Syrah Blind Tasting Session – A clash of styles!


I think the last blind tasting I took part was nearly half a year ago which is quite a shame considering the name of this blog. But last Saturday this dry spell finally ended when we gathered for an awesome blind-tasting around the varietal Syrah. An exciting topic about a noble grape that is probably at home in the Northern Rhône but is nowadays planted on every corner of the planet, and we opened not less than 15 bottles to cover all aspects of it. Next to all the usual suspects that participated in the tasting, it was also a particular pleasure to welcome fellow blogger Barry who I only recently met in person. So Here are my notes on the wines in the order of the tasting. Every 4 bottles we uncovered and compared notes. I must say there were quite some surprises, but also a few wines that matched clichés’.

2007 Côtes du Rhône, Domaine Jamet – The Jamet brothers, famous for their Côte Rôties, used the humble Côtes Du Rhône label which is usually employed for the typical Rhône blend to bottle a 100% Syrah wine. One for the insider?
Color is a bright red. Nose is intense of ripe berries with some earthy and leather-like aromatics: very appealing! Nearly the same picture then on the palate: bright berries and masculine leather notes all packed in a nice structure of fine grained tannins and a fresh, juicy acidity. The wine doesn’t seem alcoholic at all and is truly well balanced. It appears very juicy and fresh, with remarkable finesse – unmistakably old world even with that much fruit appeal. And I must  say: at 13,5 Euro this is a steal and probably a must-buy! I heard 2007 was an excellent vintage – this entry-level bottle of Syrah is proof. (many thanks to Didier for putting this on my radar)

2008 Shiraz, Sula Vineyards, Nashik, India – No doubt this is an exotic one. We all knew Syrah has become a global grape. But India… Who knew? Sula is located in Nashik, ca. 200 km North of Mumbai on the West Coast of this huge country. Color is dark and blood-like, with a slight bricky edge. On the nose: dust, earth, some leather and a certain age note. I instantly got tricked and opted for Old World here. On the palate: light weight, mature fruit but not seeming too old, maybe just a touch blunt. Then a weird note reminding band-aid which I didn’t know I should like or not at first, but it got more and more intense and off-putting in the end. Structure is viscous with no noticeable tannins. It appears rather short on the finish but with a smoky, dusty note that lingers on.  If one blanks out that weird band-aid note, the wine isn’t too bad, but the truth is in the glass and the bottle stayed quite full, which speaks for itself. Someone at our table even said it smelled of  “dung pile”: how odd!

2008 The Boxer, Mollydooker – One from Southern Australia. The winery of Sarah and Sparky Marquis is located in Mc Laren Vale but I understood they are partly buying the grapes, so not sure exactly how the concept of provenance applies here. What I knew was that The Boxer had earned 91 points from WS which made it an ideal candidate for the role of the Australian Shiraz in the tasting, or did I pick it because of the cool label? Anyhow: we were about to find out that a cool label can also hide some bad surprises…
Color is very dark, nearly blackberry-like. Nose is of vanilla and berries.. more vanilla, more berries and quite an alcoholic breath as well. So unmistakably New World from the beginning. On the palate, it seems like liqueur of berries with lots of fruit- a velvety fruit bomb actually, with nearly no edges if you count out the alcohol. I find it to have some wax tones as well. Hmm… I see the ladies in our round are falling for the charming fruit aspect…. Then again: the finish is equally on dark berries and… alcohol. Absolutely not my thing despite the beautifully defined fruit notes. It just permanently seems very liqueur-like and alcoholic – a glimpse on the back-label: 17 % !!!! no kidding. At least I know why they called it “the Boxer” now. Not sure anymore if this is a ladies wine even if they fell for it earlier.. maybe a wine one can bring to a date still? Now I’m kidding. Still: a very cool label I must say – but definitely not worth 28 Eur for my palate… (PS: maybe I should have shaken the bottle beforehand – they use quite an interesting Nitrogen system to protect the wines – check out this video)

1994 Cornas,Domaine Auguste Clape Clape impressed me a few weeks ago with his 1999 Cornas. So, of course I had to sneak in another vintage of his into this blind tasting. To resume his winemaking invery few words: Only steep slopes with up to 100 year old vines matured in exclusively used barriques. I wondered if the finesse and freshness of Clape’s wines would still be notable when presented blind within all these different styles. it didn’t start too well, the cork came out in thousand pieces so that I had to transfer it to another bottle.
The color was nice with an elegant dark red. The nose was rather dusty but with some sweet berries, and also a hint of vanilla (which is weird since Clape only employs used barriques). On the palate: dusty tannins and kind blunt fruit. Weight is rather light. I went on quite quickly after this one. The bottle wasn’t empty at the end – a clear sign. I guess also, the vintage didn’t help Clape in this tasting. The wine was clearly over the top.. too bad.

