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Spotlight on Syrah: 25 leading wines, tasted blind

Syrah is possibly the world’s favourite red grape variety, and one that is capable of expressing itself in several guises, depending on where it is grown. In its home territory of France’s Northern Rhône (pictured, right) it makes perfumed and often elegant wines. Moving further south it is a key component of the richer, spicier wines of the Southern Rhône and the Languedoc, and it reaches its biggest, baddest incarnation as the Shiraz of Australia. A grape on the move, it is becoming increasingly important in California and South Africa, and has even begun to appear in wines from Italy and Spain. This tasting featured an array of leading Syrah-based wines, which were tasted double-blind. This means we had no idea what they were, other than they were based on the Syrah grape. The preconception I had was that this was going to be a high-quality line-up, but beyond this I had no information. Notes are as written before identity of the wines was revealed.

The selection was put together for a purpose: this was a tasting organized by Sam Harrop (a winemaker working with UK retailer Marks & Spencer) designed to explore the relationship between Syrah and Brettanomyces (a spoilage yeast which has the potential to add complexity at very low levels). Harrop’s MW dissertation is on this subject, and he asked us to try to identify which of the wines had brett character, and to what degree. After we had tasted the wines samples were sent off for laboratory analysis to see how our perceptions matched with reality, but this is a separate story. Here I’m reproducing my tasting notes on the (wines minus my brett assessment) as this presented a good opportunity to taste a line-up of leading Syrah without sight of the label. It’s always good to do this once in a while.

One point worth mentioning: it was a warm day, with an ambient temperature in the mid to high 20s centigrade. The wines were served at this room temperature, and thus were a little warm. This has the effect of making them taste less structured and slightly sweeter. Slightly cooler, many of these wines would have scored perhaps a couple of points higher: I could only score them as I tasted them on this occasion.

Wines tasted July 2003




Sean Thackrey Orion Old Vines Syrah 1996 California
Deep coloured. Ripe nose is lovely with complex black fruits, herbs and some olive character. Some smokiness too. Rich, concentrated palate is very lush but balanced. This is compelling with lots of rich, spicy fruit. New world style but with some old world finesse. Very good/excellent


JL Chave Hermitage 1997
Older wine with an evolved spicy nose and some sweetness, together with a medicinal edge. The palate is quite ripe with some evolved spicy character and herbal complexity. Tasty stuff. Very good/excellent


Edmunds St John Syrah 1993 California (no further info supplied)
Rich stuff. Lovely ripe fruit on the nose with some medicinal, herby complexity on the nose, and a roasted edge. Great concentration of structured ripe fruit on the palate with lots of oak, but it is well integrated. Great concentration here. Very good/excellent

  Penfolds Grange 1990 South Australia
Rich herby, spicy nose is quite evolved and shows a tarry edge. Lovely spicy complexity to the fruit on the palate. A structured wine with quite a bit of oak, but it is well integrated. Very good/excellent


L’Esprit de Font Caude 1998 Montpeyroux, Languedoc
Distinctive savoury, spicy nose with a hint of medicinal character and some complexity. The palate is ripe and spicy with some firm tannins. Good structure here, in quite a new world style. Rich. Very good/excellent


Ogier Côte Rôtie 2000
Pronounced, appealing spicy/savoury nose with concentrated herby, green-olive notes. The palate shows very appealing savoury fruit with a herby, animal-like character and a green, meaty edge. Old world style and very typical of Côte-Rôtie. Very good/excellent


Domaine Clavel Copa Santa 2001 Languedoc
Quite a complex full, ripe nose with dark fruits dominating, together with some spice. Sweet herbal edge. The palate is rich and lush with lots of fruit and a spicy finish. Tasty in a new world style. Very good+

  Ch de Cazeneuve ‘Les Calcaires’ 2001 Pic St Loup
Smoky, spicy nose with a savoury character. Quite rich spicy palate shows a good concentration of ripe fruit. Savoury in style, and quite new worldy. Very good+


