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What our expert thought of Swartland, Bush Vine, Shiraz




about this wine About this wine
 
What is it about bush vines that turns respectable winemakers into revolutionaries?  Remember the Rogue Vine red from Chile’s Itata Valley that we featured in November?  “Itata Bush Vine Revolution” proclaimed the bottle, and the delightfully dotty Rogue Vine website even features a clenched fist logo.
 
Across in South Africa there are a whole band of bush vine revolutionaries in the newly-fashionable Swartland region.  Their annual winefest is called the Swartland Revolution, and its posters also feature Marxist revolutionary iconography: the red star, bulletholes and, yes, clenched fist salutes.  Actually it’s not such a coincidence.  Rogue Vine’s Leonardo Erazo acquired his love of bush vines and natural winemaking from a stint spent working here, in Swartland.
 
Bush vines are the natural result of trying grow vines in land where there’s only just enough rainfall to support them.  Most of South Africa (and Chile, Argentina and Australia) is even dryer than that, and so vineyards are irrigated.  Swartland is just wet enough not to need irrigation, provided the vines are planted far apart so as not to compete with each other for moisture.  It’s not practical to train such widely-spaced vines on conventional trellises, so they’re allowed to grow unsupported as individual ‘bushes’.  Bush vines are also relatively low-maintenance, which is a real bonus when the vineyards are so spread out.
 
Our only previous wine from this region, the Force Majeure rosé, was made from Cinsault bush vines, and red wine varieties from south-east France do seem particularly well suited here: Cinsault, Mourvèdre, Grenache and Syrah/Shiraz.  Shiraz is unusual in being the only one of the originally-French ‘international’ varieties not to be known elsewhere by its French name.  Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Merlot and Sauvignon Blanc have the same names the world over, but when the 19th century settlers in Australia planted their first Syrah vineyards they called it Shiraz.
 
With the success of such iconic wines as Penfold’s Grange and Henschke Hill of Grace, the rest of the world outside France copied both the Australian name and its full-throttle, hot-climate style.  ‘Syrah’ on a non-French label has become a sign that the winemaker is aiming for the cool-climate style found in France’s northern Rhône valley, in famous wines like Hermitage, Cornas and Côte-Rôtie.
 
This wine is labelled conventionally as a Shiraz.  It comes from Swartland Winery, one of the oldest and largest producers in the region, and is part of their flagship Bush Vine range.  80% of all their vast estate are bush vines, but this is their top Shiraz from just a few of the oldest and best-sited vineyards.  This 2013 vintage has spent 12 months in new French oak barrels.
 
the tasting The Tasting
 
As befits a Shiraz, this is an intense deep red, though not as impenetrably dark as some.  At four years old, it has lost the purple tinge it would have had in its youth.
 
This smells rather northern Rhône, all smoke and spice over inky black and red berry fruit – not just the usual Shiraz blackberry but also ripe raspberry.  The spice is black pepper, with just a hint of something sweeter like cinnamon or clove.  Smoky vanilla oak is quite prominent but has begun to integrate, forming the classy cigar box and old newspaper scents of maturity.
 
This is dense and concentrated on the palate, though freshened by good acidity. The exact flavours are oddly hard to pin down, which perhaps another way of saying they’re well-integrated.  Dark berries are supported by an exotic and very northern Rhône tinge of blood orange.  It is full-bodied, but not as much as its 14% alcohol would suggest.
 
Velvety ripe tannins are slow to reveal themselves on the spicy medium finish, where they’re nicely balanced by some sweet raspberry fruit.
 
Assessment
 
This is classy stuff, with a distinctly northern Rhône feel to it.  It could easily pass for a Cornas from a hot vintage, albeit with rather more oak than most.  If I’d been writing the label I would definitely have called this a Syrah rather than a Shiraz.
 
Being a southern hemisphere 2013, it’s now nearly four years old – and it needs to be.  It’s just entering its sweet spot, with the oak integrating with the fruit to generate some real complexity.  It should continue to improve for a year or so.  The Cornas it resembles would be twice the price, so this is great value.


Tasting notes

Appearance
clear medium++ red - no longer ruby but not garnet either
Nose

Intensity medium+

Aromas spice (black pepper, cinnamon/clove), black & red berries (blackberry, dark raspberry), oak (smoke, vanilla). Some attractive tertiary scents from aging (cigar box, newspaper/old books)

Development developing
Palate

Sweetness dry

Acidity medium+, just

Body full, but more elegant than expected for 14%

Tannins medium(+?), silky & ripe, slow to appear

Intensity medium+

Flavours inky, earthy, dark berries, blood orange, spice
Finish

Length medium(+?)

Flavours very spicy, a bit sweet and sour with tannins balanced by sweet raspberry
Other notes
Very northern Rhône, like a Cornas from a hot year. Classy. Should improve for a year or so.


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