The old adage that there’s no such thing as bad kids, just bad parents, could easily have been written for the world of wine. The French use the term ‘elevage’ – which literally means ‘bringing up’ or rearing – to describe the process of nursing wine to market-ready condition and it suggests that the analogy of poor parenting is not a poetic liberty.
I used to find drinking Cape sauvignon blanc something of an ordeal – not quite in the league of Egyptian cinsaut, but close enough. I’ve been much more enthusiastic lately, and what has changed is the vinous equivalent of the parenting and home environment. When sauvignon blanc became the gout du jour of the country’s well-heeled wine punters, growers sited plantings wherever they had land available. Winemakers treated it with scant respect, pumping up volumes and even, on occasion, lifting the already mouth-searing acidity. In short, incompetence and inexperience conspired to make many of those early sauvignons the kind of reach-for-the-Rennies beverage you shouldn’t risk in your mouth. In the same way, a generation of South African wine drinkers condemned pinotage for its harsh tannins, gamey aromas and rustic mouthfeel. Instead of excoriating the parents (the viticulture and the winemaking) for the delinquent child, they blamed the grape.
It is clear that the same problem now afflicts shiraz – and not just in South Africa, but wherever it has been over-planted by growers hoping to milk its ten minutes of fame. The Cape’s shiraz area grew ten-fold in as many years, so poorly sited vineyards and bad winemaking have been the inevitable outcome. It’s easier enough to find wines which are impressive but unappealing, made in a showy style, bulked up with dollops of oak, plush with texture – but very difficult to drink. Sadly producers who looked to the success of the South-Eastern Australian classics have landed up caricaturing the best examples (a sin, it has to be said, of which many Australian winemakers are themselves equally guilty.)
One of the chief reasons for the lack of drinkability of these new generation overly bold shirazes/syrahs are their high alcohols. The slow-evolving Barossa block-busters of the 1980s were significantly lower in alcohol than their counterparts today, and the Cape producers emulating the style have fallen into exactly this trap. Many of these wines simply lack freshness, appearing raisiny in their youth and turning porty within a few years.
The alternative is not necessarily the austere, peppery (but also sometimes too green) Northern Rhone style. However, when a producer manages the middle ground – or even, as we are increasingly discovering – something original enough so as not to fit into either model, there is often a sense of real excitement. Many producers are also discovering that blending, particularly with mourvedre, grenache and even cabernet, helps to achieve a better balance.
A recent tasting of shiraz blends yielded several wines worth tracking down: the Uitkyk Shiraz Cabernet 2008 is lovely, and with age its component parts have made a harmonious whole. It also delivers great value, especially when compared with the equally impressive Graham Beck Ad Honorem 2007 – which sells for roughly 6 times the price.
The 2011 Alto Rouge is a full-on Bordeaux blend to which shiraz has been added. Like Fairview’s Caldera 2011, which is admittedly more grenache and mourvedre than shiraz, it has infinitely more sex appeal than the blockbuster shirazes lining the merchant’s shelves. Finally, I looked at a pair of pinotage-shiraz blends – the Neethlingshof Escape 2011 and the Nederburg Duet 2013. Both delivered good quality, inexpensive, easy drinking for those who like their red wines medium-bodied, fruit-driven and readily accessible.