The October 2020 Decanter (www.decanter.com) - officially released on Friday 28th August - makes its usual, detailed, panel-based, blind-tasted analysis, this time of the Syrah grape in South America.
For other wines we stock in that Decanter (and there are many, perhaps a record for us), please see this page.
There are some truly super New World wines here. One might foresee unhinged FBBs (Fruit Bomb Blockbusters) made for pure immediacy and without structure: a cut-price take on big Australian Shiraz, if you will.
If that's your expectation - and unless that's really what you seek - be prepared for a very pleasant surprise. These are classy wines.
The headline: We offer two of the top four wines from the review: two, officially-Outstanding 95-pointers, one from each side of the Andes. One of these - we'd say the classier and certainly more structured of the two - is available only from us. We also offer another 5 contenders.
Think of Syrah/Shiraz and (unless you're a specialist Latin American Syrah importer) you won't immediately think of South America (NB: for the whole Syrah vs Shiraz distinction, see this article we penned; it's a topic that comes up again later below). Chances are you'll plump first for the Northern Rhône and South Australia.
Put it the other way round: think of South America, and you don't typically think Syrah: you think Malbec in Argentina, Carmenere (and a host of international varieties) in Chile and Tannat in Uruguay.
But, to pinch a term from Decanter in this review, that's to miss South America's "Cinderella" grape (I might have used "underdog", but I prefer "Cinderella"). As they also state, "Syrah has huge potential in South America", (and now I paraphrase) offering resilence to extreme growing conditions, amazing perfume/aromas and an ability to be crafted into a dazzling array of styles (confirming how Syrah is a superb vehicle/vector of terroir).
Of course, South American Syrah - like all South American wines - has to overcome prejudice and some degree of stigma. Just like screwcaps, some die-hards will always regard it as "just not proper". Yet, as some of the top wines that emerge amply demonstrate, serious and classy wines can be crafted here, giving the Rhône's Cornases and St-Josephs a serious run for their money. After all, few now doubt the quality of top Argentinian Chardonnay or Malbec (eg the top Catena wines).
A run for their money? In fact, for quite a lot less money. There is some serious value out there for such fine wines; our two Outstandings average £17.
What explains South American Syrah coming up on the rails? I'd offer the following:
- increasing use of cool-climate locations (especially altitude) - if you want classy, structured Syrah, you need top sunlight, timely heat but, ultimately, a cooler climate than you might imagine. Go too hot, and you get flabby Syrah which lacks the crucial acidity and enticing spice (this being the struggle for Syrah in Languedoc and the reason for the increasing pursuit of higher sites). The Hawkes Bay/Gimblett Gravels story in NZ also bears this out. Originally targetted for Cab Sauv (and Bordeaux blends), it has emerged over time that only the warmest sites there yield fully ripe Cab Sauv because the region now emerges to be just a little cooler than its pioneers reckoned upon. All to the the benefit of... Syrah, with this region now turning out some very top Syrah (eg those of Trinity Hill and Craggy Range).
- vine age - if we know one thing from Barossa, McLaren Vale and many of the esteemed Northern Rhône appellations, it's that the very best Syrah and Shiraz invariably comes from low-yielding, old vines - sometimes in excess of 100 years of age. South America has started from scratch with Syrah, but the oldest vines are now just starting to grey a little. There is clearly thus better to come yet.
- craftsmanship - the steady increase from the 1990s onwards in investment, technology and (especially) expertise - much of it from Syrah-inspired France - is now feeding through to wines that that are the equal of their Old World counterparts.
- differentiation - let's say you're a new producer in Malbec-saturated Mendoza. Do you want to join the Malbec bunfight? Or strike a pose in a field a little more off-piste? This, too, lies behind some of the top wines in this review.
Use of oak is also an interesting question. Such is its prevalence in the finer Syrahs of the Rhône and Shirazes of Barossa/McLaren Vale that you'd think it was mandatory for anything top-flight in South America. But this is not so. Some of the new winemaking technology arriving (eg concrete eggs) seeks to provide ageing/elevage that interferes less directly with the wine's flavours. Instead, it allows a greater, unfettered expression of the Syrah fruit and terroir (this is not to be confused with similar, euphemistic terms used in the marketing often used for £6/bottle Rioja jovens). With Syrah, given its lighter, fragrant and more nuanced character (cf, say, Malbec and Cab Sauv), such avoidance of oak (especially the powerful effects of new oak) in very top wines shows the appliance of intelligence over pure tradition. Again, we see this in the top wines of this Decanter review.
The review itself
We knew this review was coming. In fact, given the pandemic, we knew about this one a long time ago. And these reviews tend to go one way or the other: a total jamboree of high scores (eg Australian Riesling) or a Real Kicking (Gruner Veltliner). Much as I've/we've run into some amazing Syrahs from south of Caracas, I feared we might see this review slap down its subject(s).
Anything but. The judges were much wowed by what emerged. To quote two of the judges:
- "When South American Syrah is good, it’s certainly as good as Australia and New Zealand". (Alistair Cooper MW); and
- "A few wines right at the top could rival any wine from anywhere. But in the middle there were also a lot which were exuberant, rewarding, easy to drink – and very consistent." (Dirceu Vianna Junior MW).
The stats are:
I'd make the observation that the three MW judges here were (probably rightly) looking more for elegance and and structure then power/blockbuster appeal. Another three judges may have seen it differently. It's notable that a clutch of bigger, Shrirazzy players - ones that normally do well with Decanter, Atkin, Suckling, Jancis et al - eg the Caballo Loco Limari - scored only modestly here.
map courtesy of Decanter, www.decanter.com
The Outstanding wines
Two of the top four are pricey options at £38 and £45 a bottle. The panel test makes clear that these are properly-super-duper. I'd certainly love to try a bottle of both.
The one 96-pointer is no longer being imported by its UK importer (unfortunate timing).
Invariably, we have to work out what the Exel customer will go for. Here, as a commercial proposition, we decided to eschew the pricey wines. It may just be a little early in the popularity development of South American Syrah to hope that many customers will pursue these wines when there are excellent, similar/equal-scoring alternatives at just 30-50% of the price. Maybe we're wrong. We'll listen to any appeals on this point, of course.
Which means that these are our two below, pictured at a recent home-working taste test (when writing this, in fact). There's a lot to these wines, some of which is fleshed out below, but we've also recorded a video tasting of the two for a little more thought and insight (click link or the photo below).
The two are:
UPDATE - after a huge surge in sales on the release of Decanter, UK stocks have all gone. This is the end of the line on this one - it's all gone in Chile, too ...
This is fascinating, this one, on many levels. It is certainly the more innovative and modern in approach. Allow me to resort to bullet points for (intended) brevity:
NOW IN STOCK !!
This is undoubtedly more 'classic' than the Salvaje, but no less delicious. What it lacks in absolute immediacy/hit value, it more than makes up for in complexity, 'smoothness' (a term we try not to use but which customers adore) and lasting appeal. Here's a bit more:
That's not quite all...
We've other rated wines from this panel. They may score less well, but the great diversity of Syrah styles available makes a tour of other wines highly interesting, especially if you are a blockbuster fan. Below, you'll find more details of (all Chilean):