Syrah is one of the key grape varieties of the Languedoc, so every now and then it is useful and interesting to compare it with wines from other parts of the world, for a sense of perspective. A couple of New Zealand wine makers, Steve Skinner from Elephant Hill, and John Hancock from Trinity Hill, were in London recently, to present a range of different Syrah from Hawke’s Bay on New Zealand’s North Island. They asserted that this part of New Zealand is able to produce world class Syrah, and that Syrah has an even better future in Hawke’s Bay than the Bordeaux blends that first created the reputation of the region. The first Syrah actually arrived in New Zealand in 1830, and was subsequently planted in Hawke’s Bay in the late 1800s. However, its modern history began with a winemaker called Alan Limmer saved some Syrah vines from the Te Kawhata research station and made his first wine at Stonecroft in Hawke’s Bay in the mid-1980s. And from that hesitant beginning Syrah has developed apace, though it does still only account for a meagre 1% of the country’s production, and only 4% of Hawkes Bay.
Both John and Steve enthused about the transparency of Syrah, that it shows where it is grown. The wines from Hawke’s Bay are distinctly peppery, with region variations depending on soil, and, in the case of the coastal vineyards of Te Awanga, climate, with a strong cool maritime influence. You can’t ripen Cabernet Sauvignon at Te Awanga, but you can ripen Syrah. Gimblett Gravels is just that, as much as 100 metres depth of gravel, with very little organic matter, making irrigation absolutely essential. This is an old river bed with the youngest vineyard soils in the world. And at nearby Bridge Pa you will also find gravel under old top soil. And New Zealand very firmly calls Syrah Syrah, and not Shiraz as they do across the Tasman Sea, asserting that Syrah conveys an impression of elegance and subtlety in contrast to some of the richer, heavier flavours of the Barossa Valley and elsewhere in Australia.
Winemaking techniques were discussed, whether any Viognier was added, and whole bunches in favour of destemmed grapes or proportions of both. There are now several different clones available. And this is what we tasted.
2014 Babich Winemakers’ Reserve Syrah, Bridge Pa
£21.95 - slurp.co.uk
This is a pure Syrah, given 12 months ageing in French oak, of which one third was new.
A rounded perfumed nose, with red fruit. A fresh palate, with good acidity as well as tannin, and quite a dry meaty finish, with some grippy tannins. 2014 was a good dry vintage.
2014 Paritua Syrah, Bridge Pa
£17.99 - henningswine.co.uk,
Deep colour, with a firmer, more intense nose and on the palate very dense, ripe and oaky, with ripe blackcurrant gum fruit, and good balancing tannins, with a fresh finish. All Chave clones. The wine has spent 14 months in French oak, half new.
2015 Rod McDonald Wines Quarter Acre Syrah, - £23.00
A blend of grapes from Havelock North, which is one of the cooler parts of Hawkes Bay, and Maraekakaho. Also a mixture of clones, Chave, Grippat and Mass Selection, from the Limmer clone.
Medium colour. Fresh pepper and red fruit on the nose and an elegant fresh palate, Not obviously oaky even although it has spent 18 months in French oak. Very elegant and finely crafted with youthful tannins and plenty of potential. I liked this a lot.
2015 Craft Farm, Bridge Pa - £25.00
14 months in French oak, 505 new. Chave clone
I found this a touch bretty on the nose, but the palate was quite elegant, but with some meaty notes. There was good acidity, as well as tannin, and the bretty notes blew away.
2012 William Murdoch Coldstream Syrah, Gimblett Gravels - £40.00
Mass selection clones and 13 months in French oak, two thirds new.
Very perfumed cassis gums on the nose and on the palate, Concentrated tight knit flavours, with perfumed fruit. 2012 was a difficult vintage and this was deemed to be very good for the year, with John observing that acidity was the hall mark of the vintage, but the wine was none the worse for that. Increasing I find that Syrah grown in hot conditions, indeed in some parts of the Languedoc, the flavours are too ripe and jammy, confit as the French would say.
