From the archive: Top New Zealand Syrah from our panel tasting

New Zealand Syrahs – especially those from Gimblett Gravels – are consistently high quality, and excellent value compared to the Rhône. And recent vintages are the best ever.

  • 68 wines tasted with two rated Outstanding

  • The panel tasters were: Melanie Brown, Christine Parkinson & Philip Tuck MW

The summary

The results may have been different if judged by a panel of Kiwis – nevertheless the Gimblett Gravels sub-region and the 2013 vintage were the clear winners, says Bob Cambpell MW…

The tasting raises an interesting distinction between the palates of UK judges, who are more likely to be influenced by Rhône styles, and those of Kiwi judges, who perhaps have a stronger New World focus. If the same wines had been assessed by New Zealand judges, I’d say there would have been an even stronger emphasis on the intensely fruity Hawke’s Bay and Waiheke wines from the 2013 vintage, while wines from cooler South Island regions may not have fared as well. Kiwi judges favour purity, ripeness and intensity while UK judges seem more forgiving about herbal and rustic nuances.

Having said that, I think the results certainly endorse the 2013 vintage. 75% of the top 20 wines were from that year, compared to 62% of total entries.

A number of winemakers now co-ferment their Syrah with Viognier in the style of Côte-Rôtie, claiming it gives their wines punchier, more perfumed aromas as well as silkier textures. An increasing number don’t reveal that they’ve used Viognier, believing it can result in customer resistance or at least confusion. A winemaker recently told me that if he puts Syrah-Viognier on the label everyone remarks on the Viognier character, but if he labels the same wine as Syrah, nobody does. Those in favour like the variation it brings, those against often feel it reduces varietal definition. While nine of the 68 entries declared they’d been co-fermented with Viognier, only one made the top 20. Perhaps the judges are, not unreasonably, looking for strong Syrah character.

The tasting was an endorsement for the Gimblett Gravels region. Around one-third of all entries were from this Hawke’s Bay sub-region, while half of the top 20 wines claimed to be made from grapes grown there. One could also argue that it was an even stronger endorsement for the Bridge Pa Triangle district. Only two entries declared that they were made from grapes grown in the Bridge Pa Triangle. They were both included in the top five Outstanding wines.

My favourite wine, Craggy Range’s Le Sol 2013, only got 16.75 (87) points. Perhaps we can blame the fact it was, unusually for a Kiwi wine, sealed under cork.

The scores

68 wines tasted

Entry criteria: producers and UK agents were invited to submit their latest-release New Zealand Syrahs (85% minimum)

Outstanding 5

Highly recommended 15

Recommended 42

Fair 6

Poor 0

Faulty 0

The results

New Zealand Syrahs – especially those from Gimblett Gravels – are consistently high quality, and excellent value compared to the Rhône. And recent vintages are the best ever. Tina Gellie reports

Our experts were jubilant at the quality of these wines. ‘Top Syrah is never cheap, but the value in New Zealand is as good as you’re going to get because the quality level is so high,’ said Christine Parkinson who, along with her fellow judges, cited the Gimblett Gravels sub-region of Hawke’s Bay as the outstanding area.

‘Gimblett Gravels is probably the best site outside France not only for Bordeaux varieties but also for Syrah,’ said Philip Tuck MW. Melanie Brown agreed, adding: ‘They are exceptional value compared to the Rhône.’

Despite its small size, Gimblett Gravels ‘is miles better than anywhere else in New Zealand’, said Tuck, because of its free-draining soils, which all the tasters felt contributed to an iconic style. ‘The wines had so much personality,’ said Parkinson. ‘Structure, weight, vibrant fruit, fragrance, concentration and depth.’

Syrahs from the larger encompassing region of Hawke’s Bay were ‘a step down in quality and personality but still consistently very good, particularly in terms of value’, said Brown. Parkinson compared Hawke’s Bay and its famous sub-region with the Rhône.‘It’s like Crozes-Hermitage and Hermitage, where being on that hill – or the Gimblett Gravels – gives a profound quality edge that is worth paying extra for.’

The Marlborough wines divided opinion. Brown was ‘disappointed’, while Parkinson liked the ‘lighter-bodied, pretty, floral character’, which she said ‘was ideal for more immediate drinking’. Brown also singled out Wairarapa as having good potential.

Looking at vintages, 2013 is the year to buy, said our experts, particularly from Gimblett Gravels. They felt the older wines showed a more ‘heavy-handed’ approach. ‘Winemaking and viticulture have improved a lot,’ said Parkinson. ‘More clever and subtle use of oak and allowing the fruit to express itself.’ While the 2012s were regarded as ‘okay’, the 2011s were roundly criticised.

