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Young Gun of Wine – Syrah & Pinot

When Young Gun of Wine decided to feature the historic and now re-emerging Syrah & Pinot blend, they kindly invited Vine Collective to join a blind tasting amongst Australia's best producers of the style.

July 9, 2020 | juicebox The-lineup-of-pinot-noir-and-shiraz-blends-in-the-blind-tasting

Blending Pinot and Syrah – The Back Story

While shiraz has been omnipresent in Australian wine history, occupying more vineyard land and a firmer grip on wine drinkers’ imaginations than any other variety, pinot noir has been in the ground here for just as long. For much of that tenure, though, its presence was a mere blip – a curio. And indeed, it was almost forgotten until the cool-climate revolution that took meaningful shape in the 1980s.

When the spotlight started to tilt in pinot noir’s direction – as regions such as the Mornington Peninsula, Yarra Valley, Adelaide Hills and the like started to find their stride – shiraz, or at least many traditional shiraz drinkers, took umbrage. Pinot noir was a usurper. Shiraz was at its peak of powerful domination, with the styles ever enlarging into the often-brutish wines of the 80s, 90s and 00s, while pinot was light and fragrant. They were polar opposites. You liked one or the other, but not both.

 

The Grapes

Pinot noir and shiraz, or syrah if you prefer, are anchored in the French regions of Burgundy and the Northern Rhône respectively. Pinot noir is naturally grown very successfully further north in Champagne and syrah is grown in the Southern Rhône, and elsewhere, but those are the pinnacle old world regions for table wines. And they’re not that far apart geographically. The grapes, however, were always seen to be exclusively individual cultivars – products of different genetic lineages. It seems, though, that they have a closer relationship than that, with the preeminent grape geneticist Dr José Vouillamoz’s research pointing to pinot being a likely “great-grandparent” of syrah.

Genetic links notwithstanding, an experienced taster is unlikely to confuse the two, even when they meet close to the middle, with shiraz at its most fragrant and pinot at its most brooding. In broad brushstrokes, pinot will tend to the fragrant and perfumed with red fruits predominating, while shiraz will tend to darker fruits with more robust spice notes and more tannic grip. But that middle ground is where blending starts to make some sense. Blending like with like increases volume but not necessarily interest or detail. Blending with a mixture of the complementary and the contrasting starts to build layers, to build character. The way the structure is arranged and the fruit complexity etc., keeping in mind that both varieties must at least be moderately successful in their region.

Outtakes from the tasting

While there were wines that drew the appreciation of two to three tasters, this was one of the most diverse results we have seen so far, with all the panellist’s number one selections being different. And while this may seem like a somewhat fractured result, it more accurately reflects both a diversity of style and high level of quality, with some very good wines missing out on a berth entirely.

“Overall, I was really very impressed,” said Crowe. “There were probably 12 wines that I thought were really very good, and to knock some out to come up with six was really very hard. For me, it’s become this style that is fragrant, juicy and just really drinkable… but that’s my interpretation of it, so I had to be careful not to discount wines that were not in that style.”

For Pastorelli, this was the first time he had knowingly tasted the grapes blended together, so there were no style expectations. “In my experience in Europe and America I have never tasted similar wines,” he said. “The choice to make these types of blends is not only courageous and interesting, but is based on the past, giving greater importance to the history that Australian wine has had over time. History is important in the world of wine and it is right to enhance it. The marked freshness and the remarkable fruity and floral intensity of pinot noir goes well with shiraz, which has a more spicy and structured character.”

“There’s often something playful about this blend that I really enjoy,” said Kline. “There’s a brightness, a red-fruited-ness with some spice underneath, and there was plenty of that [in the tasting]. The ones that I rated highly often had that playful, bright, supple character, but the ones that rated highest had that but then drew you in a bit more, with meat and spice and depth.”

“I thought the quality was really high in general,” said Ash, “and the wines that I was drawn to were plush and bright and in balance. I was drawn to the wines the most where I wasn’t thinking about variety.”

Crowe agreed. “The ones that I like are where I can’t pick the pinot or shiraz, and it just looks like a beautiful balance, not like when one dominates the other. And they were probably the lighter, more fragrant ones. For me, the ones that were more dark-fruited stepped outside of that wine style, being a bit blocky and chunky.”

While also noting the high quality across the board, Shiell found the poorer examples were those where varieties jarred at times. “Some had a bit of an identity crisis, and that, for me, was probably more at the heavier end, when they looked a bit more dominated by shiraz. That being said, some of the larger framed wines were successful as well.”

Tannins are important, too,” noted Johns. “My thought with shiraz pinot is that you get weight and spice from shiraz and beautiful mid-palate tannins, and with pinot you can get back-palate tannins as well, and if you had a wine where the bunch stood out but the tannins weren’t disjointed then the wine was still really interesting, but if the tannins were off, then it didn’t really work.”

That extraction of tannins from the stems during whole bunch fermentation, which can add lifted spice/herbs and chewy, grippy tannins and sometimes green flavours and unripe tannins, was a major feature in the wines, and often a positive one.

Whole bunch was generally handled reasonably successfully,” commented Shiell, “though there were cases where stem tannin did seem to stand out a little.”

“For me, if the stalk tannin is obvious in any wine,” ventured Crowe, “then it throws the balance out. I like a little bit, a little lift, but I want fruit tannin to be the driving force, not stalk tannin. It’s tricky to get it right, especially in blends like this where there is a lot of bunch work used.”

The idea of what a definitive pinot and shiraz blend should or could be was elusive, with no clear benchmark for style, but that seemed more tantalising than a barrier.

“Should these be playful and exuberant? Or deep and complex?” posited Kline. “The answer seems to be that pinot noir and syrah/shiraz blends can comfortably present as either.”

“I think it requires a bit of promotion from the industry,” said Ash, “as there’s certainly a lot of hype about single varieties and single vineyards. And there are obviously some quite serious examples, but it’s also a great one to pour and to be excited about and to get consumers excited about.”

“I think it can be everything,” added Johns. “It can be fun and fanciful and easy drinking and just delicious, or when it’s done with some real artistry, you can create something really synergistic with two grapes that structurally work really well together. Pinot can make shiraz a bit lighter on its feet as well, and I think the drinking public is moving a bit that way, but then the extra concentration of the shiraz is really comforting as well. So, I think for Australia particularly, with our historic strong shiraz focus, it’s a good segue.”

2018 Vine Collective Syrah Pinot, Regional Blend.

This was Shiell’s top wine of the tasting: “Some slight cloudiness in colour, feels a little older – some green spice and then faint edges of mirepoix and umeboshi plum. While the texture is somewhat ill-defined, there’s a very appealing sweet and sour thing going on though. Lovely natty, unforced style. I quite like its difference in this class.”

Jeremy Shiell is the Victorian regional representative for Andrew Guard Wine Imports. He works for Jen and Owen Latta at Winespeake (the recently relocated and rebooted Wine & The Country), in Daylesford, and drags hoses around in the winery for Joshua Cooper. Shiell is also one of Australia’s most respected sommeliers, with a lengthy stint curating the mammoth wine list at The Royal Mail Hotel, in Dunkeld. His tenure was during the peak of Dan Hunter’s reign when it was acclaimed as one of the country’s finest restaurants.

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