A New Breed of Syrah
Here in the United States, New Zealand wine sales were up nearly 20 percent in 2015. And while you might not know it from looking at American restaurants’ wine lists or retailers’ shelves, in New Zealand, Syrah is the latest craze.
At Stonyridge Vineyard on trendy Waiheke Island, I’m told the 2014 Pilgrim (a $70 Syrah-based blend) is sold out, just weeks after being released for sale only through the winery cellar door and restaurant.
Once a novelty, Syrah is increasingly viewed as a mainstay. It’s being produced in nearly every one of New Zealand’s winegrowing regions, including Sauvignon Central (Marlborough) and Pinot Noir-crazed Martinborough. There’s even a producer or two in Central Otago.
But Syrah’s stronghold is in Hawke’s Bay, where it thrives on gravel-laden expanses of former riverbeds in the Gimblett Gravels and Bridge Pa Triangle subregions.
Here, in a part of New Zealand that has spent decades trying to get Bordeaux varieties right, “Syrah is our most reliable ripener,” says Lauren Swift, winemaker for Ash Ridge Wines, located in Bridge Pa.
On top of that, says Hugh Crichton, winemaker for Vidal Estate, “It’s hard to get [Syrah] overripe, unless you let it shrivel.”
So while winemakers have a range of picking dates, Syrahs from Hawke’s Bay typically retain ample fresh-fruit character and plenty of varietal spice.
“The Triangle” has deeper topsoil than the Gimblett Gravels, yielding wines that offer soaring aromatics. Wines from the Gravels are often darker and more brooding.
“Bridge Pa has a bit more lushness, a bit more lifted fruit,” says Lorraine Leheny, as we sit among Bilancia’s hillside Syrah plantings that overlook the Gimblett Gravels. “Gravels is a tougher wine, so they make a good foil.”
The grapes from here on the hillside, where Leheny and her husband, Warren Gibson, first planted Syrah in 1998, go into their winery’s La Collina bottling, which has become one of New Zealand’s best wines.
Gibson is also winemaker for Trinity Hill, whose Homage bottling is La Collina’s closest rival, sometimes surpassing it. A common thread between those two wines is the use of a small portion of Viognier in most years.
“I’m not so obsessed with Viognier that I have to have it in there, but if it works, it works,” says Gibson.
That’s not the opinion of every Hawke’s Bay winemaker.
“I don’t like it at all,” says Tony Bish, senior winemaker at Sacred Hill. “Our Syrah is great. It doesn’t need Viognier.”
In Hawkes Bay, the 2013 and ’14 vintages are excellent for red wines. Most winemakers agree that the ’13s offer more structure and longevity, while the ’14s are flashier and more accessible.
“I prefer the ’14,” says Peter Cowley of Te Mata Estate. But even his 2013 Bullnose Syrah, off a vineyard planted to four clones in the Bridge Pa Triangle, did well enough in my blind tastings to make the Hawke’s Bay Half Dozen in this article (the 2014 has yet to arrive in the U.S.).
Opinions vary on the best Syrah clones, but the majority of them seem to echo that of Martin Pickering, Stonyridge’s wine production manager. “None of the new clones have been as good as the original ‘mass selection’ [MS] clone,” he says.
“If you’re going to have one clone, MS is the one to have,” says Bish. He says that MS offers the most density on the palate, while the others can add lift and fragrance.
In fact, although ENTAV clones 174 and 470 have been widely planted in recent years, and there’s another one known as the Chave clone, most of the country’s best Syrahs trace their lineage to the so-called MS clone.
Geoff Thorpe, managing director of Riversun Nursery, says MS may go back as far as James Busby, a Scottish immigrant credited with bringing grapevines to Australia in 1832 and New Zealand in 1833.
As European settlers spread out across New Zealand during the 19th century, they established vineyards in the Wairarapa, near Martinborough at the southern tip of the North Island. The oldest-known surviving New Zealand wine, a 1903 Landsdowne Claret, is thought to be blend of Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Syrah.
Martinborough and the Wairarapa are better known today for their Pinot Noirs, but several estates excel at Syrah.
“[Syrah] is the wine I’m most excited about,” says Wilco Lam, chief winemaker at Dry River Wines. “But it’s the most difficult to grow. We can never get sugar in our Syrah. If we get to 23˚ brix, we’re very happy. We’re often sitting around 11.8% alcohol.”
At Dry River, the Syrahs are composed and tight on release, deserving of cellaring time. A 2008 tasted at the winery was just entering its drinking window.
“The challenge is that we like people to buy six and follow them over time, but we have to acknowledge that there are people who want to buy these wines and drink them young,” says Lam.
Drinking them young wasn’t an issue when I visited Hiroyuki Kusuda at his home on the outskirts of Martinborough. He lined up vintages of his Syrah going back to 2006 to illustrate how the wines evolve.
“I came here to make Pinot—I had no idea how to make Syrah,” says the soft-spoken Kusuda, who studied winemaking at Geisenheim in Germany before coming to Martinborough in 2002.
In 2005, in time for the 2006 vintage, Kusuda was able to purchase 2.5 acres of Syrah planted in 1992.
“At that time, I couldn’t get my hands on Pinot Noir fruit,” he says.
Kusuda and his wife tend the Syrah plot by hand, making multiple passes through the vineyard throughout the year.