2015 Te Mata Bullnose, Bridge Pa
The Wine Society - £30.00,
This wine has spent fifteen months in French oak, both new and old. Medium colour, with rounded perfumed fruit and on the palate, elegant tannins and supple fruit. This estate has some of the oldest Syrah vines of Hawke’s Bay. Lovely depth of flavour and a star performer in the line-up. Possibly benefits from the cooler summer of 2015
2014 Vidal Estate Legacy Syrah, Gimblett Gravels
2013 is available from The Halifax Wine Co - £30.00 and the 2011 from the New Zealand House of Wine - £36.00
Probably Limmer clone
The wine spends 18 months in French oak, one third new. Good colour. A rounded sturdy cassis gum nose and palate. Firm and structured with good fruit, and oak on the finish. Youthful and tight. Needs time
2014 Trinity Hill Homage, Gimblett Gravels
Mainly mass selection, i.e. Alan Limmer’s clone
14 months mainly in new French oak
£61.60 for 2013 vintage from gpbrands.eu; The New Zealand House of Wine – 2010 vintage - £66.99
Good colour. Quite firm peppery fruit. Medium weight elegant palate. Spicy cassis gum fruit; nicely perfumed and youthful. John Hancock talked enthusiastically about his Syrah. He made it for the first time in 1997, and this particular cuvée in 2002. He uses open top fermenters, with 30 – 35% whole bunches, which adds another dimension, but not necessarily every year, especially not in the cooler years. He also favours a small amount of Viognier, as they do in Côte Rôtie, making for supple fruit, and while he likes new oak, he prefers larger oak barrels, including 50 hectolitres foudres. Syrah is now Trinity Hill’s biggest selling wine, with three different cuvées, and as John no longer makes a pure Viognier, he adds it to the Syrah, probably as much as 3%. And he is also firmly described Syrah as the wine of the future. ‘We can make it our own’.
2015 Craggy Range le Sol, Gimblett Gravels
Hennings wine - £55.00. Hedonism Wines - £66.60 – 2013. The New Zealand Cellar - £60.60 - 2011 vintage. gpbrands.eu and The New Zealand House of Wine – 2010 vintage - £47.84 and 51.99 respectively
This is pure Syrah, as Craggy Range does not grow any Viognier and the wine is aged in French oak, 30% new. Quite a deep colour. Rounded perfumed fruit on the nose, and on the palate, ripe with some acidity and supple tannins and a freshness on the finish. More elegant than some, and less intense. 2015 is generally considered to be a very promising vintage.
2013 Elephant Hill Airavata, Gimblett Gravels and Te Awanga
Clones – Mass Selection and 470. 17 months in French oak, 60% new; mainly barriques or 300 litre barrels. Includes just 1% Viognier and 28% whole bunches. Quite a deep young colour. Solid rounded spice on the nose. Firm youthful tannins on the palate; some solid oak balanced with a fresh streak of tannin. Promises well. 2013 was an easier vintage after the complicated 2012.
Other common themes included lower average alcohol – about 13.5°, which makes for more refreshing flavours. There is also a trend towards older and larger oak. John Hancock asserted: do what the vineyard says and don’t apply make-up, i.e. heavy oak to the finished product. The oldest Syrah vines in Hawke’s Bay are only about 20 years old. Syrah generally does not like stress and does need irrigation in the appropriate conditions.
And what comparisons, if any, could one draw with the Languedoc? I think it becomes apparent that Syrah performs well in slightly cooler areas, that it does not like drought or stress and in the Languedoc, could benefit from judicious irrigation on occasion. I also found the lower alcohol levels nicely refreshing, again another lesson that the Languedoc could learn. And of course, the main focus of the Languedoc appellations is the blend. In theory, you should not find a pure Syrah in an appellation; in practice, of course you can. John finished by observing that it was Côte Rôtie that inspired him, whereas Steve admitted to being more of a Cornas man.