Is South African Shiraz on track? It's not an incidental question if you
consider that no other variety has been planted at a faster rate in
the modern era of the industry, with it going from around 1% of the
national vineyard in the mid-1990s to over 10% in 2011.
Somebody who's been along for the ride is Marc Kent, cellarmaster of Boekenhoutskloof in Franschhoek - his maiden vintage Syrah 1997 was rated 5 Stars in the 2000 edition of Platter's as were the 2002, 2004, 2006 and 2009 subsequently.
Kent is generally bullish about the state of Shiraz currently and puts it down to a much more sophisticated use of oak. "When we launched the 1997, many of the wines made then were driven by American oak. The South Australian model applied - the perception existed that this was what the UK and the US were looking for". He says there's been an "obvious evolution" since then with a movement away from the overt vanilla character which many of the high performers showed a decade ago.
Kent reckons that a great deal of Boekenhoutskloof's success has depended on its "oaking detail" with him looking to keep wood influence on the final wine to a minimum. Maturation of the Syrah has until now taken place in used French oak barrique and going forward, large format foudres (large wooden vats 2 500 litres in capacity) and concrete eggs will be incorporated.
In addition to a light hand when it comes to oaking, Kent places huge significance on blending - in the case of the 2009 vintage, only 48 barrels out of a prospective 140 to 160 made the final cut. "Blending is the single defining factor in what we've achieved to date," he says.
Kent doesn't completely write off the role of vineyard location in making top wine and bar the 1997 which came from an old vineyard near Somerset West grubbed up to make way for an industrial park, grapes for his Syrah have been sourced from one particular property in Wellington.
Wellington is not exactly cool climate so what of the more elegant wines which are emerging from more maritime sites like Constantia? "I like the pepper these wines show but I don't think it's got much to do with terroir. Rather it's about earlier picking ...".
Ultimately, however, Kent is convinced of the potential of the Swartland - "honest vineyards" providing "great fruit intensity". And it's not like the realisation has just dawned on him. "We've been buying Shiraz from there for over a decade and currently take 1 000 tons a year". Grapes have, to date, gone into entry-level Porcupine Ridge and Mediterranean-style blend The Chocolate Block but in mid-2009 Kent purchased a property called Porseleinberg which is destined for great things.
There will be 40ha under vineyard by the end of this year, mainly Syrah but also including "little parcels" of Grenache and Cinsaut. A wine under the Porseleinberg label made by Callie Louw (previously of Tulbagh Mountain Vineyards) has just been released at R500 a bottle while Kent put a reserve bottling from the 2009 vintage up for sale at the Cape Winemakers Guild Auction last year, the wine fetched a high of R6 000 per six-bottle case. It's Kent's thinking that Porseleinberg has the potential to become the source of fruit for the regular bottling of Boekenhoutskloof.
The Porseleinberg is whole-bunch pressed and is, to put it mildly, a little stalky. "Fringe but not funky," says Kent. Isn't there the danger that if Boekenhoutskloof were to be made from Porseleinberg grapes, it wouldn't be sufficiently different to the wine under Porseleinberg label itself? "The site is vast and allows for different interpretations," he replies. "Boekenhoutskloof will always be fuller yet more elegant. It has a much longer élevage".
There is of course a highly regarded single-variety Cabernet Sauvignon under the Boekenhoutskloof label so Kent is well positioned to pass judgement on which of the two varieties is capable of being South Africa's signature variety and he's convinced that Shiraz and Shiraz-based blends are where it's at. "It's an easier story to tell. We're perceived as being warmer climate and this is meant to suit Shiraz". When it comes to cracking the American market, Cabernet Sauvginon is going to struggle to compete with California while Shiraz over there is largely a "non-starter".
The point is also made that the success of Shiraz has enjoyed over Cabernet Sauvignon recently is to some extent due to the personalities driving the respective categories. "Look at the Swartland phenomenon. It hasn't happened by accident. Those involved have made it work. Ultimately we need a champion category."