Back in 2007, I was one of a number of journalists who attended New Zealand’s first ever Syrah Symposium in Hawke’s Bay. It was a bold — some might say vainglorious – undertaking in a country where the grape of the Rhône and Barossa Valleys was still, as the author and Syrah authority Remington Norman put it at the time, at “the research and development stage”. But what an impression the Kiwi wines made on us. After sampling wines from the likes of Bilancia, Trinity Hill, Vidal, Passage Rock, Te Mata and Craggy Range, we came away buzzing about Syrah’s potential.
Earlier this year I was back in Hawke’s Bay for the second Syrah Symposium, this time as a speaker. Before I arrived in the North Island, I had a look at some statistics. What, I wondered, had happened to plantings of Syrah in the interim? I assumed they would have increased significantly, but guess what? They’d grown by a measly 18 hectares to 278 hectares. To put this in context, there are 14,844 hectares of Sauvignon Blanc and 4,753 hectares of Pinot Noir in New Zealand. Syrah, for all its potential star quality, is a bit part player, far less important than Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, two grapes which are not as well suited to its range of climates.
But maybe we Syrah lovers shouldn’t be too down hearted. After all, the variety nearly died out altogether in the early 1980s. According to Dr Paul White, a journalist who has studied the origins of Syrah (or Hermitage as it was known then) in depth, the grape probably arrived in New Zealand as long ago as the 1830s, either from France via Australia, or direct from the Rhône. The variety enjoyed considerable early success, but was all but abandoned during Prohibition. Collards and Matua Valley flirted with Hermitage in the late 1970s and early 1980s, planting the variety on unsuitably vigorous soils near Auckland, but pulled it out as a dead loss.
By 1984, Syrah had dwindled to a single “experimental” block at the Te Kauwhata governmental research station. Alan Limmer, who had already established a vineyard in Hawke’s Bay with other varieties for his Stonecroft winery, was doing a vintage at Te Kauwhata and was told that the Syrah was about to be pulled out. He rescued 100 cuttings before the bulldozers moved in and planted a single row of Syrah on the Gimblett Gravels. He made a bucketful in 1987, a part barrel in 1988 and a whole barrel in 1989, his first official vintage. It is no exaggeration to say that the wine changed the face of New Zealand Syrah for ever.
By chance, Limmer had stumbled across white pepper-scented liquid gold. The vines had been at the research station “for ever”, according to Limmer. “No one knew where they came from or when they’d got there. At the time, I thought they were different clones of Syrah and labelled them accordingly in my vineyard, but it turns out that they were 10 different heat-treatment trials of the same clone.”
And what a clone it proved to be: small berried, loose-clustered and extremely fine. An academic at Lincoln University is currently doing DNA work on cuttings from Limmer’s first row of Syrah, which may yet prove their origin definitively, but for now we are left with a number of possibilities. The first is that it is Serine, not Syrah, the other is that it is a pre-phylloxera clone sourced from France, possibly by James Busby, the father of Australian viticulture. Limmer thinks it is “the same, genetically speaking, as much of the old vine Shiraz in Australia, given the commonality of imports. It was extremely fortunate that we ended up with this old material.”
John Hancock of Trinity Hill, whose Homage is one of the best Syrahs in the country, agrees. “If Alan had propagated a duff clone, New Zealand Syrah wouldn’t be where it is today.” A handful of other Syrah clones are now planted in New Zealand (Chave, Grippat, 174, 383, 470, 877 and 524), but until recently it was the so-called Limmer clone that supplied budwood to the entire industry.
From that original row in Hawke’s Bay, Syrah has spread all over the North and South Islands. Most of the plantings are in Hawke’s Bay and on Waiheke Island near Auckland, but the variety is also grown successfully in Northland, Nelson, Gisborne, Waipara, Martinborough, Marlborough and Central Otago. It’s hard to talk about regional characteristics, as winemaking decisions, vine age and clonal differences have an impact too, not to mention the comparative paucity of examples, but Hawke’s Bay and Waiheke Syrahs generally have different characteristics, with richer fruit in the former and more floral notes in the latter.
Mind you, there’s a world of difference between a full-bodied warm climate Aussie Shiraz and one produced in New Zealand, where the grape variety is always called Syrah, possibly to differentiate itself from the wines across the Tasman Sea. Even the boldest styles (Dry River or Craggy Range’s Le Sol) are much closer to the northern Rhône than they are to McLaren Vale, generally showing lower alcohol levels and cool climate-related pepper spice. As John Hancock, an Australian by birth puts it: “We don’t want those warm, juicy flavours that you see coming out of warmer areas.”
There are very few places on earth (Chile’s Elqui Valley, Washington State, coastal California and western Victoria perhaps) that produce wines that could be mistaken for a Cornas, an Hermitage or a Côte Rôtie, but New Zealand’s range of micro-climates seems to do it on a consistent basis. Syrah, according to Stephen White of Stonyridge Vineyard on Waiheke Island, is well suited to cooler temperatures. “The theory is that Rhône varieties need more heat, but that’s not necessarily true. We get better sugar levels in our Syrah grapes than we do in our Bordeaux varieties.”
Rod Easthope of Craggy Range is another winemaker who thinks that “Syrah is well suited to the vagaries of our seasons. The window of what is deemed acceptably ripe for Bordeaux reds is extremely narrow (a little less than ideally ripe is deemed to be green and mean), but for Syrah there is increased latitude. Medium weight, red-fruited and white pepper-scented wines are just as legitimate as the full-bodied, black-fruited, riper expressions.”
