What the Great South African Syrah tasting tells us

 

On Thursday a very interesting tasting was held. It has already been written up by Tim Atkin and Christian Eedes, the two journalists who put it together. They were joined by a star studded list of 14 of South Africa’s leading winegrowers to answer the question: just how good is South African Syrah in a global context?

So, top South African Syrahs chosen by Mr Eedes were pitted against some star Syrahs from elsewhere, including some Northern Rhone heavyweights. The South Africans did pretty well, as you can see from the analysis of Eedes and Atkin. What does this result tell us? Here are my thoughts.

I’m a strong believer in South African Syrah, so I’m not surprised at the results. This is an exciting category.

But blind tastings like this – while extremely valuable in countering prejudices – aren’t the final word. This is because knowledge of a wine’s origin changes the actual perception of that wine at a pre-conscious level. When I drink a bottle of Chave Hermitage I’d rather do it sighted, because I’ll enjoy it more that way.

Look at the individual scores given by the tasters here. I would suspect that the blind scores of Eedes and Atkin would be, wine for wine, a point or two lower than if they’d seen the bottle and knew what the wine was. If they were both to publish a list of their scores blind, we could then compare them with their sighted, published scores, and see a difference. I have found this myself when I’ve tasted blind in large flights.

Why is this? When you know what a wine is, you are able to interpret your perceptions more accurately and confidently. The small differences,which in terms of fine wine are quite significant, are suddenly more evident. Knowledge of identity helps expert tasters to use their full degree of expertise in understanding a wine. It can also introduce biases, but I suspect that tasting blind removes too much of this expert ability in exchange for the removal of bias, for it to be the final word.

Also, most of the South African wines in this line-up were current releases, while those from elsewhere were a few years older. This adds noise into the comparison. It would have been interesting to compare like with like. It would also be interesting to serve the different tasters wines in a different order. The wines neighbouring a particular wine can influence the perception of that wine – these presentation order effects are real.

It’s also useful to think about how results of a tasting like this should be analysed. Adding all the points from the tasters for each wine and then dividing by the number of tasters isn’t the best way to do it. If you are going to use that approach, then at least normalize everyone’s scores first. Using a ranking system might lead to more representative results. And restricting the field to fewer wines might also make for cleaner results.

Credit to Atkin and Eedes, though, for getting such a good line up of wines and tasters together. And neither are claiming more than their results suggest – that South African Syrah is to be taken seriously, because there are now some world class examples.

8 comments to What the Great South African Syrah tasting tells us

  • CotonouPro

    Of course 80% judges are winemakers from South Africa they can recognise their styles they are not stupid, you could the same from OZ, Cali, SoF, etc

  • Melvyn Minnaar

    Jamie, I couldn’t agree with you more about the importance of sighted tasting and ‘levelling’ every taster scores for final results. One needs to respect taster integrity and honesty.

  • Keith Prothero

    As I have stated on FB these tastings are meaningless. Another country,different palates,and different bottles and who knows what the result would be?
    No doubt a very enjoyable tasting in beautiful surroundings,but at the end of the day,it is just another group of people tasting a few different bottles of wine

  • Millicent Terry

    Two of the judges are Mullineux & three of the top 10 wines are Mullineux.
    Obviously all fair and above board.

  • Perhaps one of the matters raised by this tasting is the inability of the majority of top South African wineries to showcase consistently a reliable and comprehensive library of their wines. Why was South Africa not matching older vintages with their Northern hemisphere counterparts? The common denominator of the greatest wines of the world is that they are able to trumpet their pedigree by referring to the past. The ability of a wine to age, mature and ultimately improve over time is most reliably discussed when actually tasting their evoloution. Very few top South African wineries have made the effort (and financial commitment) to hold back a reasonable amount other wines. IMHO, this needs to communicated and accepted so that next decade is nurtured more lovingly and this commitment becomes common amongst the top wineries. Perhaps it will be this which is one of the next steps in the continued progress of South African wine?

  • keith prothero

    Yes good point Mike, I know when I was a Director of Mullineux that it was our policy to keep a library stock of 10% of production. As an investor,when our wine was in demand,this was hard on cash flow,but in the long term a sensible policy,for the reasons you mention.
    Did not realise other wineries,had a different policy.

  • Blind tasting is “super” if you taste wines from the same region and same vintage…that is the only way to learn something and the way to make conclusions BUT I put my hat of for the people that made it happen at least they wanna tell us something and there all always reasons to remark things and hqve some doubts. But if you read between the lines it shows us that we can compete with the best of the best.

  • David Hutton

    Jamie, thanks for maintaining your enthusiasm and optimism re SA wines. Nice to see your involvement and read your opinion, much appreciated!!
    Must’ve been a great occasion!!? Thanks for sharing your tasting results and opinions. Cheers!

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