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Secret Syrah in New Zealand

by Jim Clarke
August 2006

Shhh…don’t tell them about the Syrah. After a visit to Hawkes Bay in New Zealand, I feel like I’m about to give them some unwanted publicity. You see, the Syrahs here are quite good, with a definite stylistic contrast to the heaps of Shiraz made not far away in Australia. But while Australia has an overabundance of grapes, including Shiraz, Syrah makes up only a tiny amount of Hawkes Bay’s vines, so there isn’t much to go around. Most of the best vineyard acreage is already planted, so there’s unlikely to be a big increase in supply, either.

Lying on the Southeast side of the country’s north island, Hawkes Bay enjoys a relatively warm climate. Many liken it to Bordeaux, and like Bordeaux the neighboring sea helps moderate temperatures and prevent heat spikes in summer, so the grapes can ripen evenly and the physiological maturity (flavor development) can keep pace with sugar (and therefore alcoholic) ripeness.

Other similarities to Bordeaux also arise: in 1867 the Ngauroro River changed course after a flood, and the gravels of the exposed former riverbed offer similar drainage to the Medoc. That area, now known as the Gimblett Gravels Wine Growing District, is responsible for Hawkes Bay’s most distinctive wines.

The area’s winemakers have not been slow to exploit these similarities, and Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc make up a high proportion of the plantings. The resulting wines lie in between and Bordeaux and Napa in style, with the former’s structure and some of the latter’s fruit. Most of the wineries make single varietal wines in addition to a blend, which is usually their flagship wine.

So why, then, am I talking about Syrah? Syrah plantings are increasing all over the world, and many winemakers are trying for a style that leans toward the meaty, smoky flavors of the Rhône rather than the sumptuous fruitiness of Australia. Some are succeeding, most notably in Washington and parts of California. But while the flavor profile of those wines may have a Gallic touch, many of them still have the high-alcohol weight that reveals their hot climate origins.

The Syrahs of Hawkes Bay, however, are more restrained, presumably due to that maritime breeze – few other Syrah areas are this close to the ocean. The restraint shows in the wine’s structure, ageability, and food-friendliness. With Australia so nearby, you’d think the wineries would want the marketing advantage that comes with the popularity of Shiraz; the wines, however, are something else, so so is the name.

Some Recommended Wines

The Te Awa Syrah 2004 is remarkable for its complexity, showing aromas ranging from dark fruits like pomegranate and blackberry to black olive to smoked meat and cracked black pepper. It’s medium to full-bodied and very focused; while it’s drinking well now, its structure suggests there’s more to come after a few years of aging. Te Awa also makes a single-vineyard Syrah, the Zone 2; the 2004 is fuller and earthier and, unlike the basic bottling, really needs a couple of years or some food to bring out its aromas.

Craggy Range makes two Syrahs as well, both from individual vineyards. The Block 14 Syrah 2004 has about the same weight as Te Awa’s wine, but is less meaty; aromas instead include blueberry, graphite, smoke, and earth. It’s also a touch more tannic, with impressive length. The premium bottling, Le Sol, has a similar, but more subdued, elegant flavor profile, despite being fuller in the mouth.

The Te Mata Bullnose Syrah 2004 is a touch fruitier, with notes of plum and boysenberry, but there’s still an enjoyable meatiness and the tell-tale note of black pepper. It’s got impressive length as well, with moderate tannins.