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A Survey of South African Shiraz

Mischa Shiraz
Mischa Shiraz
Six Hats Shiraz
Six Hats Shiraz
Indaba Shiraz
Indaba Shiraz
Mount Rozier Shiraz
Mount Rozier Shiraz

by B.D. Fischer

Admit it: When is the last time you had a satisfying, affordable Cabernet from, say, Chile? For me, it’s been just over three years; I happen to remember a particular bottle I purchased for $9 in Chattanooga, Tennessee, in March 2010. Since then it’s been one long string of disappointments.

I don’t mean to single out Chile for aspersion, but include rather the entire universe of New World noble reds. Note that I said “affordable,” which means to me closer to ten dollars than twenty; of course there are tremendous wines to be had from Marlborough to Mendocino to Mendoza if you’re willing to pony up. Even these, though, suffer under a general comparative flatness, a two-dimensionality, a position I recognize as both snobbish and possibly psychosomatic.

(The whites are a different story. New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, for example, is a better value and often a better wine than Pouilly-Fumé. When it comes to the reds, though, the New World does better on the varietal periphery, with Argentina’s domination of Malbec the best example.)

But I’m on firmer ground downmarket, and it was in this context that I met this month’s Club W shipment of a 2004 Mischa Shiraz from South Africa. My distinct lack of enthusiasm was tempered by Club W’s capacity to surprise, most recently with a superb California blend of Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, and Viognier that deserves a better name than “Love This Life.” But the Mischa had at least three things working against it: the vintage nearly a decade past, which sounds like a positive but isn’t without a verified provenance; South Africa, although I love Pinotage (the South African wine industry has had notorious difficulty with bureaucratic organization and quality control); and the grape itself, not the grape but its name, for the grape is Syrah and “Shiraz” just a marketing ploy symbolic of the lack of style and sophistication in New World noble reds I’ve been decrying.

As you may have guessed because I’m writing, Club W came through again. The Mischa (I’m now on my second bottle) is a gorgeous grainy purple with cherry and alcohol on the nose. At 14% ABV it’s big, but not a monster, and the muscular burn of the tannins is forthright but never offensive. The dark stone fruit gives way to cassis and dusty grass on the tremendously balanced palette. An ideal everyday wine that would be right at home with an herb-encrusted frenched rack of lamb in a red pepper aioli. I ordered three more bottles. (Rating: Excellent) Imported By: Southern Starz. Price: $13.

All of which seemed reason enough to delve deeper into the world of South African Shiraz. It may be a rare chance for me to admit that I’m wrong.

2009 Six Hats Shiraz (Western Cape)

Not a promising start. This smells like rotting mushrooms. Not as purple as the Mischa, closer to red. Also 14% ABV. The smell dissipates a bit in the glass, thank god. Much smoother than the Shiraz, nowhere near the strength of tannins. The fruit is indeterminate, almost sweet. The label says it’s spicy but it isn’t, really, just a bit of mild cedar. This falls far more in the “barely quaffable” than “distinctly memorable” category, but it isn’t a complete embarrassment. (Rating: Not Good) Imported By: Vinnovative Imports. Price: $10.

2010 Indaba Shiraz (Western Cape)

You may remember Indaba from such soccer mom grocery carts as Whole Foods’ and Central Market’s, where “Indaba” is “the traditional Zulu forum for exchanging ideas.” This is an even worse start than the rotting mushrooms. Indaba is one of the big boys, so you should be able to find a bottle with a relative ease. I don’t think that’s a good idea, though. Slightly more purple than the Six Hats but with the same troublesome legs and off-putting nose. Less sweet, but the tannins are perhaps even weaker and it doesn’t feel like much of anything in the mouth. Some vanilla spice, which would only be nice in a richer context. (Rating Horrible) Imported By: Cape Classics. Price: $8

2010 Mount Rozier Tobacco Street Shiraz (Stellenbosch)

Oooh, inky dark, almost black-seeming. I haven’t smelled it yet, but the legs seem less lingering and therefore more promising in this context. (Legs signal residual sugar, i.e., sweetness, i.e., not what you want in a Syrah. I know they say that legs are all and only about alcohol content, but these wines all have the same 14% ABV but distinct patterns of tears and I don’t believe it, at least not always.) It smells a bit of barbecued beef, if you can believe it. Fig on the palate, less herbaceous than the others, less mineral. Firmer tannins, although they don’t match the Mischa. No sweetness. Nice body and balance. Not the home run of the Mischa, not even a double off the wall, but a nice long single with a big turn. (Rating: Good) Imported By: Vineyard Varieties. Price: $14

An interesting exercise, and one of the most interesting things is how quality tracks price even at this level. (I didn’t look at the prices until after I’d written up my notes, and if you think I remember what I paid yesterday afternoon we’ve obviously never met.) Thankfully it doesn’t appear as though I have to admit that I’m wrong, although I’m sure there will be a first time for everything.

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