New Zealand is well-established on a world stage with our flagship white sauvignon blanc and rightly so, but we are also becoming known as a country capable of truly great red wines. Pinot noir is the current export darling and we have a long-established pedigree for premium cabernet sauvignon and merlot-based blends but increasingly, the critical and commercial attention is being directed towards syrah.
This Northern Rhone variety has been grown throughout the country since the early 1900s but languished in relative obscurity and was nearly lost entirely but for one Alan Limmer rescuing vines about to be uprooted at the Te Kauwhata Research Station in 1984. Limmer’s luck was both the quality of those original clones and site of their new home being his Gimblett Gravels winery, Stonecroft. From this serendipitous beginning, a slow trickle of other producers attracted to the variety’s obvious potential began to flow. The trickle is still not much more than a small stream; in 2003 there was 134 hectares planted and while syrah’s growth is been significant at a time when cabernet and merlot plantings have essentially remained static, the total number of hectares under vine today is still only around 300. In 2012, syrah made up around 0.3% of our exports. Compare this with pinot noir’s 4800ha under vine and 11% of exports, or even cabernet and merlot’s combined 1900ha and 4%, and you can see not only how far there is to go but also how impressive the level of attention has been.
Jancis Robinson et al‘s magnum opus ‘Wine Grapes’ captions syrah’s entry as a “Generally fashionable alternative to cabernet sauvignon…”. Nick Piccone, senior winemaker at Villa Maria, feels that Hawke’s Bay syrah has the good fortune to ripen in the more settled month of April as well as have a more forgiving ripening window than cabernet. Piccone notes syrah’s aromatic style combined with its fresh acidity give it a very approachable and food-friendly character that makes it popular with consumers. UK wine critic Oz Clarke’s 2010 New Zealand visit saw him urge Hawke’s Bay producers to pull out merlot and replant with syrah, a recommendation he recently repeated to Marlborough producers: forget about planting more pinot, instead start exploring syrah.
As much as it may seem Clarke was just offering a rote soundbite, he highlights the fact that New Zealand syrah is capable of delivering good expression across a surprising range of regions. While it is true that so far the most feted and consistent wines have come from the warmer regions of Hawke’s Bay and Waiheke Island, careful site selection and exacting viticultural standards has seen excellent syrah produced for some time in Martinborough, Marlborough and Gisborne. There are even some hardy souls in Central Otago, though it would be fair to say that is pushing the boundaries for mid-ripening, warmth-loving Syrah. It is however a variety typically more tolerant of our cooler climes than cabernet and capable of more distinctive and globally popular wines than merlot.
Duncan McTavish of well-regarded Waiheke Island producer, Man O’ War, states, “There’s absolutely no doubt that truly great syrah wines can be produced from New Zealand…Waiheke syrah certainly has the potential to capture the market’s attention in much the same way that pinot noir has done for Central Otago…[who’ve] given much needed credibility to red wine production coming out of NZ onto the world stage and without which something like Waiheke syrah would never fly.”
As with our pinot noir, syrah makes wine that speaks of New Zealand. While parallels are sometimes drawn between New Zealand and French syrahs, tasted side by side the wines are very different. It is perhaps true that ours are more akin to French versions than to Australian shiraz (a distinction further underscored by our use of the variety’s French name), but the combined medium body, elegant structure and highly aromatic pure-fruit profile are hallmarks of New Zealand wine. Warren Gibson who, as head winemaker at Trinity Hill and as co-owner with wife Lorraine Leheny of Bilancia, makes two of New Zealand’s flagship ultra-premium syrahs, mentions that “…the better our merlot cab blends become, the more similar they appear in style and quality to classic Bordeaux. With syrah, the better our wines become, the more they taste like great Hawke’s Bay/Waiheke wines… or of whatever region they are grown. It seems that the variety expresses its sense of place better than most, which is perhaps where all the excitement is justified.”
Of course, the excitement about Syrah need not eclipse the role of cabernet and merlot in New Zealand’s repertoire of reds. Gibson comments, “Syrah and cabernet sauvignon, the truly noble full-bodied red varieties of NZ, would struggle to make 1000ha of total area planted and that is a very small tonnage base to work from. However, both varieties give the heart and strength to NZ’s best full-bodied red wines. Cabernet is the traditional workhorse. It can be truly great in the warmest, driest parts of NZ. Over time it has been a case of survival of the fittest for this variety and finally it would [now] be fair to say that most of the cabernet plantings are in very good sites. I still believe it’s best as a blending option with merlot, franc and the other small bit players as in the typical model; use the varietal mix to ride the vintage variation. So in that way, Syrah is left as the variety that sings its own song.”
It’s a song to which people are responding. Hawke’s Bay Syrah took out the 2012 Spiegelau International Wine Competition Champion Wine of Show as well as ‘Best Rhone Varietal Over £10’ at the 2011 Decanter World Wine Awards. Even the Australians can’t resist its siren call. At the ‘Winestate’ 2011 Wine of the Year Awards, the trophy for Syrah/Shiraz was won by a syrah from Hawke’s Bay as was the overall Best Wine at the 2012 Sydney International Wine Competition. The international accolades coming thick and fast, some of our most expensive, sought-after wines are syrah, producers and consumers love it…it seems there’s no question the future is bright for this compelling variety.