Shiraz of South Africa

as reported in the Star Newspapers

Syrah’s origin is the stuff of legends – The Kings of Persia (now Iran) were the first to taste Syrah wine.  The grape subsequently traveled to Europe thanks to a returning crusader. Another story has ancient Greeks bringing Syrah vines from Persia to Sicily. The Romans then took vine cuttings from Sicily and planted them on a hill in the Rhone Valley called Hermitage.

But how did Syrah get to South Africa?
Surprisingly, it was thanks to a migrant to Australia, James Busby, during the early 1800’s. Curious about wines, Busby went back up north, to Spain and France to visit vineyards.  On his return to Australia, he brought along vine cuttings. The ship that Busby sailed in, stopped off at the Cape to pick up provisions.  And he must have dropped off some Syrah cuttings there.

The rest of the cuttings were renamed Shiraz and they became Australia’s most famous wine. But how has Syrah fared in South Africa?

I recently visited Stellenbosch, Paarl and various wine regions of South Africa to find out.

Colin Collard, who runs a successful ‘Wine of the Month Club’ in South Africa (SA), gave me a quick overview over a glass of delicious Shiraz, by La Motte winery.  “Because the Shiraz grape produces low yields there was little demand for it. After apartheid, all changed. When I started the business, there were only 100 wineries in the country. Over the years cooperatives were privatized and today there are over 600 wine companies. Farmers who used to supply low quality grapes to cooperatives suddenly became wine producers. Producing quality wines meant they could charge more and reap healthy profit. So they turned to the quality cultivation of the Shiraz grape.”

Later, at the Michaelangelo Wine Challenge, alongside other judges, I blind-tasted lots of Shiraz. The wines were deep coloured, had a perfume of ripe red fruits, filled the mouth with flavours, yet tannins were ripe and lightly chewy. Added to it, the wine finish was long – all you would expect of a good wine. So I decided to take notes and after the blind tasting was over, was able to identify some favourites.

In taste, it is difficult to pin down a distinct SA style. Some wines are reminiscent of France’s Northern Rhone Hermitage wines, with raspberry and blackcurrant flavours, a toasty edge and a rich grand texture. Others resembled Cote Rotie, being redolent of red fruits such as cherry with smoky undertones and a hint of meat.  Yet, some others were almost undistinguishable from the Australian Barossa Shiraz, with big, complex mouth filling flavours of the hot-climate grown grapes. And there was also SA Shiraz with a big structure allied to elegance, like those Australian cool climate Clare Valley wines.

I paid a visit to Fairview Estate where Charles Back is a champion of the grape. “Shiraz is the back bone of our business; the grape excels in the Paarl Mountain; and the most expressive Shiraz wine is usually made from grapes growing on granite soils”.

Yet granite is not the only soil that Shiraz thrives on. At another Paarl-based estate, Simonsvlei, the deep clay soils are responsible for spicy overtones. Indeed, the spice element is found in Simonsvlei’s ‘standard’ Shiraz as well as in their Hercules Paragon Shiraz.

That is not to say you don’t get outstanding Shiraz in other regions. Mulderbosch Estate’s Shiraz, made from grapes grown in the Stellenbosch region, was like a Gigondas from Rhone’s south – the wine had nuances of violets, iodine and a freshly ground white pepper.

Table Mountain is better known for its panoramic views than wine. Still, the Muratie Estate’s vines grown on the Table Mountain’s sandstone soils produced a rich Shiraz, with a delicious ripeness, modern in style.

It was the juicy Bilton with bright fruit that reminded me of the cool temperature ferment Shiraz of certain Australian wines. Then there was the rich red fruity wine with lashings of vanilla and oak from Hofstraat Winery’s ‘Renosterbos Shiraz’. It was inspiring – for the creator is a ‘garagiste’ – a term used to describe home winemakers who rent equipment and cellar space to make their dream wine – usually 1 but up to 12 barrels of it.

Yet another wine, oozing with strawberry jam and blackcurrant flavours, is the former cooperative Kango Winery’s ‘Swartberg Shiraz’. Made from grapes grown in yet another part of the Cape, these lovely wines had wine connoisseurs arguing about the origins of fine SA Shiraz.

Is there a need to pin down a definable style for SA Shiraz? Lovers of the grape variety will love the Saronsberg ‘Full Circle’– with its lightly bitter tannins. Or they might revel in the Kleine Zalze, all spicy and fruity. Alternatively, the Kaapzicht is cherry-smoky like with muscular tannins. Then again they might prefer the Landskroon ‘Paul de Viller’ with a savoury taste and chewy tannins. For something all complex and layered it has to be the De Grendel. Looking for something plummish that will stand the test of time, then a Kanu Shiraz is for you. And if you love organic, hand-made wines, the Shiraz of Springfield Estate is a must.

Shiraz may yet turn out to be South Africa’s new signature red.