My experience with the wine known as Shiraz or Syrah has been akin to a Gaza rocket: a lot of noise all over the place, copious misfires while seldom hitting the spot. Sure, I appreciate what the Aussies did in the 1980’s by thrusting a red wine on the international scene which was fruity and accessible and drinkable within a year without clobbering your senses with Old World acerbic tannins.
But like a game of seven-a-side rugby or another Jimmy Page guitar riff, it was all too easy, too unchallenging, too ordinarily plush and too fun. I found myself moving on, seeking challenging red wines from Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir and Pinotage; Cinsaut, Zinfandel and Tempranillo.
Having said that, one of the finest South African wines I happened to have ever tasted was a Shiraz: KWV Perold 1998. Made from one small block on the slopes of the Paarl Mountain. Fresh and raw, but with a gulp-inducing pure deliciousness I remember it to this day.
Now, 16 years later, I am drinking a wine – a Shiraz – which is captivating me with its charm and downright specialness: Mount Sutherland Syrah 2012.
Sutherland is not a hospitable place. Situated hinterland-way some 350km from Cape Town, this dry, rocky area is the kind of place you send mountain goats to for boot-camp. It is the Karoo, harsh and hot and arid in summer and freezing cold in winter. Daniël de Waal, from Stellenbosch’s well-known wine-making De Waal family, chose this godforsaken place to plant vines in 2005. This was done on a sheep farm at about 1500m above sea-level, high enough to escape the fiercest of hot Karoo days and to ensure the vines are covered with snow in winter.
But it is the soil that did it. Shale, the deepest shale soils De Waal says he has ever seen. This means stingy pH levels, a head-turning leanness and restrained elegance all round.
Shiraz plantings are 6000 vines per hectare with a yield of three tons per hectare, making each vine the proud bearer of 500 grams of tightly-bunched, dark Shiraz grapes. Pressed whole. Fermented on the stems. 15 months in French oak, 20% new.
I have been privy to two vintages of Mount Sutherland – 2011 and 2012, both of which blew my Shiraz-indifference out of the park.
Common factors in the wines: Finesse, class and flavour. The nose is expressive and confident without commanding identity or attention. Crushed dry roses. Broken Mexican watermelon. Portuguese green plum. On the palate, vibrant and light oozing life. Shale soils, these you can taste on the subdued yet succulent fruit. The flavours are cool and stony, tentacles of polished berry crawling from the surface. Lovely and drinkable, yet sophisticated and complex, the sun seen through a pair of good Persol shades.
Differences between 2011 and 2012? Well, the former has a touch of charcuterie and burnt cumin. While on the 2013 there is a distinct vibe of fennel, liquorice. But it is slight.
The sum of the whole is a complete wine. Satisfying and drinkable by the full-glass, big mouthful. A great wine.
If there is one variety I am not going to make any predictions about, it is Shiraz. But a legend you can spot a mile off. This, well, this is it.
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