To someone who tastes Rhône style wines from around the world on a regular basis, the complexity of the best Kiwi examples is remarkable, especially given the youthfulness of many of the vineyards. Today’s 278 hectares may not sound like a lot, but as recently as 1998, there were only 6.3 hectares in the entire country. Only a few producers — Stonecroft, Fromm, Te Mata, Kennedy Point and Dry River — have necessarily limited sources of older vines.
Why are New Zealand’s winemakers so good at Syrah? One theory is that the variety is closer to Pinot than, say, Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot, in the way it responds to gentle handling and extraction of tannins. As Pinot producers develop more experience with New Zealand’s premium red, it has benefited Syrah in turn. There’s some truth to this, but it doesn’t explain why Hawke’s Bay and Waiheke Island, two regions where Pinot Noir doesn’t do particularly well, have emerged as the best sources of Syrah. Cabernet and Merlot producers seem to have taken to Syrah, too.
New Zealand Syrah is not the finished article by any means. Most of the vines are still young and the planted area is dwarfed by other varieties. There’s also a lot of on-going debate about the best clones, planting density, alcohol levels, how to combat occasional outbreaks of brettanomyces and the advisability of blending or co-fermenting Syrah with other varieties, most notably Viognier.
For now, Syrah is only New Zealand’s ninth most important grape, but surely that won’t be true for much longer. The wines made by the likes of Passage Rock, Kennedy Point, Mudbrick, Obsidian, Stony Ridge and Man O’War (all Waiheke Island), Te Mata, Trinity Hill, Bridge Pa, Craggy Range, Church Road, Esk Valley, Villa Maria, Stonecroft, Vidal, Bilancia and John Forrest (Hawke’s Bay), Dry River, Schubert, Murdoch James, Martinborough Vineyards and Kusada (Martinborough), Fromm (Marlborough), Millton (Gisborne), Muddy Water (Waipara) and Aurora (Central Otago) are all excellent and should inspire more producers to plant Syrah.
And what about that original row of vines? Alan Limmer may have Stonecroft earlier this summer, but he remains as a consultant and the vines are still there, too. “They’re getting a bit knackered, to tell you the truth, but they still make fantastic wine.” So good in fact, that Limmer has decided to make a special bottling of his 2009 Hawke’s Bay Syrah, sourced from the cuttings he planted in 1984. I’m not sure if he’s decided on a name for it yet, but how about Limmer? It would be a fitting tribute to the man who saved New Zealand’s pre-phylloxera Syrah for the world.
2007 Babich Syrah Gimblett Gravels, Hawkes Bay (£8.44, 12%, Tesco)
16 points. Drink now to 2012
Spicy, meaty and slightly smoky this gets extended maceration to develop its tannins. It’s a little firm perhaps, but it’s a good introduction to Kiwi Syrah.
2008 Vidal Syrah, Gimblett Gravels, Hawke’s Bay (£10.99, 14%, Waitrose)
17 points. Drink now to 2012
Peppery, elegant, hand-plunged Syrah that is neither over-ripe nor OTT. The oak is deftly handled here, as are the supple tannins.
2007 Villa Maria Cellar Selection Syrah, Hawkes Bay (£12.99, 14%, Wine Rack) 17 points. Drink now to 2012
Bright, bramble, plum and red cherry fruity Syrah, with includes 3% Viognier in the blend. Aged in French and American oak, hence the slight smokiness.
2006 John Forrest Collection Syrah, Marlborough (£16.99, 14.5%, Adnams, 01502 727222; www.adnams.co.uk)
18 poins. Drink now to 2015
Already showing some attractive bottle-developed characters, but this peppery, meaty, savoury Syrah has the potential to age further.
2008 Man O’War Syrah, Waiheke Island (from £14.43, 14%, Imbibros Wine & Spirit Merchant; Caviste; Cambridge Wine Merchants; Wine Unfurled)
18 points. Drink now to 2015
This is not as concentrated as the top wine here, called Dreadnought, but it’s cheaper and just as appealing: aromatic, white pepper notes, fresh acidity and palate length.
2007 Trinity Hill Syrah, Gimblett Gravels (£18.95, 13.5%, Swig, Theatre of Wine, New Zealand House of Wine)
18 points. Drink now to 2013
The small percentage of co-fermented Viognier is appealingly apparent here. Aromatic and well-balanced, with refreshing acidity, red fruits and subtle oak.
2007 Clos de Ste Anne Syrah The Crucible, Gisborne (£19.95, 13%, Vintage Roots, 0800 980 4992)
18.5 points. Drink now to 2015
Put it down to bio-dynamic farming if you like, but James Millton’s Gisborne Syrah is a multi-faceted wine: spicy, paler in colour and deliciously earthy and long.
2007 Te Mata Estate Bullnose Syrah, Hawke’s Bay (from £21.69, 13.5%, The New Zealand House of Wine)
18.5 points. Drink now to 2015
Sourced from a 20-year-old vineyard, Te Mata’s Syrah is one of Hawke’s Bay’s standard bearers. Polished, peppery and smoky, this is a very stylish wine.
2008 Kennedy Point Syrah, Waiheke Island (£24.99, 14%, MWH Wine Merchants, 0118 9844654).
18.5 points. Drink 2015-18
Another wine that includes a little Viognier, this is youthful and intense, with impressive perfume, plenty of oak and age-worthy tannins.
2007 Craggy Range Le Sol Syrah, Gimblett Gravels, Hawke’s Bay (£34.69, 14.5%, New Zealand Houe of Wine; Farr Vintners)
19 points. Drink 2013-20
Deep, dark, dense and brooding, this is a very rich, complex wine, showing notes of plum, blackberry, aniseed, lavender and vanilla spice. A stunner.
Originally published in Decanter