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To Drink or Not to Drink? - The Boekenhoutskloof Syrah 1997

Greg Sherwood

The London International Wine & Spirits Trade Fair is history for another year. Too many stands, too much “corporate play” and too many private client lounges filled with Champagne swilling models in short skirts (I’m not complaining about them mind you!). If it helps them sell wine, well that’s great. But it definitely adds to the general image of “dumbing down” that’s becoming so popular among corporate brand owners.

Considering the bounds of ones palate for a single days tasting, I now no longer race around tasting as many wines as possible. After your 50th or 60th wine, they all start to taste similar and the subtleties of quality are lost. Hence, I always try and start with the South African wines on offer while my palate is fresh.

As usual, I did my annual trade fair pilgrimage to the Orbital Wines stand to hook up for a quick chat and tasting with Marc Kent of Boekenhoutskloof. I had caught wind that there was to be a museum tasting of some older vintages of Semillon as well as their Syrah and Cabernet reds. Too good to pass over. Having tasted a broad array of the range in November last year, including several older vintages, I was keen to see how the wines were developing.

The 2002 Semillon was fat, round and lush and perhaps lacking the structure and acidic zest that fans savored in the 2001, which surprisingly was not available to show. So we jumped straight on to the 2000 vintage which had already started to acquire the lovely waxy honey blossom notes and sweet exotic spices of tertiary bottle development. Drinking well now but with several years of life ahead of it.

Then on to the 1999. A real treat of roasted pistachio and almond nuts, lanolin and waxy honied peach stone fruit. Still oodles of fruit zest and acid structure and at least another 5 years plus of prime drinking ahead of it. Because such tiny quantities of this wine are made, it makes it even more of a crime to drink them too young, before they have offered up their hidden personality with a bit of extra time in bottle. I will certainly be laying a few bottles down when the next vintages allocations are released. And 2003 is supposed to be a stonker!

On to the reds. The 2000 Cabernet Sauvignon was tasting mature and soft and eminently Claret like. Drinking well now but could perhaps develop for a few more years. So if you have bottles of 2000 lurking in your cellar, no need to worry, just be aware that this will not be the longest lived vintage from the Estate (See my Vintage 2000 Report from previous). The recent Wine Magazine SA Reds Tasting scored it a credible 88/100.

Then the treat of the tasting, the 1997 Syrah - the 93/100 scored wine from Robert Parker, which still stands as his highest rated red from SA. According to Marc, the moderate acidity and highish pH of 4.1 approximately, meant the wine should not have had the necessary building blocks to age with any great degree of confidence. But then nature loves to throw a curve ball to wine anoraks every now and then. Being perfectly balanced, the wine has aged superbly.

Being firmly in Syrah mode at the time of tasting after just attending the 1998 Northern Rhone Masters of Wine Tasting a few days earlier, I feel I was in a good position to judge the quality of this wine fairly in relation to France’s benchmark greats. Though only one vintage older, the 1997 Syrah, from the infamous Helderberg vineyard that was grubbed up and sold off as a business park site (Boekenhoutskloof were only contracting the fruit), is holding up amazingly and is, in my opinion, still not truly ready for optimal drinking. If I had a case in my cellar, instead of just 2 bottles, I would only start drinking them in 3 to 4 years time. This is a true classic masterpiece that is worthy of its exulted cult status and prestige score.

The wine is still lush and dense with tar, coffee, moca and herby black plum and lovely sweet savoury notes on the finish. Also, the silky fine-grained tannins are holding the wine firmly upright and there are no signs of a waning acidity either. The complexity of minerality intertwined with the fruit has got to be one of the main reasons this wine cracked the big score. It’s sooo Old World in style. It was made in the days before 24 or 27 months in French oak became the norm as with current vintages. 12 months was enough for this wine.

Thankfully, several cases of the 1997 Syrah are being closely guarded at the estate for future museum tastings. And the way the wine is holding up, those bottles are going to be needed for many years to come. So when in 10 or 15 years time we look back on the start of the new renaissance in South African winemaking, wines like Marc Kent’s 1997 Boekenhoutskloof Syrah will be firmly up there along with a few other greats, as the examples that set the new benchmark of vinous quality for future generations to aspire to and exceed if possible.

Funny enough, after writing this piece, I’m now looking forward to my next pilgrimage to the Orbital Wines stand in 2005. Something to look forward to!!

PS. - For all the Boekenhoutskloof fans out there, I suggest you try some of the 2001 Syrah, available selectively at around £25 per bottle. This wine just won the UK Wine Magazine’s South African Classic Reds Tasting with 5 Stars and 95/100 points, coming tie with a wine from David de Trafford.

May 2004  

see also: Jamie Goode's report on the wines of Boekenhoutskloof

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