2001 Saint-Joseph, Domaine JL Chave – The domaine JL Chave, founded in 1481, makes allegedly some of the best Hermitage wines in the region. But I thought, I’d save some money and buy his entry-level wine from a rather good vintage (Again a small word about the vintage comes from the wine doctor ). This one stems from Saint-Joseph which  is a 60 km long all-comprising and thus less noble AOC from the Northern Rhone.
Color is a dark red with a slight milk-like transparency on the side. A nose with some vanilla, a bit of alcohol poking the nose, some dust and many also had a glue note here. On the palate some berries but for the rest I had to think of dusty dark bread soaked in cheap Schnaps – truly weird. But the worst was the finish which was on mold note that made you wanna cough – this one was a total fail. Wondering if there was some kind of bottle problem involved? Anyhow: it was a worthless wine which had a 30 Euro pricetag: epic fail!

2008 Côte-Rôtie, Château de Saint-Cosme – Saint-Cosme is an estate that needs no further introduction, but maybe just that much: it is based in the Southern Rhône in Gigondas and only extended their winemaking activities to the Northern Rhône in the nineties. This Côte Rôtie is matured 15 months in 70 % new pièces and 30% used fûts and is made of the varietal Serine , a close relative of Syrah which is at home in Côte Rôtie (read this).
Color is dark and shiny with transparent rim. Nose is of red berries, slightly port-like, some cedar wood and white pepper. On the palate: a very light structure, velvety and elegant, with a precise and juicy acidity. Satisfactory finish with good presence and length with tannins being still a bit rustic and drying out. A bit young still, but that’s not surprising: a 3 year old CR has much time ahead. This is a wine of great appeal and with good potential and I particularly like this mix of finesse and rustic – gracious light weight mixed with a masculine pepper nose. Thanks Nick for such a wonderful contribution!

2006 Syrah En Chamberlin Vineyard, Cayuse Vineyards, Walla Walla ValleyCayuse Vineyards makes strongly sought after “mailing list” wines from the Walla Walla Valley in Washington. The estate has been founded by Frenchman Christophe Baron and works its vines biodynamically. This particular wine – En Chamberlin Syrah has been rated  98 points by Jay Miller of the Wine Advocate in 3 consecutive vintages – now that raises the bar!  But of course, I only found that out after the blind tasting.
The wine is nearly black in color but with a brickish and slightly transparent rim. Very perfumed nose of black berries, some vanilla, some herbs, a hint of alcohol – all in all a beautiful berry nose.  On the palate a quit concentrated wine but in a smooth, velvety structure with no tannic resistance. Dark berries again, but also topped by notes of herbs and olives that made me think of tapenade. There is also a slight bitterness on the mid-palate and in the finish, evocative of a certain meatiness,  but at the same time also a good enough acidity accounting for some freshness. A hint of alcohol is also sensable in the finish but it is the bitter, meaty, herbal and olive notes that linger on and for quite long. Out of the 2 American wines, this one clearly takes the crown – it is big, yet  has the greater sophistication and clearly a style that is more close to Old World Syrah, although you wouldnt mistake it for one. This wine needs big meat, like a roast of lamb shoulder. Thanks a lot Barry for contributing such a rare bottle.

2008 Crozes-Hermitage, Domaine des Haut-Chassis Les Galets – This estate is more or less a newcomer on the scene. Before starting his own domaine in 2003, owner Franck Faugier delivered his grapes to the coop. This Crozes-Hermitage is matured in new 450 l barrels.
Nice color of very dark purple with a slightly transparent, “milky” rim. In the nose lots of berries and a pinch of white pepper, something floral as well reminding violets and lavender. On the palate I had to think malolactic at first, because of a certain creaminess. Fruit is bright of red berries, some white pepper adds a nice spiciness. The wine appears very straightforward and linear and rests within a fine grained tannic structure which reflects a certain finesse. Acidity is not as razor sharp and precise as with the Saint-Cosme, rather a bit broad but is still lending good freshness. Somehow the wine seems a bit “made” but rather well made. Has still some years ahead and potential for improvement I’d say and definitely represents a very good value for about 15 Eur!

2001 Shiraz Cabernet Winemakers Selection, Penfolds – Well, Penfolds definitely needs no further introduction. This is the second Aussie in our tasting but at the same time also the first and only cheater, being a blend of Shiraz and Cab. Color is dark in the center and brick-red to the sides indicating a certain maturity. The nose is of berries with a slight smoky edge, some alcohol pokes through and a slight age tone is undeniable. On the palate I had to think of berries in Rum at first, but the wine also shows a good acidity which adds vivacity and freshness. The tannic structure is rather creamy and charming, let’s say mellow. Finish is of medium length. The wine is more than ready to drink and doesnt need much airing. I think one could tell it was a blend since it was maybe lacking the sharpness of the Syrah grape.

