Wine: Syrah grape causing stir in New Zealand

The syrah grape seems to be better suited to North Island's microclimates. Picture: Contributed

The syrah grape seems to be better suited to North Island's microclimates. Picture: Contributed

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From Northland to Central Otago, every winery worth its salt is having a shot

The grape causing a stir in New Zealand today is not a white grape – but rather a red, syrah. Widely known as shiraz in Australia, it seems it could be better suited to microclimates in New Zealand’s North Island.

“Surely syrah is New Zealand’s future: mouth-perfuming, plums, peppers and still crisp,” tweeted wine writer Hugh Johnson. A host of other writers agree that Kiwi syrah is “classy”, “a highlight” and “spine tingling,” while winemaker Rod Easthope described it as a wine with “no sharp edges with a flow and movement across the palate”.

So why is this late ripening red grape succeeding where others seem to struggle in New Zealand’s variable cool climate?

There are various theories. According to wine writer Tim Atkin MW, it is possible that the clone rescued and revived by winemaker Alan Limmer from a single last row about to be bulldozed in 1984 from a New Zealand government wine research station might originate from the original plantings brought to New Zealand in the 1830s from Australia or even from syrah’s homeland in the French Rhône valley. This would make them pre-phylloxera clones.

The other theory, is that it seems easier to ripen than cabernet sauvignon in the warmer areas of North Island. A warm vintage like 2009 is easier, but even in cooler 2010 and 2011 vintages, Kiwi syrahs are still big, dense, perfumed, herby reds, with refreshing natural acidity and without the Aussie alcoholic burn; more in keeping with the peppery, crisper Rhône style than a jammy, plummy Australian style.

The two syrah hot spots are areas where pinot noir struggles. Waiheke Island, a half-hour boat trip from Auckland harbour is known for success with Bordeaux varietal cabernet sauvignon, rather than pinot. Two wineries, Man O’ War and Te Whau, are making powerful, savoury syrahs in Waiheke’s warm sheltered climate.

The main sweet syrah spot is the Gimblett Gravels area of Hawkes Bay, near Napier: where more than 70 per cent of Kiwi syrah is planted. Now the holy grail of syrah worshippers, it produces exciting wines including Craggy Range Le Sol, Trinity Hill Homage, Vidal Legacy, Villa Maria Reserve, Sacred Hill and Coopers Creek Reserve. Some like top producer Bilancia’s La Collina add a drop of white viognier (à la Rhône) to enhance aromas.

From Northland down to Central Otago, every winery worth its salt is having a shot – with a growing interest in syrah in Marlborough and Nelson: but could they be just too cool? Te Whare Ra and Biodynamic Seresin (who pulled out gewurztraminer, replacing it with syrah) are two who believe that it could have potential in sheltered Wairau valley sites: but less than 10 hectares of syrah exist in Marlborough to date.

Syrah plantings in New Zealand are tiny at 384 hectares, and while there has been a 156 per cent increase in the last decade, it is still way behind sauvignon blanc (20,000 hectares) and pinot noir (5,000).

“Production is still small, but now that wineries have been focusing on this varietal – the best of New Zealand can now go head to head with the rest of the world,” says winemaker Hugh Crichton who makes Vidal’s award-winning Legacy Series Syrah.

WAIHEKE ISLAND MAN O’ WAR DREADNOUGHT SYRAH 2009 STAR BUY

(£29, www.newgenerationwines.com; www.oxfordwine.co.uk; Philglas & Swiggot; Wine Direct; Must Wines; Vineking)

My current joint favourite Kiwi syrah from steep hillside plantings on stunning Waiheke: fleshy ripeness, savoury edge; very impressive effort in 2009 vintage from Man O’ War winemaker Duncan McTavish.

HAWKES BAY CRAGGY RANGE SYRAH 2010 STAR BUY

(£18, www.thewinesociety.com)

Peppers, velvet smooth palate, ripe tannins: a great introduction to Kiwi syrah and seems a bit of a bargain compared to Craggy Range’s single vineyard Le Sol at £62 a bottle in Majestic Wine.

TRINITY HILL GIMBLETT GRAVELS SYRAH 2011

(£14.95, www.greatwesternwine.co.uk)

An Air New Zealand award winner, Trinity Hill winery make some of 
the best Kiwi syrahs. This ripe, succulent well-made syrah has vibrancy, black pepper and spice notes: a delicious well-priced introduction to their style.

TINPOT HUT SYRAH 2009

(£17.50, www.oldbridgewine.co.uk)

For those sick of hefty Aussie shiraz, this Kiwi syrah is a delight with its elegant berried fruits, cinnamon undertones, toasty notes and refreshing coolness. It hails from the stony river beds of Dartmoor in Hawkes Bay.

VIDAL LEGACY SERIES SYRAH 2009

(£16, www.thedrinkshop.com)

Vidal used to sell a syrah in Waitrose at under £10, but it appears to have sold out. Their Legacy Syrah is really attractive with a cool peppery Rhône-like palate.

VILLA MARIA CELLAR SELECTION SYRAH 2011

(£16, Oddbins)

Personally I prefer Villa Maria’s Gimblett Gravels Reserve, but their Cellar Selection is more affordable and gives a good introduction to Kiwi syrah with light liquorice and violet notes.

Join Rose’s Escorted Wine Tour to New Zealand: 18-30 January 2015: email masterclass@rosemurraybrown.com for details.

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