What does New Zealand have in common with the Languedoc? The answer is simple. They both grow Syrah. Syrah has becoming increasingly important in New Zealand, most notably in Hawke’s Bay, and in particular in the sub-region of Gimblett Gravels.
Hugh Crichton, the winemaker from Vidal’s, was in London recently. Vidals is one of New Zealand’s oldest wineries, for it goes back to 1905, and is now part of the family owned Villa Maria group that was created by George Fistonich in tandem with the rise of the New Zealand wine industry. Hugh presented four vintages of Vidal’s Syrah at a small tutored tasting. Villa Maria owns about a third of the 800 hectares that comprise Gimblett Gravels. And Gimblett Gravels is unique in New Zealand terms for it is the only recognised region that is defined by soil alone. Essentially it is a dried up river bed; once it was deemed poor farming country as it fed just one sheep per acre, but as vineyard land it is now highly rated. That was not always the case. It narrowly avoided being quarried, thanks to pioneers like Alan Limmer from Stonecroft and Chris Pask from C. J. Pask, who saw the vineyard potential and protested successfully. The stones provide a thermal blanket of heat, making for an early start in the growing season. Altogether there are about 28 members of the Gimblett Gravels Association; all landowners, but not all wine growers.
Hugh took us through four vintages:
2005 Vidal Reserve Syrah
This was a coolish year, with 1375 growing degree days, and quite a lot of rain – 150 mm in the key months of March and April. The colour was quite young. The nose was ripe with sweet spice and a touch of oak. I found the palate perfumed, with some sweet fruit, but there was also quite a green edge of acidity on the finish, which I attributed to the cool summer.
2006 Vidal Reserve Syrah.
A warmer year, with 1470 growing degree days, and 195 mm of rain in March and April. Quite a deep colour. Quite a firm peppery nose. And the palate was rounded, with dry peppery fruit, and supple tannins. It was much more harmonious than the 2006, with drier fruit on the finish, and a Rhonish note.
2007 Vidal Reserve Syrah
1385 growing degree days and 75 mm of rain in March and April. A dry warm year, but with cool nights which retained the acidity. Good young colour. Quite rounded, dry peppery notes on the nose with a touch of oak. Quite a rounded palate, with slightly denser, more textured and layered fruit than the 2006. Fine grained tannins. Good fruit with youthful harmony.
2010 Vidal Legacy Syrah.
Legacy Syrah replaces the Reserve Syrah as their top Syrah. The first vintage was 2009 and it is not made every year. They realised that part of their vineyard gave even better results, so decided to separate the grapes. 1245 growing degree days with 55 mms rain. The early part of the growing season was wet, but it finished with a very dry March and April. Good colour. Quite smoky ripe oaky nose; some newer oak maybe. And more cedary notes. Rounded ripe smoky palate. Rich almost sweet young fruit. Rounded spice; youthful but harmonious and long. This needs a bit of time and will make a lovely glass of wine.
Hugh talked about the changes over the years. He now aims for lower alcohol levels, 2005 was 14⁰ plus, while the 2010 was barely 13.5⁰. He is moving away from new oak; the challenge is to integrate the oak and he thinks it can run the risk of dumbing down the wine. He only uses French oak. Other things to consider are canopy managemen and picking times. And of course he is inspired by the Rhone, but is trying not to emulate it. He looks for freshness and acidity, as well as fruit, and that is certainly what he has achieved in these wines.
And to complete the picture, in the main Hatch Mansfield tasting, there were:
2010 Reserve Syrah.
Deep young colour. Firm structured nose. Firm dry fruit with peppery flavours with good depth and textured, but with not quite the weight and depth of the Legacy.
And there was also the very first Legacy Syrah 2009
Medium colour. Closed firm structured nose. Youthful with a fresh peppery palate. Medium weight more elegant than the 2010. Good acidity with a certain fragrance and a youthful finish.