2008 Boom Boom Syrah, Walla Walla Valley, Charles Smith Wines – one of the “cool label”-wines by rock star winemaker Charles Smith. Color is dark and shiny with a purple hue. The nose is a vanilla bomb with vanilla and sweet berries plus a hint of alcohol. And to me it actually smells  like a genuine NY cheesecake. On the palate, kind of the same picture: there is sweet fruit, reminding raspberries plus lots of vanilla. The structure is very silky and velvety with no sign of tannins whatsoever – so in this sense we have a true charmer and the ladies like it. Finish is equally on sweetness and not too overwhelming. This wine is a fruit smoothie  that doesn’t show much complexity or any sign of terroir whatsoever. It is pretty much very exchangeable and I don’t see the point  in paying 17 Euro for such a stereotype wine. But the label is kind of cool, sure!

1997 Crozes Hermitage “Les Launes”, Delas Frères – A true finding at under 10 Euro (7,69 Eur to be precise) – at least that’s what I had hoped. Color shows some brick-red age notes. The nose is of berries, but also with a mix of acidity, as well as some dust and mold components. The palate is best described by a berry fruit and acidity interaction where the acidity gets more and more intense until the mold tone jumps in again.  A wine that is drinkable, but without much pleasure. Next!

2006 Neil Ellis Vineyard Selection Syrah, Jonkershoek Valley, South Africa – During my South Africa trip in March I was quite impressed with this 2006 Neil Ellis Syrah, and I even wrote it would be interesting to put it in a blind tasting of French Syrah. So here we go: said and done! Very dark and yet shiny colour. The nose is very different than the one I had remembered, but very appealing still with dark berry fruit topped with crumbles of brown cookies from the Bretagne and sprinkled with Christmas spices, and maybe a hint of alcohol as well. On the palate: again, lots of berries within a beautiful structure with the slightest fine-grained grip and a very precise acditiy making a fresh finish possible. This bottle was one of the few that was empty at the end of the tasting, which actually speaks for itself. And it was also one of 2 New World wines I’ve mistaken for a Rhône Syrah. Should I say: as expected? 24 Euro is kind of pricey, but this wine delivers.

2008 Tandem, Syrah du Maroc, Alain Graillot Alain Graillot is an iconic winemaker from the Northern Rhône. He only started making wine in 1985 and built up a good reputation in a very short period of time. But he is mainly known for contributing to the Renaissance of Crozes-Hermitage, an AOC that has long been known for lesser quality. But this wine stems from an entirely different region. It is made of Syrah grapes grown not too far from Casablanca in Morocco and represents a cooperation with the local Domaine Ouled Thaleb. Wine has been made for quite some time in these first heights of the Atlas mountains, but rarely found its way to Europe. Again, I was quite curious.
The wine is very dark in color. The nose is of berries and berries in rum, completed by a slight oak touch. On the palate I am first struck by some plump acidity but there are also ripe black and red berries. Then there is a weird rubber note that instantly made me think of that tandem’s tires. Could it be that..? Luckily that rubber tone diminished and the fruit came back to the fore. Tannic structure is fine grained and quite nice. Finish is quite charming on fruit but maybe a bit too short, only an alcoholic note lingers on. Quite an average wine.

2006 Cornas “Vielles Vignes”, Domaine Alain VogeAlain Voge is the second Cornas winemaker of great reputation in this blind tasting. His wine is matured in 20% new barrels for up to 20 months.
Color is a beautiful dark and shiny red with a slight pink hue. In the nose: lots of berries, a slight sweetness and an clear floral component as well. On the palate I am struck by a superbe finesse with a fine grained tannic structure and a good acidity. The fruit is on red berries in high definition, appearing slightly sweet but balanced by a great freshenss in the finish. Some floral notes and a hint of vanilla add some more complexity. This is a beautiful wine with lightness and elegance all en finesse. Even to an extent that I wonder if it isn’t maybe lacking a bit of weight. Also: the finish could be a bit longer and more compelling. For sure, this is in a completely different style than the Cornas by Clape which appears more rustic (but was a fail in this tasting anyway). The Voge actually brough to my mind the 2007 Trévallon I recently tried in another blind tasting

2003 Côte Rôtie, Domaine Jamet – The domaine Jamet in Ampuis, run by Jean-Paul Jamet and his brother Jean-Luc is acclaimed by many as one of the leading wineries of Côte Rôtie. I was curious of how this wine would show from the super-ripe 2003 vintage which apparently didn’t affect the Northern Rhône negatively (check Wineanorak’s vintage report). This Côte Rôtie only sees 20% new oak by the way, so does it mean it is 20% modernist? Or 80% traditionalist?
The color is very young, of shiny and bright red with pink hue. The nose is filigree of red berries, very well defined ripe berries. On the palate a very juicy feel of red berries, with a streamlined acidity. Also something meaty which made me think of blood and a hint of white pepper and some notes of leather as well. Structure is of melted and very fine grained tannins. In general the idea of grace, lightness and purity comes to my mind. The linear acidity leads into a juicy finish of red berries and spicy white pepper. Very nice length and satisfactory finish.  A beautiful wine. I never would have thought you could get such a graceful wine in the hot 2003 vintage. What an effort and what a picture-perfect finish to this tasting! A wine that isn’t cheap at around 50 Euro, but I’d definitely say worth the money!

