Tim Atkin MW on New Zealand Syrah

Tim Atkin People & Places Articles
  • Monday 2 August 2010

Back in 2007, I was one of a number of journalists who attended New Zealand’s first-ever Syrah Symposium, in Hawke’s Bay. It was a bold – some might say vainglorious – undertaking in a country where the grape of the Rhône and Barossa Valleys was still, as the author and Syrah authority Remington Norman put it at the time, ‘at the research and development stage’. But what an impression the Kiwi wines made on us! After sampling wines from the likes of Bilancia, Trinity Hill, Vidal, Passage Rock, Te Mata and Craggy Range, we came away buzzing about Syrah’s potential.

Back in 2007, I was one of a number of journalists who attended New Zealand’s first-ever Syrah Symposium, in Hawke’s Bay. It was a bold – some might say vainglorious – undertaking in a country where the grape of the Rhône and Barossa Valleys was still, as the author and Syrah authority Remington Norman put it at the time, ‘at the research and development stage’. But what an impression the Kiwi wines made on us! After sampling wines from the likes of Bilancia, Trinity Hill, Vidal, Passage Rock, Te Mata and Craggy Range, we came away buzzing about Syrah’s potential.

This year I was back in Hawke’s Bay for the second Syrah Symposium, this time as a speaker. Before I arrived, I had a look at some statistics. What, I wondered, had happened to plantings of Syrah in the interim? I assumed they would have increased significantly, but by how much? In fact, they’d grown by a measly 18ha (hectares), to 278ha. To put this in context, there are 14,844ha of Sauvignon Blanc and 4,753ha of Pinot Noir in New Zealand. Syrah, for all its potential star quality, is a bit-part player, far less important even than Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, two grapes which are not as well suited to its range of climates.

But maybe we Syrah lovers shouldn’t be too downhearted. After all, the variety nearly died out in the 1980s. According to Dr Paul White, a journalist who has studied the origins of Syrah (or Hermitage as it was known then) in depth, the grape probably arrived in New Zealand as long ago as the 1830s, either from France via Australia, or direct from the Rhône. The variety enjoyed considerable early success, but was all but abandoned during Prohibition. Collards and Matua Valley flirted with Hermitage in the late 1970s and early 1980s, planting the variety on unsuitably vigorous soils near Auckland, but pulled it out as a dead loss.

Humble beginnings

By 1984, Syrah had dwindled to a single ‘experimental’ block at the Te Kauwhata governmental research station. Alan Limmer, who had already established a vineyard in Hawke’s Bay with other varieties for his Stonecroft winery, was doing a vintage at Te Kauwhata and was told that the Syrah was about to be pulled out. He rescued 100 cuttings before the bulldozers moved in, and planted a single row of Syrah on the Gimblett Gravels. He made a bucketful in 1987, a part barrel in 1988 and a whole barrel in 1989, his first official vintage. It is no exaggeration to say that the wine changed the face of New Zealand Syrah for ever.

By chance, Limmer had stumbled across white pepper-scented liquid gold. The vines had been at the research station ‘for ever’, according to Limmer. ‘No one knew where they came from or when they’d got there. At the time, I thought they were different clones of Syrah and labelled them accordingly in my vineyard, but it turns out that they were 10 different heat-treatment trials of the same clone.’

And what a clone it proved to be: small-berried, loose-clustered and extremely fine. An academic at Lincoln University is currently doing DNA work on cuttings from Limmer’s first row of Syrah, which may yet prove their origin definitively, but for now we are left with a number of possibilities. The first is that it is Serine, not Syrah; the other is that it is a pre-phylloxera clone sourced from France, possibly by James Busby, the father of Australian viticulture. Limmer thinks it is ‘the same, genetically speaking, as much of the old-vine Shiraz in Australia, given the commonality of imports. It was extremely fortunate that we ended up with this old material’.

John Hancock of Trinity Hill, whose Homage is one of the best Syrahs in the country, agrees. ‘If Alan had propagated a duff clone, New Zealand Syrah wouldn’t be where it is today.’ A handful of other Syrah clones are now planted in New Zealand (Chave, Grippat, 174, 383, 470, 877 and 524), but until recently it was the so-called Limmer clone that supplied budwood to the entire industry.

