As a sommelier, I often get asked the very loaded question; “Can South African wines compete with the best in the world?”
To provide any kind of coherent answer to this question one must obviously first establish what do they mean by “the best in the world” and perhaps less obviously what do they mean by “compete”.
There are no shortage of competitions, awards and in depth reports with often comically juxtaposed views on what constitutes the best of any class of wine. You only need to look at the near farcical opposing viewpoints of British vs American wine critics of recent memory, where one nation would rate a wine undrinkable and another laud it as the greatest beverage since the advent of water!
I, for one, am of the opinion that there is no such thing as a best in the world nor such a thing as a perfect wine. I prefer a simple five point scoring system; faulty, poor, good, very good and outstanding. Wine is about context, about people, place and heritage all entwined in a latticework of stories. Sure there are objective scoring metrics such as balance, length, intensity, complexity and concentration. But any subtle differences between your 95 point wine and my 97 are surely only subjective. If we can agree on one thing it might be that they are simply both outstanding wines and I prefer to drink the one and you the other.
In as much we set out to investigate, if not fully answer, this loaded question with a series of benchmark tastings comparing the best of the Cape to that of the world.
This is not meant to be an exhaustive comparison fastidiously whittling down the top competitors in each country until we reach an inarguable shortlist, but instead a collection of our favourite contentenders, representing key styles from around the world, stacked up to objective scrutiny.
Twelve wines, key examples from the Cape and other important regions of the world. Served blind. In carefully selected flights of two. To an audience of trained and experienced palates ranging from sommeliers, marketeers, avid consumers and winemakers, who cautiously give their opinion knowing they have a dog in the race. With enough time between flights for some heated debate, before revealing the wine.
Flight one started with the very affordable 2018 Delaire Graff Shiraz vs the 2020 Smokkelman Red Batch #1. The former a great lesser celebrated entry level wine that became even more impressive as the night wore on and the latter a checky chance for us to show just how good the elusive smokkel wyn can be at R95.
Things quickly heated up thereafter with Sam Lambson mistaking his own 2019 Minimalist Wines Connect the Dots Syrah for its better known brother the Stars in The Dark 2020. Showing just how much this little wine boxes above its weight class and how slowly it is maturing thanks to the combination of delicately perfumed Elgin grapes blended with the darker spicier Helderberg component. While arguably one of the stars of the show was the 2018 Domaine Yves Cuilleron Vignes d'à Côté Syrah, making it all the way across the world for only R285. This wine delivers in bucket loads of perfume and dark fruit.
The next flight threw the entire audience with everyone claiming the dark brooding fruit of the 2019 Gabriel's Kloof Shale Syrah must either be from entirely different country or at least a very different region in South Africa compared to the delicate perfume and racy structure of the 2019 Gabriel's Kloof Sandstone Syrah. Two absolutely outstanding wines, vinified in exactly the same way, harvested two days apart, to allow the Sandstone crop to fully ripen, showcasing the incredible impact terroir has on wine.
Throwing a bit of a spanner in the works we compared the yet to be released 2020 Minimalist Wines Stars in The Dark against the esoteric near natural wine esque 2017 Domaine Vignobles Verzier Saint-Joseph Empreinte. The elim fruit was tight and restrained but already showing the promise of spice and perfume to come. While the Rhone was showing all of its characteristic Syrah pong. Much to my own delight, but sadly not to everyone’s liking.
Our next two contenders were always going to be a little something special but I could never have expected by just how much. One of my favourite producers in the Rhone, Maxime Graillot, the son of and now producer of the famous Alan Graillot’s wines’ 2017 Domaine des Lises Crozes-Hermitage against the genre redefining 2018 Sons of Sugarland Syrah.
The Croze was much more savoury than expected, dividing the audience in the usual debate of when does funk become fault. But if the Lises divided the room Reenen’s Sons of Sugarland silenced it with arguably one of the best expressions of Syrah any of us had ever tasted! Locally or abroad.
Layer upon layer of perfume and spice held together by an endless abundance of bright red and deep dark fruit unadulterated by wood. A seemingly endless finish and constant evolution in the glass. Whatever you score this wine, you cannot argue that it is superlative and world class. SA Wine can certainly hold its own with the best in the world!
"Keep an eye on our social media over the next two weeks for an in depth analysis of both this wine, the very special piece of earth where it grows as well as the release of the 2020 vintage this April."
From my newfound love for the Sugarland we moved onto one of my oldest romances in the renowned Domaine Clape. With less perfume than its counterparts higher up in the Rhone and less spice than St Joseph the 2016 Domaine Clape Cornas Renaissance made the perfect comparison to the blend of Botellary and Polkadraai fruit, the same vineyard as the Sugarland, that make up Jean Smit’s 2018 Damascene Syrah.
Although perhaps not as refined as the Sugarland the Damascene proved to be yet another world class wine. With the brooding dark fruit of the Bottelary contrasted by the abundance of red fruit and perfume from the Polkadraai vineyard. The DNA of which is clearly evident through both of its incarnations. A worthy wine to stand shoulder with one of the stalwarts of the Rhone
And we end off with one of the most iconic SA Syrah’s, the 2016 Porseleinberg next to the 2016 Domaine Vignobles Verzier Côte-Rôtie Indiscrète. The Verzier again divided the room with two clear camps who either loved or hated the more “natural” style of winemaking while sadly the Porseleinberg didn’t live up to expectations. Just a little softer, a little simpler and a little brinier than expected.
Although certainly not an exhaustive investigation, whatever style you prefer, when it comes to Syrah, SA can certainly compete with the best in the world.
"Keep an eye on our social media for detailed tasting notes being released over the next two weeks."