The Master of Cape Syrah

Cape winemakers can hardly afford to be one-trick ponies. Unlike their Old World brethren who spend most of their lives committed to working a handful of grape varieties into two to three wine-styles, South African vignerons must tap into the national vinous psyche. Which in most instances demands an almost promiscuous approach in handling a vastly diverse array of grape varieties and wine-styles under one umbrella brand.

Here in the New South, it is not uncommon to find one winery happily producing Sauvignon Blanc, Grenache, Cabernet Franc, Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc, Pinotage and Merlot – with a Cap Classique bubbly or two thrown in for good measure. Port and Noble Late Harvest, optional. It is wild and varied, and we like it.

Specialisation is a rare luxury afforded only a few winemakers. Although, there are a handful of Cape winemakers whose skill with a certain variety has risen to the surface; the yin meeting yang, the experience, craftmanship and commitment offering the consumer a guarantee of something exceptional. Danie de Wet and Chardonnay springs to mind. Beyers Truter and Pinotage. Jan Boland Coetzee with Pinot Noir, while Sauvignon Blanc happens rather well when handled by Thys Louw.

When it comes to Shiraz, my leaning is towards Charles Hopkins of De Grendel, a man who has established an amazing track-record with the Rhône grape and one who has the wines to show why this is so.

Hopkins was one of the first to produce Shiraz from cool-climate, southerly sited Elim vineyards. He made a name at Bellingham, a pioneering Shiraz farm, before moving onto Graham Beck. Although known for Cap Classique, and rightly so, Graham Beck did make some of the best red wines around, The Ridge Syrah being one of them. Hopkins’s wines from the Shiraz grape have always seemed to show refinement and restraint, with brooding dark moodiness beneath the fruit core. But, at the same time, a joyous drink-me appeal.

Since 2005 Hopkins has been at De Grendel, home of the Cape’s blue-blood Graaff clan who, with Charles’s help, have added wine to their extensive list of interests in business and agriculture. In 15 years, Hopkins has helped elevate De Grendel to the top echelon of local wine offerings, making an extensive range of white and red wines accurately expressing varietal and terroir. For the latter, De Grendel sources fruit from wherever Hopkins deems the best sources to be.

The latest patch of dirt Hopkins got to play with for his De Grendel Shiraz ventures is high up, namely the Ceres plateau. A kilometre above sea-level and 140kms from the coast, this site is about as continental as a croissant breakfast in Brussels. It is called Op die Berg, a place De Grendel already palms for grapes with which to make a Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.

A recent addition to the De Grendel range, thus, is the Op die Berg Syrah 2019, adding to the marque’s other Syrah, the one made from Elim.

During the on-line launch, Hopkins used his unique accent – an intriguing blend of English spoken with brushes of Afrikaans and French – to enthuse on the simplicity of his approach to this new Syrah.

The vineyard is high, dry and cool. The grapes are trucked in from the plateau in the dead of night. Pump-overs are done in closed tanks – fermenting Shiraz sucks oxygen like a F1 driver getting out of a car wreck. And maturation is in old wood, French oak ranging from 2nd to 4th fill, for one year.

There was some talk of pepper and elegance and other stuff in the De Grendel Op die Berg Syrah 2019, but the one thing that jumps at me from the glass is purity. High and dry the vineyard might be, but the wine is wet. It gushes and oozes, swirls and flows.

The nose is invigorating, a mountain stream at speed just before it breaks into white water. An aroma of salt and pickled ginger just manages to overpower the summer scent of lavender and sage-brush, petunia drifting out back. To the mouth, a line of elderberry and sour-cherry with a spread of sundried tomato. The splashing stream, however, returns and now the wine runs with bright energetic succulence, a bite of ripe fig, dried pomegranate seed and just an edge of truffled prosciutto.

Yes, in case one has missed it, the wine is absolutely delicious. Drinkable. Yet, a classical beauty becoming the work of a master. Pure thoroughbred.