Jaboulet Hermitage La Chapelle 1996
Midweight herby, spicy palate with nice savouriness. Some herby/spicy complexity: this is quite evolved. Nice savoury herbal structure on the palate: this is quite evolved. Very good+


Riddoch 1990 (no other info given; I’ll chase this up – presumably not Wynns John Riddoch, which is a Cabernet blend, so I suspect it’s a Riddoch Shiraz)
Sweet herby, spicy nose. Quite evolved but nicely complex. The palate is soft, rich, spicy and sweet. Some woodiness and some tannin. Quite appealing: this is an older Aussie. Very good+


Mount Langhi Ghiran Shiraz 1996 Victoria, Australia
Older wine with a distinctive earthy herbiness to the nose, together with some appealing spiciness. The palate shows a good concentration of savoury, spicy fruit. Nicely weighted structure here. Very good+


Hardys Eileen Hardy Shiraz 1998
Very forward, minty, lush nose showing intense, over-ripe fruit. The palate is soft, ripe and displays a huge concentration of spicy, minty fruit. This is a big Aussie. Very good+


Renard Syrah 1999 Russian River Valley, California
Classy full, herby, savoury, green-olive nose with some ripeness to the fruit. The palate is ripe and concentrated with a herbal, olive-like character dominant. Quite tasty. A South African, perhaps? Very good+


Domaine Trevallon 1997 Provence
Quite a faded colour: an older wine? Leathery, spicy nose with a hint of stinkiness. The palate is herby and rich with some complexity. Evolved old world wine. Very good+


Rostaing Côte Rôtie Côte Blonde 1995
Quite an unusual complex spicy, medicinal nose. Midweight herby, spicy palate with good structure and acidity. Distinctive and savoury. Some oak influence and a roasted edge. An ambitious wine: I’d say it was old world in a new world style. Very good+


Domaine Pochon Château Curson 2001
Quite a taut, savoury nose with a spicy edge to the sweet liquoricey fruit. The palate is plump and savoury with a good concentration of ripe, spicy edged fruit. New world style with some woodiness. Very good+


Tyrells Vat 9 Shiraz 1998 Hunter Valley, Australia
Sweet ripe nose with some herbal notes and a touch of mintiness. Very ripe, forward palate with a herby character. Not massive. Definitely Australian. Very good+


Geoff Merrill Henley Shiraz 1996 South Australia
Deep coloured. Ripe, herby, coconutty, minty nose with a sweet character. The palate is overtly sweet and lush with an over-ripe character, together with a little too much wood. New world style, likely an over-ambitious Aussie. Very good+


Henschke Hill of Grace 1996 South Australia
Dramatic menthol and eucalyptus nose: really quite extreme but not off-putting. The palate is lush, soft and herby with a medicinal edge. Over the top Aussie style. Very good+


Ch St Martin de la Garrigue 2001 Languedoc
Vanilla and coffee woodiness dominates the sweetly fruited nose. Savoury edge to the palate which is quite spicy with soft, rich fruit. New world style. Very good+


Cayuse En Cerise Vineyard 2000
Very pronounced roasted coffee character to the nose, indicative of high toast new oak. Rich, ripe, woody palate is a little unbalanced. French in a new world style. Very good


Qupe Bien Nacido Syrah Reserve 1996 Santa Ynez, California
Quite a ripe, soft, sweet nose with a herby, smoky edge. Soft palate is quite rich and ripe. Midweight. I am not sure about this one. Very good


Knappstein Enterprise Shiraz 1999 Australia
Rich, ripe, minty, liquoricey nose is sweet and alluring. The concentrated, sweet palate is dominated by minty, coconutty oak. A little unbalanced. An Aussie? Very good


Bernard Burgaud Côte Rôtie 2001
Very deep colour. Savoury, spicy, herby nose has a lovely meaty quality. The palate is soft and ripe with a savoury, slightly animal edge. Thinning out a little. Very good


Domaine de Puech Chaud 2001 Languedoc
Very ripe, rich sweetly fruited nose has a caramelly edge. Soft, rich low acid palate with some sweet, lush fruit. A bit soft, in a new world style. Very good

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