Rhône-style elegance

From that original row in Hawke’s Bay, Syrah has spread all over the North and South Islands. Most of the plantings are in Hawke’s Bay and on Waiheke Island near Auckland, but the variety is also grown successfully in Northland, Nelson, Gisborne, Waipara, Martinborough, Marlborough and Central Otago. It’s hard to talk about regional characteristics, as winemaking decisions, vine age and clonal differences have an impact too – not to mention the comparative paucity of examples – but Hawke’s Bay and Waiheke Syrahs generally have different characters, with richer fruit in the former and more floral notes in the latter.

Mind you, there’s a world of difference between a full-bodied, warm-climate Aussie Shiraz and one produced in New Zealand, where the grape is always called Syrah, possibly to differentiate it from the wines across the Tasman Sea. Even the boldest styles (Dry River or Craggy Range’s Le Sol) are much closer to the northern Rhône than they are to McLaren Vale, generally showing lower alcohol levels and cool-climate-related pepper spice. As John Hancock, an Australian by birth, puts it: ‘We don’t want those warm, juicy flavours that you see coming out of warmer areas.’

There are very few places on earth (Chile’s Elqui Valley, Washington State, coastal California and western Victoria perhaps) that produce wines that could be mistaken for a Cornas, a Hermitage or a Côte-Rôtie, but New Zealand’s range of microclimates seems to do it on a consistent basis. Syrah, according to Stephen White of Stonyridge Vineyard on Waiheke Island, is well suited to cooler temperatures. ‘The theory is that Rhône varieties need more heat, but that’s not necessarily true. We get better sugar levels in our Syrah grapes than we do in our Bordeaux varieties.’

Rod Easthope of Craggy Range is another winemaker who thinks that Syrah is well suited to the vagaries of the New Zealand seasons. ‘The window of what is deemed acceptably ripe for Bordeaux reds is extremely narrow – a little less than ideally ripe is deemed to be green and mean – but for Syrah there is more latitude. Mid-weight, red-fruited and white pepper-scented wines are just as legitimate as the full-bodied, black-fruited, riper expressions.’

Complexity

To someone who tastes Rhône style wines from around the world on a regular basis, the complexity of the best Kiwi examples is remarkable, especially given the youthfulness of many of the vineyards. Today’s 278ha may not sound like a lot, but as recently as 1998, there were only 6.3ha in the entire country. Only Stonecroft, Fromm, Te Mata, Kennedy Point and Dry River have sources of older vines, and these are necessarily limited.

Why are New Zealand’s winemakers so good at Syrah? One theory is that the variety is closer to Pinot than, say, Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot, in the way it responds to gentle handling and extraction of tannins. As Pinot producers develop more experience with New Zealand’s premium red, it has benefited Syrah in turn. There’s some truth to this, but it doesn’t explain why Hawke’s Bay and Waiheke Island, two regions where Pinot Noir doesn’t do particularly well, have emerged as the best sources of Syrah. Cabernet and Merlot producers seem to have taken to Syrah, too.

New Zealand Syrah is not the finished article by any means. Most of the vines are still young and the planted area is dwarfed by other varieties. There’s also much ongoing debate about the best clones, planting density, alcohol levels, how to combat occasional outbreaks of Brettanomyces and the advisability of blending or co-fermenting Syrah with other varieties, most notably Viognier.

Inspiration

For now, Syrah is only New Zealand’s ninth most-prominent grape, but that won’t be the case for much longer. The superb wines made by Passage Rock, Kennedy Point, Mudbrick, Obsidian, Stony Ridge and Man O’War (all Waiheke Island); Te Mata, Trinity Hill, Bridge Pa, Craggy Range, Church Road, Esk Valley, Villa Maria, Stonecroft, Vidal, Bilancia and John Forrest (Hawke’s Bay); Dry River, Schubert, Murdoch James, Martinborough Vineyards and Kusada (Martinborough); Fromm (Marlborough); Millton (Gisborne); Muddy Water (Waipara); and Aurora (Central Otago) should inspire more producers to plant Syrah.

And what about that original row of vines? Alan Limmer may have sold Stonecroft this summer, but he remains as a consultant and the vines are still there too: ‘They’re getting a bit knackered, to tell you the truth, but they still make fantastic wine.’ So good in fact, that Limmer has decided to make a special bottling of his 2009 Hawke’s Bay Syrah, sourced from the cuttings he planted in 1984. I’m not sure if he’s decided on a name for it yet, but how about just ‘Limmer’? It would be a fitting tribute to the man who saved New Zealand’s pre-phylloxera Syrah for the world.

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