Tannin – hard or harmony?

Epilogue – another South African Syrah – they are the affordable quality reds of the moment. I have had this before but didn’t write it up as it was served along with a few Australian Shiraz. You know what they are like. A throbbing pain rekindles at the back of my eyes just thinking about that lunch…

South African Syrahs are not like the dreaded Barossa model of Shiraz. For a start they are nice. This is because they have fresh rather than jammy fruit, they have acidity, they have moderate alcohol levels, they have poise and, generally, harmony, they don’t have the consistency (and taste) of Brown Windsor soup and they have tannin.

Yes… Tannin

You may have noticed that with a lot of these South African Syrahs I write that I double decant them two hours before I drink them – I have done it with this wine. This is because a lot of South African Syrahs are pretty god-damn tannic. Not wood tannin derived from oak ageing, but tannin extracted from the grape skins. Dare I suggest, over extracted..?

Some of those I have tried are undoubtedly over extracted, most are merely fiercely tannic. “All they need is plenty of time in the cellar!”, goes the cry of their apologists. This shows they have a pretty simple idea of what makes a wine age.

The idea that you put an over-extracted wine in the cellar for N years and it will blossom into a beauty is risible. Tannin is undoubtedly important in ageing a wine – this is why very few Beaujolais age – but an excess will outlast the fruit and leave only the thin, bitter corpse of a wine. Think how loathsome Chateau Cissac is at 10+ years if you have been compelled, with threats of violence against you, to drink some.

No, the thing that allows a wine to age is harmony between all the components. If the components exist in a state of balance together they stand more chance of maturing together and combining their characteristics synergistically thus allowing the wine to blossom into a beauty.

So why are these wines so often a bit terrifying on the tannin-level? My excellent friend ‘Leftie’ Richard suggests it is because large parts of South Africa are just at the climatic limit of producing fine wine.

The logic to this is that it is a bit warm in South Africa. If the grapes are left on the vines for too long the sugar levels will go ballistic and the acidity in the grapes will be nuked – Barossa Shiraz soup will ensue.

Therefore the grapes are picked earlier at low potential alcohol sugar levels. This makes for balanced alcohol levels, but it leaves the grape skins less ripe. Therefore, when tannin is extracted during fermentation, it can be a touch under ripe and harsh in character. This is a plausible idea.

My suggestion would mean that I would be telling vastly more experienced and skilled winemakers than me what they should be doing. I would not dare do that, would I?

Of course I would! Steps need to be taken to reduce the amount of tannin in the fermenting must and reduce the extraction of excessive tannin from the skins.

The first of these can be achieved by fermenting with a higher proportion of whole bunches or stems in with the must. Whole bunches/stems that are lignified absorb tannins which, in general, is no bad thing for a tannic varietal like Syrah. My favourite South African Syrah that I have had recently, Sons of Sugarland, uses 100% whole bunch fermentation. It is for the better, I feel.

Then extract less tannin. Rather than enthusiastically pump must over the fermenting cap of of skins (AND stems) do some gentle punching down. You only need to do it a two or three times a day and, with the fermenting cap broken up more by stems, you will extract far less in the way of harsh tannin.

Naturally, I have not the faintest idea to what degree these various practices are followed in South Africa. I merely suggest them as terms you should look out for on a back label or wine merchant’s description to determine where on the deeply pleasurable-to-leather gums and tongue-spectrum a wine is likely to lie.

So, 700+ words later, I shall get on with the note. I do not know anything about it other than it being grown in vineyards with decomposed granitic soils and The Editor and I having tried it before and thinking it was cracking! The Editor said he wanted a wine with dinner that would not disappoint, so two and a half hours before we were due to eat I double decanted this. The moment we had waited for that time to crawl by before we could have a bleeding glass of wine, we happily commenced drinking.

Epilogue Syrah 2016 South Africa bottleEpilogue Syrah 2016, Boschkloof

As it’s often the case with South African Syrah, this Epilogue Syrah gives a very convincing impression on the nose of belong a very classy, seriously complex Northern Rhône Syrah.

There are aromas of plums, maybe a touch of pruniness to them, spice and pretty complex earthiness. It is a shade boozy, but that’s not a problem on a big, confident nose like this. The alcohol is in balance with all the other constituent parts and it all seems very smart.

So what would aid you in not immediately guessing this Epilogue Syrah as one of the bigger Côte-Rôtie wines? Firstly, it is clean. Even these days, many Rhône producers have trouble keeping the dreaded Brett out of their ferments. Unfortunately, this results in a lot of them having slightly shitty aromas to them. Yuck.

Not everyone in the Northern Rhône has wineries riddled with Brett, so you need an extra clue or two to guess South African Syrah blind. I find South African Syrahs are really peppery. This is a highly pleasing character of lots of freshly ground pepper on the nose. The Epilogue definitely expresses this character.

The other clue I would suggest, present on the nose of this wine to a lovely degree, is that they have a definite character of cherry fruit. This is highly attractive and is one of the things that makes Sooth African Syrah a real pleasure to sniff.

So we have got the nose sussed. How is the palate? Fiercely tannic, for a start. However, I think with the Epilogue Syrah the tannin is in balance with the other components and it not over extracted. Close, but no leather tongue! Phew!

There is a lot of freshly ground black pepper and spice that really charges this palate with interest – whilst it is Rhône-y it is just a bit different. Good! We like regional character!

There is regional character with the fruit as well, plenty of delicious cherry flavours along with the more traditional plumminess. There is a good earthy seasoning as well that adds additional complexity. This is all jolly nice!

Finally, there is a good level of acidity that keeps the Epilogue fresh and lively and it has a nice, long, complex finish. Epilogue Syrah has plenty of trumps in its hand.

Indeed, it is a really good wine. Despite the tannin it has the harmony to age and if I were you I would be buying this for the cellar. After ten years plus age you will be chuffed to pieces with your clever purchase of Epilogue Syrah. This is a wine that will really impress your wine loving friends, but definitely buy it for ageing. Buy me a couple of bottles for ageing while you are at it, if you would be so kind. Cheers!

Buy this from Handford.