South African Syrah – How does South Africa stack up against the Northern Rhone?

Have you heard the classic expression about South African wines, ‘they have one foot in Europe, one foot in the new world’? While this may seem cliché or like a marketing tagline, when it comes to South African syrah, the expression is spot on.

What does it mean? Wines from South Africa exhibit the savoury dry qualities of old-world wines but with the ripeness and intensity of the new world.

Syrah’s home and most genuine expression comes from the Northern Rhone, where the wines show elegant fruit and peppery spice. The three benchmarks of the Northern Rhone being, Côte-Rôtie, elegant and aromatic (ignore the heavily oaked Guigal wines, with age, Côte-Rôtie is closer in style to burgundy), Cornas, brooding and wild, and Hermitage, powerful and earthy. The new world style is demonstrated best in Australia, especially in the Barossa and Eden valleys, where shiraz shows intense dark fruit, sweet oaked spice and smooth tannins.

South Africa sits somewhere in the middle.

(Note: Both names, syrah and shiraz, are used in South Africa and are not indicative of Rhone vs Aussie style. I will use the former in this blog for simplicity.)

Syrah dates back in South Africa to the 1890s. At the time, it was thought that the terrain and climate of South Africa would allow syrah to thrive, and there are a surprising number of similarities between South Africa and the Northern Rhone! First, they share largely granite soils that syrah excels in. Second, both areas are significantly influenced by winds (in South Africa the Cape Doctor and Berg Winds and in the Northern Rhone the Mistral Wind). Third, while South Africa’s climate is Mediterranean and the Northern Rhone’s continental, both areas have hot dry summers and receive most of their rainfall in the winter months.

Today, there are four main growing areas in South Africa where syrah excels.

• Stellenbosch. Granite soils dominate the area and cooling winds come in from False Bay. Producers Hartenberg and Reyneke make excellent syrah.

 Swartland. This area was made famous by cult winemaker Eben Sadie. Old vines need to dig deep for water in this dry area.

• Paarl. From the Dutch word ‘Pearl,’ Paarl rock is a huge granite outcropping that marks the area. Viognier is successfully grown in the area and is often blended in small portions with syrah. This blending practice is also seen in the Northern Rhone.

• Cape South Coast. The coolest climate of the four, syrah here can ripen a month later than Stellenbosch. Cape Coast has a number of growing areas being lead by incredible wine makers. In Elgin, look for Kershaw wines that show finesse and white pepper notes. Overberg is home to Lismore Estate where Samantha O’Keefe makes exceptional Côte-Rôtie style syrah. In Walker Bay, Luddite is a low intervention winemaker whose syrah is powerful and savoury. Cape Agulhas is led by Strandveld whose syrah exhibits a classic black peppery note.

One foot truly is in Europe with South Africa’s exceptional syrahs. Next time you’re barbecuing some burgers or roasting some lamb come into our shops and our friendly staff will help you branch out from the Northern Rhone with a South Africa syrah.

Instead of Vidal Fleury Crozes-Hermitage try Chocolate Block 

With Chocolate Block, Boekenhoutskloof achieves the rare combo of quality and mass production. This wine, blended with a touch of Grenache and Cinsault, has dark fruit and a spicey quality.

Instead of Domaine du Tunnel’s Cornas try Boekenhoutskloof Syrah 

Boekenhoutskloof, which translates to ‘cape beech ravine,’ has built a reputation for exceptional syrah. Their Goldmine and Roundstone farms are both located on windy exposed hilltops in Swartland. This is a dark and brooding wine made from 60% whole bunch and aged in Rhone-esque 500L foudres and 600L demi-muids for 18 months.

Instead of Yves Cuilleron’s Cote Rotie Mandinieres try Boekenhoutskloof Porseleinberg

Marc Kent from Boekenhoutskloof is driven to create premium quality syrah in South Africa. Porseleinberg, ‘porcelain mountain,’ might very well be South Africa’s most intense and structured syrah. This biodynamic project is based in Swartland. The wine is packed full of red fruit and spice and shows a long mineral finish. The wine is aged in foudres and concrete eggs for 12 months.