Schlumberger picking up two Masters, one for a bone-dry style, and a second for a medium-dry grand cru example.

Also hailing from this French region was a Gold medal-winning Riesling from Michel Chapoutier’s Schieferkopf brand – a project started by the famous Rhône-based winemaker in 2006. Austria, as one might expect, also served up some stunning examples, in particular from legendary producer Schloss Gobelsburg, which was awarded a Master for both its dry and sweet Rieslings, proving this country’s capability to make class-leading wines at opposite ends of the stylistic spectrum.

Then there were wonderful wines in a range of sweetness levels from the US and Canada, notably samples from Washington State and Niagara in these respective countries.

However, if there was a stand-out nation in the Riesling Masters this year, it was Australia, which has managed to create wines that are for the most part bone dry, but deliver a fruity refreshment with Riesling that is rarely matched elsewhere.

A lime cordial, flint and citrus zest intensity with remarkable consistency were the hallmarks of the great Rieslings from Eden and Clare Valleys, ensuring that these places took home the highest proportion of Golds. And, standing tall among such giants was the St Hugo Riesling from Eden Valley, a wine from Pernod Ricard Australia that shows why this nation (and producer) should be just a famous for its Rieslings as its Chardonnays.

It’s important to note too that such greatness, whether from the Mosel, Pfalz, Alsace, Eden Valley or elsewhere, doesn’t come at an unpalatable cost. These great wines may not be cheap, but they are certainly affordable, leading one to safely believe that Riesling offers the most accessible fine white wine experience available today.

Not only that, but there is no white wine better suited to extended cellaring, as the grape’s low-pH brings remarkable natural stability, allowing the wine to slowly develop layers of honey and toast over time, without shedding its uplifting acidity. Also, interestingly, in the case of the sweet wines, Riesling tastes drier with age – even if the sugar content remains the same.

This ensures that fully mature wines actually take on even greater levels of freshness. And, bearing that in mind, if one is looking for the ideal apéritif, then, as those in the wine trade have done for decades, serve a well-made, old, sweet Riesling. There are few better ways to start an evening, and certainly none that offer superior value for money.

The Judges

The judges: (l-r) Patrick Schmitt MW, Alistair Cooper MW, Victoria Burt MW, Keith Isaac MW,
Patricia Stefanowicz MW, Mark Savage MW and sommelier Caroline Fridolfsson

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