What are my conclusions to this tasting?

Of course, when New World and Old World Syrah are meeting, we have a clash of styles.

But it is first of all also a matter of personal preference wether you are a fan of the Aussie or Walla Walla fruit bomb Syrah or not. In our round, there was more than one who fell for the charm of the Mollydooker fruit, despite the 17% alcohol .

But then again, it is unjust to put all New World wines in one bag. The fact that I’ve mistaken more than one for a Rhône wine shows that some are far from being stereotypes. The Neil Ellis Syrah is a good example here.

Then there are wines which are unmistakably New World, but reflect aspects that are analogical to the great wines one can make out of this noble grape. I have to think of the Cayuse, which is a bold wine, but also shows an astonishing texture,  and aromatics that are far away from just sweet fruit and oak. A wine that maybe reflects its own Terroir and doesn’t want to copy the Rhône. Which also means that  a direct comparison to a Rhône Syrah is a questionnable way to rate this wine.

But for my own palate, the Rhône wines clearly outdid the New World ones. It am a fan of their style which is focusing on finesse and grace, juiciness and freshness. It makes some of the New World wines look a bit bulky and one dimensional. But as I said: sometime it’s hard to compare styles. I am sure that,  for example, the Cayuse profits from being drunk on its own, with time, and a big roast steak on the plate.

So what are my favorites?  I think Jamet’s Côtes Rôtie took the crown, although I have to say the Saint-Cosme comes quite close. But the Jamet just shows the more natural and pure expression of the grape. Then I have a clear price quality winner which is again a Jamet, but this time their 2007  Côtes du Rhône – hard to find a better Syrah for 14 Euro. But that said, the Domaine des Haut-Chassis is probably a comparable bargain.

As for the new World Wines, the 2 I mentioned before, the Neil Ellis and the Cayuse were the most  noteworthy, albeit they are in very different styles.

Thanks again to all who participated and contributed bottles, it was great fun to have you all here.

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  1. Vimpressionniste Said,

    Wow.. great lineup! I’m quite curious about the Cayuse. I guess my favorite new world wines are the ones which blur the line. There’s a tiny estate in California which makes an amazing classic Syrah that I love. I have yet to be impressed by the very obvious Aussie wines however.

    PS: glad you liked the Jamet :)

  2. Wine Rambler Said,

    Impressive lineup. It sounds as if you had a lot of fun. I found your comments on the style very interesting and was surprised to read about a wine witn 17% ABV – must be the strongest non-fortified I have come across yet. And Charles Smith continues to draw attention with his bold labels. I haven’t looked into his wines systematically yet, but it seems there is more character in the labels…

  3. Blindtaster Said,

    @Vimpressioniste: Yes, it took some time to write this up, but it was a good way to have some variety in there. Yes the Cayuse was quite interesting, and as I said, probably profits from being drunk standalone rather than directly compared to a Côte Rôtie with finesse… The Jamet CDR is a great bargain… but you should try the Haut-Chassis, curious to have your opinion on it.

    @Wine Rambler: I had some wines with 16%, and maybe even 17% (not sure anymore) from the Languedoc (Domaine de la Terre Inconnue), but these seemed much less alcoholic… Greets!

  4. Vimpressionniste Said,

    It’s funny, a common argument against wine scoring is that New World wines stand out more in a lineup because of the big fruit and alcohol, thus getting more points. I guess it really is a matter of taste though, since they can also stand out in a negative way, and appear too big if the taster prefers finesse :)

    PS: Are you trying to get me drunk with those Terre Inconnue wines ;) ?!

  5. Blindtaster Said,

    Well, I’m sure if you do a wine tasting like this one and put Jay Miller and Michel Bettane on the table, the scores will be totally opposed. I guess there is something about the cliché of the American and European palate.. (exceptions confirm the rule)
    PS: I’ve given up trying to make you drunk! ;)

  6. Barry Said,

    I’m still recovering!!!!!!!

  7. Blindtaster Said,

    Haha, must have been a slow football game on sunday! :)

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    […] our last tasting at Nick’s when only Southern Rhône reds were allowed, as well as from the last blind tasting at my place where boundaries were set by the Syrah varietal, originally stemming from that area but now being […]

  10. 2007 Côtes Du Rhône, Domaine Jamet – immer wieder im Glas! — Blind Tasting Club Said,

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