Grape clusters get individual attention, as the Kusudas trim off wings, shoulders, apical berries and more in the pursuit of perfection. Berries that are rubbing against canes or wires are trimmed to prevent scar tissue from getting into the fermentation.
According to Kusuda, Martinborough Syrah is characterized by floral aromas and fine-grained tannins.
“There’s a word in Japanese for what I’m trying to achieve, but probably the closest approximation is clear and transparent,” says Kusuda. “And the contradiction of concentration and lightness.”
The 2013 is remarkably silky and harmonious for such a young wine, with energetic notes of black olives, black cherries and black pepper.
When Kusuda was struggling to find fruit for his fledgling label, two fellow Geisenheim grads helped him out. Germans Kai Schubert and Marion Deimling arrived in Wairarapa in 1998, and they planted a vineyard just north of Martinborough over the next two years.
Although Pinot Noir was again the impetus for their move, Syrah has become a regular part of their portfolio.
“What Martinborough brings to Syrah is the same as to Pinot—the meatiness,” says Deimling. “Hawkes Bay is more on the licorice, and we’re more on the peppery side.”
The 2012, from a cool vintage, shows this peppery character in spades, alongside tart cherries and a long, mouthwatering finish.
Even some Marlborough wineries have jumped on the Syrah bandwagon, although nearly everyone there agrees it’s a tricky proposition in Sauvignon Blanc country. These wines are typically lighter in weight and more red-fruit-forward than Syrahs from the North Island. Fromm has been at it the longest, but others to watch for include Giesen, Staete Landt and Te Whare Ra.
With just over 1,100 acres of Syrah planted in New Zealand, it will never be the country’s calling card. But what it lacks in volume, it more than makes up for in style. With their unique combination of New World sunshine-in-a-bottle, peppery-savory nuances and moderate alcohol levels, these are wines that should excite wine lovers everywhere.
Trinity Hill 2013 Homage Syrah (Hawke’s Bay); $100, 95 points. This full-bodied, richly tannic wine delivers. It starts off with savory notes of cracked pepper, black olives, violets and cedar, then eases into concentrated flavors of blueberries and roasted meat before ending with a flourish of firm, dusty tannins. Give it a few years to soften. Drink 2020–2030. Terroir Life. Cellar Selection.
Craggy Range 2013 Le Sol Gimblett Gravels Syrah (Hawke’s Bay); $105, 93 points. The style of this wine has evolved away from the massive ripeness and pure power in its early days to more finesse and elegance. It’s still a rich wine, but silkier, with fresher fruit and more nuanced spice. Toasty oak seductively frames blueberry and plum fruit on the long finish. Drink through 2023. Kobrand.
Elephant Hill 2014 Syrah (Hawke’s Bay); $25, 92 points. This is a terrific American debut for this winery, which blends Syrah from the Gimblett Gravels and Te Awanga subregions. It’s full-bodied and richly textured, with bold blueberry and raspberry fruit combining seamlessly with savory notes of black olive and marinated beef. Drink now–2025. Wine & Food Associates. Editors’ Choice.
Te Mata 2013 Bullnose Syrah (Hawke’s Bay); $40, 92 points. Te Mata’s Bullnose doesn’t receive nearly the media attention of its flagship Coleraine, but it’s a benchmark for Hawke’s Bay Syrah—the violets and pepper on the nose couldn’t be mistaken for any other variety. This is a bit creamy in texture on the midpalate, but it’s not weighty at all, more agile or spry, with a fine, silky feel on the finish. Drink through 2023. Wine Dogs Imports LLC.
Villa Maria 2011 Reserve Gimblett Gravels Syrah (Hawke’s Bay); $61, 92 points. VM takes a huge leap in the Syrah race with this wine. It’s inky purple in color, with hints of pepper, espresso and black olive accenting blueberry and blackberry fruit. A plush coating partially conceals ample structure, while the richly textured finish lingers a good long time. Drink now–2025. Ste. Michelle Wine Estates.
Cypress 2013 Syrah (Hawke’s Bay); $25, 91 points. Blueberries and spice—think baking spices and cracked pepper—mingle easily in this medium-bodied, velvety-textured Syrah. Vanilla oak makes an appearance as well, but overall, the wine is savory, with ample spice and structure. Drink through 2020. Wine Dogs Imports LLC. Editors’ Choice.
Although not all of the Syrahs from these producers are available in the U.S., they’re all worth trying if you come across them.
Ash Ridge (Hawke’s Bay)
Ata Rangi (Martinborough)
Bilancia (Hawke’s Bay)
Cambridge Road (Martinborough)
Church Road (Hawke’s Bay)
C.J. Pask (Hawke’s Bay)
Dry River (Martinborough)
Esk Valley (Hawke’s Bay)
Man O’ War (Waiheke Island)
Mission Estate (Hawke’s Bay)
Mudbrick (Waiheke Island)
Ngatarawa (Hawke’s Bay)
Paritua (Hawke’s Bay)
Staete Landt (Marlborough)
Stonecroft (Hawke’s Bay)
Stonyridge (Waiheke Island)
Te Awa (Hawke’s Bay)
Te Whare Ra (Marlborough)
Vidal Estate (Hawke’s Bay)
- 1Martinborough History
- 2A Hawke’s Bay Half Dozen
- 3Worth The Detour