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Rhône Rangers from Berry Bros & Rudd

by Tom Cannavan, 04/05

This was a tasting of six really top Shiraz wines from the portfolio of Berry Brothers & Rudd. BB&R are best known for their ancient and beautiful wine shop and historic fine wine cellars in St James, London, but this dynamic company has just opened outlets in all of Heathrow's terminals, and their almighty web site marches on from strength to strength.

Berry's currently has a selection of top-end collectible Shiraz/Syrah wines from around the world, now commonly referred to as "Rhône Rangers". These are being offered at specially discounted prices if you purchase a full, un-mixed case. I was invited to a blind tasting of half a dozen of the top wines along with online Manager Alex Murray.

I'm not certain who invented the term "Rhône Rangers", but it may well have been Randall Grahm, the inventive and Rhône-obsessed winemaker at Bonny Doon vineyards in California, who is certainly one of the original New World winemakers most closely associated with a pursuit of making fine wines from classic Rhône varieties like Syrah, Grenache and Mourvèdre. The masked hero that was the Lone Ranger seems a fitting role model for a group that now includes winemakers across the world, who are dedicated to interpreting and reinterpreting the wines of this great French region, in particular the Syrah-based wines of the northern Rhône like Hermitage and Côte-Rôtie.

Rhône Rangers

Giaconda (Australia) Warner Vineyard Shiraz 2001
Jancis Robinson described Rick Kinzbrunner as one of the "world's more remarkable wine producers" and his 2001 Warner Vineyard Shiraz has a very intense and striking purple colour. It has a stunning nose: an opulent, overflowing bouquet of juicy plum and black cherry fruit, with masses of pepper and cinnamon, and all sorts of kirsch-like and floral nuances. On the palate it is wonderfully pure and ripe, with a great sweetness of black fruit, an under-pinning weight of fat, juicy plum and a chocolate-thick, meaty texture. There are bittersweet tannins and mellow oak notes in a long, very focused and pure fruit-driven finish. Terrific stuff and excellent/outstanding. £34.45, or £31.00 by the case.

Shadowfax (Australia) Heathcote One Eye Shiraz 2001
The Victoria winery of Shadowfax has been picking up many plaudits, especially for this top of the range Shiraz made by its young winemaker Matt Harrop. It has a much creamier, vanilla-edged sweetness on the nose, with lovely aromas of caramel and toast as well as full, voluptuous fruit. The palate is super-concentrated, with massively sweet fruit in a huge, perhaps slightly monolithic style that reminds me of a very young Grange. It has fine, chocolaty tannins and a long finish, and is a wine that does not yet have the complexity of the Giaconda, but that may well develop. Very good indeed/excellent. £29.25, or £26.32 by the case.

Eben Sadie (South Africa) Columella 2001
Eben Sadie is the former winemaker at the excellent Spice Route, and now under his own steam he is setting the fynbos on fire with a stunning range of meticulously hand-crafted wines (with less than 5,000 cases of Columella produced). The 2000 was terrific, but this 2001 is definitely better to my palate: It has a huge, concentrated bacon-fat and schisty, smoky nose, with a deep well of blueberry fruit. The palate is just gorgeous; a velvet-textured mouthful of fantastically deep, chocolate-coated black fruits with an almost peppermint intensity. Cherry, blackcurrant and hints of espresso are joined by cedar and pepper notes in a fantastic finish. Excellent/outstanding. £40.00, or £36.00 by the case.

Yarra Yering (Australia) Underhill Shiraz 2002
Made from mature, unirrigated vines from a single vineyard (Prigorje), the Underhill Shiraz has a slightly green, herbal streak on the nose that is faintly medicinal. There's an aniseed quality, before a pure blackcurrant fruit starts to dominate, and peppery, camphor notes add a spiciness. On the palate the fruit is more along the lines of redcurrant and raspberry, in a cooler-climate, Rhône-like style. Savoury and fine, the herbal, eucalyptus and menthol quality persists, in a nicely balanced wine that would probably be much better with food. Very good indeed/excellent. £40.00, or £30.82 by the case.

Qupé (California) Hillside Select Syrah Bien Nacido Vineyard 2000
Qupe concentrates solely on Rhône varieties. This is 100% Syrah from a very old block, aged 20-months in French oak, 70% of it new. It has an almost Port-like concentration verging on volatility. There is a mass of sweet, raspberry and black fruit and distinct floral notes. Charcoal and cocoa are somewhere in the profile too. On the palate it is huge, concentrated and dense, if relatively one-dimensional. It is luxurious and mouth-coating, with fine, plush, polished tannins and lowish acidity giving support to the core of fruit. Most impressive of its style, but for me lacking just a bit of complexity. Very good indeed. £29.75, or £26.77 by the case.

Colonial Estate (Australia) "Emigré" Barossa Shiraz 2002
Saving possibly the best until last, this was my first tasting of Emigré, the much-vaunted new wine from St-Emilion winemaker Jonathan Maltus. With 95-Parker points in the bag, this wine has achieved "cult" status in its first vintage. A blend of old-vine Shiraz, Grenache and Mourvèdre (with a dash of Muscadelle and Cabernet Sauvignon too) it does indeed live up to the hype, with a lovely pencil-shaving, cedary quality and wonderful core of cassis, mint and svelte black fruits. This really is sumptuous, but there's that cedar and liquoricy character adding an edge. On the palate it is deep and resonant, with a massive black plum and blackcurrant fruitiness, finely polished tannins and concentrated bittersweet plumskin and liquorice flavours. This wine has a huge finish and lovely depth and balance. Outstanding.