Syrah School. A masterclass tasting experience with Geoff Kelly.

The twelve Syrahs we tasted side-by-side.

The twelve Syrahs we tasted side-by-side.

"How many New Zealand wine people have tasted the great and definitive Syrahs from Domaine Jean-Louis Chave Hermitage and the now-resurrected Jaboulet Hermitage La Chapelle together?" - Geoff Kelly

This is one of the many thoughts I imagine run through Geoff Kelly's mind when creating these tasting experiences that challenge anything you'll see at the local wine shop.  As far as I'm aware, Geoff creates these tastings from his own cellar - it's this incredible foresight of purchasing, cellaring, compiling and waiting that add to the overall experience.

Another key part of the experience is the audience.  While a Geoff Kelly tasting should be a mandatory life experience for anyone who enjoys the concept of fine wine - the audience in attendance is all part of the fun.  You'll more most likely be seated next to some of New Zealand's finest vignerons, experienced collectors, writers and aspiring cellar rats - who like you, are there to learn, discuss and share thoughts and opinions on the wines as you taste them.  Blind.

That's right.  The format of the evening (once you've listened to Geoff's musings on the chosen varietal) are to pour, taste and evaluate the wines blind - in an order chosen by Geoff.

The twelve Syrahs tasted blind with my scrawling notes.

The twelve Syrahs tasted blind with my scrawling notes.

Image: David Nash -   The view from the top of Hermitage Hill, overlooking Tain L'Hermitage below.

Image: David Nash - The view from the top of Hermitage Hill, overlooking Tain L'Hermitage below.

I travelled through the Rhone Valley in July 2017, and it is a truly stunning, rugged, architectural landscape.  Hermitage Hill itself is so perfect, it looks like it's been purpose built to frame the town below.  The centuries of learning, refining and selecting the finest sites is awe-inspiring.  It's a journey we are at the beginning of in New Zealand right now.

The New Zealand Wines:

The beauty of tasting such a wide range of the same style of wine blind?  Price is taken out the equation.  With wines from $20+ to nearly $700, it was an interesting exercise.  The only challenge laid down by Geoff is to pick what what wines are from the Rhone Valley and which were from New Zealand.

I managed to identify 8 out of 12 wines by region, which was easily 50% guess work and 50% evaluation.  The standout wine for the group was the 2009 Craggy Range Syrah.  I had noted that this could have been from the the Rhone, with its dense fruit core, smooth fine tannins and liquorice spice and a hint of sour cherry, was such a joy to drink.

"It should be mandatory for every home in New Zealand to have a case of this (Craggy Range) under the house" - Geoff Kelly

Another New Zealand wine that took me by surprise was the 2009 Villa Maria Syrah Reserve.  Possibly it was its placement as the 5th wine served, but it immediately impressed with a softer ruby colour with developed deep blackcurrants, spice, liquorice, vanilla from oak.

The Rhone Wines:

Overall the wines of Hermitage were a real delight.  While there was the inevitable cork taint issues and some mild-Brett (as the winemakers in the group explained), it was an impressive line up.

In my notes the 2009 Jean-Louis Chave Hermitage was a stand out -  "deliciously Bretty" as Stonyridge winemaker Martin Pickering put it.  Restrained nose, condensed cherry, smooth core with a lengthy spiced-vanilla finish was how I put it.  

The 2004 Jean-Louis Chave Hermitage was the mild-TCA victim of the night, but I doubt most fine wine enthusiasts would have picked it up.  Several winemakers however, a tough gauntlet.  On reflection I could see the taint, but on first blush I thought the wine had good balance, nice complexity of dark fruit and sweet spice.

1999 Jean-Louis Chave Hermitage was the final wine of the night.  Evaluated blind, the colour was an immediate indicator as it was the only wine to show a significant shift toward the rim.  The fruit profile was warmer with baked cherry pie, cooked cinnamon and baking spices. Yum.

It's great to hear that Jaboulet now has a new agent in New Zealand, Dhall & Nash.  So getting access to these wines should be more and more accessible into the future.  The 2009 Jaboulet Hermitage La Petite Chapelle is a serious second wine to the 2009 Jaboulet Hermitage La Chapelle  - both all class with 92 and 97+ Parker Points respectively.  I found the La Petite brighter and very approachable now, possibly the La Chapelle proper is still on it's upward trajectory of development by bottle age.

Upcoming Tastings:

Overall the quality and throrough nature of the tasting was an inspiration and with talk of an upcoming Bordeaux tasting of the 70's, be sure to keep an eye on Geoff's website: