Syrah Masters 2015: the results

 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.

About the competition

In a crowded wine competition arena, The Drinks Business Global Syrah Masters stands out for its assessment of wines purely by grape variety rather than by region. Divided only by price bracket and, for ease of judging, whether the style was oaked or unoaked, the blind tasting format allowed wines to be assessed without prejudice about their country of origin.

Wines were scored out of 100, with those gaining over 95 points being awarded the top title of Master. Those earning over 90 points were given a Gold, those over 85 points a Silver and those over 80 points a Bronze. The wines were judged by a cherrypicked group of Masters of Wine on 9 September at Broadway House in Fulham. This report features only the medal-winners

“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.”

Left to right: Hugo Rose MW of the Wine Investment Association; Miles Corish MW of Milestone Wines; Michael Palij MW of Winetraders; wine consultant Patricia Stefanowicz MW; Patrick Schmitt MW, editor of the drinks business; Lucy Shaw, managing editor of the drinks business; Alun Griffiths MW, international director for Beijing’s Vats Liquor; Adrian Garforth MW of Blackrock Wines; Anthony Moss MW of the Wine and Spirits Education Trust; Robert MacCulloch MW of Domaine Direct; and wine consultant Jonathan Pedley MW

The judges (left to right): Hugo Rose MW of the Wine Investment Association; Miles Corish MW of Milestone Wines; Michael Palij MW of Winetraders; wine consultant Patricia Stefanowicz MW; Patrick Schmitt MW, editor of the drinks business; Lucy Shaw, managing editor of the drinks business; Alun Griffiths MW, international director for Beijing’s Vats Liquor; Adrian Garforth MW of Blackrock Wines; Anthony Moss MW of the Wine and Spirits Education Trust; Robert MacCulloch MW of Domaine Direct; and wine consultant Jonathan Pedley MW

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.

Global Syrah Masters: the results

It’s far from the most modish grape on the planet, but the Syrahs our judges tasted blind impressed more than their trendier rivals, says Patrick Schmitt MW.

main-imageThey 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.


Judge’s comment:
Sally Easton MW

judgesally“I was impressed with the number of good wines coming out of Chile. You kind of expect Australia to do well, and perhaps they did less well than they might have hoped, but good Chilean Syrah/Shiraz feature steadily across the price ranges. The absolute star under £20 turned out to be from Wakefield, who we know do good kit, so that was probably just as well!

“What I didn’t particularly like were wines that were either a caricature of the grape variety or showed so little varietal definition as to sully the cultivar’s good repute. The bottom line for me was that the Rhône wine highlighted how far new world Syrahs are away from truly great quality and classic expression of the grape variety. Most of the sub-£30 ones in ‘my’ flights lacked the ethereal elegance, sweet floral perfume, textural invisibility of tannin frame and lingering length of the top-notch Rhône example.”












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.


About the competition

In a crowded wine competition arena, The Drinks Business Global Syrah Masters stands out for its assessment of wines purely by grape variety rather than by region. Divided only by price bracket and, for ease of judging, whether the style was oaked or unoaked, the blind tasting format allowed wines to be assessed without prejudice about their country of origin.

The best wines were awarded medals which ranged from Bronze through to Gold, as well as Master, the ultimate accolade, given only to exceptional wines in the tasting.

The wines were judged by a cherrypicked group of Masters of Wine and Master Sommeliers on 6 July at the Bulgari Hotel in Knightsbridge, London. This report only features the medal winners.

For more detail on the top-scoring wines, including tasting notes, see

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.


Judge’s comment:
Jonathan Pedley MW

judgejonathan“Overall it was a strong line up. Lots of Bronzes, plenty of Silvers and a smattering of Golds. From a commercial point of view, perhaps the standout result was at the sub-£10 price point, where there were several really good wines including a Gold. This does show that Syrah is capable of delivering successful wines across the price spectrum (in contrast to say Pinot Noir).

“There were only a handful of poor wines. Reduction was less of a problem than I recall it was at the equivalent tasting last year. Only a couple of wines showed excessive oak influence: a massive improvement on what would have been the case ten years ago. A few wines were a tad on the hot side, but in most cases there was enough fruit to carry the alcohol. A couple of wines had worrying levels of VA.

“Stylistically the elegant, pure fruit (and sometimes floral) iteration of Syrah seems to have triumphed over the massively jammy and oaky version … Not surprisingly Australia seemed to do well. The Chilean wines were a bit of a mixed bag and South Africa struggled.”


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.

The judges (l-r)

thejudgesPatrick Schmitt MW, Miles Corish MW, Ivy Ng, Annette Scarf MW, Roberto Della Pietra, Clément Robert MS, Sally Easton MW, Jonathan Pedley MW, Sebastian Payne MW, David Round MW