A move away from high-alcohol blockbusters towards wines of greater restraint was the keynote of this year’s Global Syrah Masters, writes Lucy Shaw.
WHILE THE meaning behind the name Syrah is much disputed, DNA profiling at UC Davis in 1998 found the variety to be the offspring of two obscure grapes from south-east France: Dureza from Ardèche and Mondeuse Blanche from Savoie.
Jancis Robinson MW states in Wine Grapes that this crossing first took place in the RhôneAlpes region, most likely in Isère. Syrah’s style and flavour profile vary dramatically depending on where it’s grown.
In cooler climates the wines are medium to full-bodied with notes of blueberry, blackberry, mint and black pepper. In hotter regions like the Barossa Valley, Syrah (or Shiraz as it’s known there) has a jammier character, softer tannins and notes of liquorice, spice, prune and leather. Syrah is a vigorous, mid-ripening variety with small berries and a short window for optimum harvesting. Its tannins are much more gentle than Cabernet Sauvignon and it generally has more weight on the midpalate.
The variety thrives all over the world, from Chile and South Africa to Hawkes Bay in New Zealand. While the grape reaches its apogee in Hermitage and the Côte-Rôtie in the northern Rhône, Syrah has also found a happy home in Australia – with fine examples hailing from the Barossa Valley, Hunter Valley, Margaret River and the McLaren Vale – having been introduced to the country by James Busby in 1832.
In our inaugural Syrah Masters competition, 150 wines from 14 different countries, including Israel, Turkey, Thailand and Switzerland, were submitted.
Judging took place on 9 September at Broadway House in Fulham. Served blind and assessed without prejudice about their country of origin, the wines were arranged according to their price band as well as style, from low-priced to high, and unoaked to oaked, in order to make the competition as fair as possible. Furthermore, the varietal Syrahs were assessed separately from the blends.
At the entry level, judges were looking for deep colour, juicy fruit and full-bodied softness.
At the top end, they were seeking the aromatic, perfumed Côte-Rôtie style. Of the 150 wines that entered, 131 received a medal, making it our most successful Masters competition to date. Among them, 25 wines were awarded Gold meals while a quintet scooped the top accolade of Master, three of which hailed from Australia, one from the Rhône and one from the lesser-known Syrah hub of Switzerland.
The majority of wines to enter were from the New World, though there were a decent number of entries from France. Two-thirds of the wines were made from 100% Syrah, the other third being Syrah-dominant blends.
A positive trend to emerge from the tasting was an evolution in the style of New World Syrah towards elegance and restraint and away from the high-alcohol monsters of the past. “If I could use one word to sum up the wines today it would be ‘restraint’, which is a surprise. I was expecting more blockbusters from the New World,” noted Alun Griffiths MW, international director for Beijing’s Vats Liquor, who admitted to being a sucker for the “peppery, floral character” of the Syrahs from the northern Rhône, but also found the Swiss Syrahs to be a “pleasant surprise”.
Anthony Moss MW of the Wine and Spirits Education Trust was also full of praise for the wines on show. “There was a clear progression through the price points and a greater concentration and depth of fruit. Good judgments were made with the winemaking – there was very little overoaking going on. Brett and Syrah often go together, but it was only detectable in a couple of the wines at a low level and contributed to the complexity,” he said. “Some of the wines approached the softness and silkiness of Pinot,” Moss added.
“There were a lot of well-balanced wines in the pack – you don’t need a slab of wildebeest to drink them.” Miles Corish MW of Milestone Wines was also pleasantly surprised by the approachability and balance of the wines. “The Australian Shirazes showed more restraint and were far less extracted than I was expecting,” he said.
“The aromatic profile was uplifting and more balanced than I thought – they weren’t blockbusters. People should think again about Syrah. It’s a misunderstood variety. It’s easy to drink on its own and should be on more people’s radars.
“The wines are surprisingly approachable, versatile, have a lot of flavour and are never too tannic. Syrah doesn’t have to be a blend to be a great wine; it’s more of a textural wine, savoury and earthy.” For wine consultant Jonathan Pedley MW, the overall quality of the wines on offer was higher than he experienced at The Drinks Business Cabernet Sauvignon Masters earlier this year. “I gave more medals at this tasting than ever as the standard was pretty high,” he said. “There were a lot of Silver and Gold medals.
Syrah is a friendly and more of a forgiving style of wine than Cabernet. When great, Cabernet is magnificent, but the overall quality was higher at this tasting. There weren’t many astringent examples. “Syrah is capable of such extremes – it can have perfumed Pinot elegance or the same structure, density, tannin and acidity levels as Cabernet. For everyday drinking wines, Syrah is like Malbec – a quaffer.
“Most of the reds made today, even at the premium level, are designed to be drunk young and Syrah, with its intense fruit, deep colour, compatibility with oak and rounded, supple tannins, is friendly and approachable young,” he said, admitting like Griffiths, to favouring the style of Syrah from the northern Rhône.
“The thing I love about young Syrah is the pure aromatics. When wines from the Côte-Rôtie really shine they are floral, elegant, graceful and refined,” he said. As for which countries impressed the most, the judges were all pleasantly surprised by the Syrahs from Switzerland, while most were delighted to discover more elegance and restraint from Australia than they were anticipating.
“I was expecting to taste Barossa Shirazes that you could stand a spoon in but there has been a positive stylistic shift towards more elegant wines with a focus on perfume and less use of American oak. There weren’t many wines with that old-school, coconut-style of oak.
“There were a few wines where the alcohol was on the high side but generally they were under control,” noted Pedley. “There’s a great diversity now of Shiraz styles from Australia – the ones from Western Australia tend to be more refined.” The South African Syrahs were another surprise, with Pedley finding “no burnt notes in the wines” as can be the case with reds from the country.
There seemed to be a lack of consistency in the Chilean Syrahs, with the most refined examples coming from the Leyda Valley and the worst falling into the “stewed and jammy” bracket. One of the day’s disappointments was the failure of New Zealand Syrah to wow the judges, with many finding the wines from Hawkes Bay a bit green and short on the finish.
But while the results were overwhelmingly positive, the truth remains that Syrah is a hard sell at the top end as it continues to be blighted by associations with cheap Australian Shiraz, particularly in the US. “There is Syrah planted in California’s Santa Rita Hills that is better quality than the Pinot Noir there but it doesn’t sell for some reason, which is sad,” said Moss. “It’s hard to get people to pay more for premium Syrah but as a variety it is capable of the very highest quality.”
Please click through for the results; page one for unoaked Syrah and Syrah blends, pages two and three for oaked Syrah and pages four and five for oaked Syrah blends.