Ten years ago Chile had fewer than 20 hectares, or 50 acres, of Syrah planted in the entire country, which to judge from its wine exports seemed to be completely colonised by Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. There are now nearly 3,000 hectares of Syrah. The other day I managed to taste almost 60 different Chilean Syrahs, and that was by no means an exhaustive selection of those currently available in the UK.
It is a measure of just how popular the northern Rhône's signature grape variety has become that it is being so widely planted around the world. but I suspect it is not so much that the world's wine buyers have fallen in love with Hermitage and Côte Rôtie, the great wines of the vine's French homeland, but that its Australian incarnation, Shiraz, has become such a global force. And then there is the fact that wine consumers have presumably become a little bored with the particularly strong imprint of Cabernet on the flavour of a wine wherever it is grown, and have been looking for something different that can easily, unlike the delicate Pinot Noir grape of Burgundy for example, be grown all over the world.
The various Syrahs and Shirazes produced all over the world now vary considerably in style, arguably much more than the hundreds of thousands of Cabernets available. There is the unashamedly Northern Rhône style: bone dry, savoury with notes of leather, herbs and black pepper. At the other end of the spectrum is what one might call the Barossa style: almost syrupy thick with alcohol and sunshine, plus notes reminiscent of cough medicine, tar, black fruits and dark chocolate. The Languedoc and occasionally southern Rhône can offer a sort of supremely polished, glossy version that speaks of fully ripe fruit (no excessive pepper notes) underneath a smell of highly-polished leather. So popular has Syrah been in the south of France, particularly in Châteauneuf country where Grenache for so long held sway, that it is one of the most widely planted varieties there. And plantings of the variety have also been increasing in Spain, Portugal and Italy which all have their Syrah exponents who find their wines extremely easy to sell.
The Australians have been planting Shiraz like crazy – so much so that Australian growers are now asking their government for millions of dollars to stop 40 per cent of them going out of business in the next two years. Meanwhile the variety, almost always as Syrah, still enjoys the cachet of relative rarity in both California and Washington state although it is being planted enthusiastically in both states. In fact it is difficult to think of a New World wine-producing region without its fervent supporters and planters of Syrah – even in the relatively cool climes of New Zealand. Argentina has planted even more than Chile in recent years – and Syrah/Shiraz is an important feature on South Africa's calling card nowadays with the likes of Boekenhoutskloof and latterly The Foundry making very fair copies of Northern Rhône examples.
So how successful has Chile's plunge into this Rhône variety been?
It would be fair to say that there is no single style for Chilean Syrah, as suggested by the fact that there is no agreement on whether to label it Syrah or Shiraz. The scores of examples I tasted were split almost equally between the two names and, as elsewhere, the bigger, bolder, sweeter, more heavily oaked styles tended to be labelled Shiraz, and the more reticent, lighter, drier wines were usually labelled Syrah, although this was not an invariable rule.
What is an almost invariable rule for Chile however is that most of the wines are very fairly priced. Almost all these Syrahs and Shirazes were designed to retail at between £5.99 and £9.99 – for me generally the price bracket offering the best value on UK shelves (and less than almost anything from the northern Rhône). Significantly, most Chilean producers seem to have decided with this new variety they can afford to lift it out of the morass of Chilean bottles retailing between £3.99 and £4.99. That said, I was rather impressed by the cheapest wine I tasted, Terra Andina Shiraz 2005 Central Valley (£5 Oxford Wine Company). It tasted warm, rich, peppery with a hint of leather and was not too sweet. But I see it is not due in stock until later this year, so it may have been a pre-bottling sample. (I often find that mass market wines seem to have the stuffing knocked out of them by the time they are filtered and stabilised for the bottling line.)
Of the 10 Chilean Syrahs I have tasted recently retailing at more than £10, the best value was probably Casa Lapostolle, Cuvée Alexandre Syrah 2003 Rapel (£15.99 Berry Bros, Selfridges, Dalysford, Quaff, Lancelots, D Byrne, Wright Wine Co, Peake Wine) from the French-owned operation that is also responsible for the sumptuous Clos Apalta that originally claimed to be Merlot but now admits to being that other old Bordeaux variety Carmenère. This rather Pomerol-rich Syrah, the produce of a single vineyard, was much livelier than most 2003s but still very ripe and sweet with a certain leathery topnote and some savour. Rhône on steroids?
Montes have a longer history of making Syrah than most, in another Apalta vineyard. Their Montes Alpha Syrah 2003 Colchagua (£11.99 larger Waitrose) is pretty good, and finer than the 2002 if still a little oaky while Montes Folly 2003 (£35 Waitrose Canary Wharf only) from the highest slopes of this amphitheatre of a vineyard has the intensity of fruit to take new French oak and is a very fine, if slightly overpriced, wine that already has its own geographical signature.
Matetic EQ Syrah 2004 San Antonio (£16-18 Oddbins, Stone Vine & Sun, The Wine Society) has been garlanded in Chile and shows there is real potential for Syrah in this new, coastal wine region, but this particular vintage is just a bit too close to liquorice extract for my taste. Oaked Rhône syrup perhaps. Syrah seems to do particularly well in Chile's two (new) northernmost wine regions where high altitude pisco country is being converted to wine production. Viña Tabali Shiraz Reserva 2003 Limari (£8.99 larger Sainsbury's) is of the leathery school halfway between Barossa and the Rhône – and the 2004 looks promising too. Even further north Viña Falernia maek a wide range of Syrahs of which Falernia, Alta Tierra Syrah 2004 Elqui (£7.99 Laithwaites) is currently the most impressive and almost dustily reminiscent of the Rhône (see a previous wine of the week for background).
Decent alternatives south of Santiago include the sharply etched Viña Casablanca, El Bosque Estate Syrah 2004 Rapel (£7.99 but no known UK stockists), the oddly burgundian Cremaschi Furlotti Reserve Syrah 2004 Maule (£7.99 Averys), the lusciously jazzy Viu Manent, Segreto Syrah 2004 Colchagua (£6.49 Caves de Pyrene), the vital and well-priced blend Estampa Syrah/Cabernet 2004 Colchagua (£5.99 Amps, Bedales, Cellar Door, Shawbury, Wine Workshop Co) and, perhaps best value of all, the organic VOE, Adobe Syrah 2004 Casablanca (£5.95 Vintage Roots).
I was a little disappointed by the quality overall. Too often these were oaky, full-bodied reds rather than particularly eloquent expressions of either Syrah/Shiraz or the environment where they were grown. But there are clearly no fatal obstacles and perhaps it is unrealistic to expect great subtlety from vines that must be only a few years into their productive life. The best in Chilean Syrah, I am sure, is yet to come.