Our tasters each pick their top 3 wines from the tasting

Melanie Brown

A New Zealand native, Brown joined the team at Peter Gordon’s The Providores and Tapa Room in London in 2006, where she transformed the wine list to the largest offering of premium New Zealand wine in the UK. Her passion has led her to establish her own specialist retailer, The New Zealand Cellar, which opened in summer 2014 and which won a 2015 Decanter Retailer Award.

‘An exciting, quality-driven line up! Gimblett Gravels was the star, with wines of great structure, elegance and poise. The overall use of oak was well managed and it was clear these wines have the ageability required for this region to have now defined its iconic style. While it was hard to see any clear styles coming from Wairaprapa or Marlborough, these regions have small productions compared to that of Hawke’s Bay.

‘Wines produced from the wider Hawke’s Bay region excited me: while they lacked the definition and structure of Gimblett Gravels, the wines were more focused on entry-level price points and will be ones to watch over the coming vintages. Critics, the media and retailers need to work harder to help consumers understand regionality in New Zealand, particularly the Hawke’s Bay region and Gimblett Gravels sub-region.

‘In terms of value for money, these wines exceeded expectation. If this is the quality benchmark of Kiwi Syrah, we can only hope for even greater wines to come from this still young wine-producing country.’

Craggy Range, Gimblett Gravels, Hawke’s Bay 2013

The quality and execution of this Syrah at this price point is exceptional value. Concentrated aromas of dark fruits and wild lavender, a generous depth and silky texture with just the right amount of peppery spice. 19/20 (96/100) Drink 2015-2030

Ata Rangi, Juliet, Martinborough

2013 Not usually associated with Syrah, Ata Rangi has produced a fine wine here. Vibrant, pretty and well structured with soft mushroom undertones, spice and silky texture. A wine of character and poise. 17 (90) Drink 2015-2024

Giesen, Clayvin, Marlborough 2012

I didn’t spot this in the tasting but Giesen is one of Marlborough’s iconic producers and this Syrah is from a vineyard with a quality reputation. Soft ripe cherries and black plums on the nose, well-managed oak integration and impressive depth of character with a delicate spiced finish. 16 (86) Drink 2015-2030

Christine Parkinson

Parkinson started her career in the kitchen before moving into wine and creating the first wine list for Michelin-starred Hakkasan in 2001. She is now wine buyer for the restaurant and others in the group, including Sake No Hana and HKK, and Michelin-starred Yauatcha.

‘Syrah from New Zealand always seems to be overshadowed by Pinot Noir. Based on this tasting, Syrah’s reputation should be far higher. With several regions and vintages on show, the wines were consistently good, and deserve to be better known.

‘These are not the big, blockbuster Aussie Shiraz-style wines you might expect, but much more elegant, fresh and pure. Where there was oak, it rarely stood out, and alcohol levels hovered around 13.5%. Younger vintages were more precise and restrained, which suggests producers have consciously toned down their approach. There wasn’t a
single faulty bottle, and just a few wines showing a little reduction.

‘The surprise was just how good the Gimblett Gravels wines were. Quality and personality stood out, yet this is a young sub-region. With the prospect of vines maturing and producers developing their skills with this terroir, there is huge potential for it to become a genuine star.

‘Vintages showed variation, with wines from the cooler 2012 being firmer and leaner than the riper 2013s and 2014s. But Syrah character showed throughout, and this was a consistent set of wines.’

Man O’War, Dreadnought, Waiheke Island 2012

An unusual, smoky, savoury style, this stood out for sheer drinkability and for also being the most food-oriented wine on show. Man O’War is a remarkably consistent estate: good to see it continue. 19/20 (96/100) Drink 2015-2025

Dry River, Lovat, Martinborough Terrace 2011

Unusually for a 2011, this wine still tasted youthful and balanced, with deep fruit and lively acidity despite the hot, high-yielding vintage. Firm, elegant tannins are holding this together beautifully, and it still has some years ahead. 17 (90) Drink 2015-2026

Wairau River, Reserve, Marlborough 2013

Marlborough’s lighter style doesn’t always convince, but this showed lovely floral perfume. I think the key is shorter time in oak, giving real refreshment and purity of fruit. 17 (90) Drink 2015-2020

Philip Tuck MW

Tuck is the wine director of Hatch Mansfield, which he helped set up in the 1990s. He previously worked for Avery’s in Bristol, and at wineries in South Africa, New Zealand, Australia, the US, Chile and Italy.

‘This tasting confirmed two things to me. First, that the Gimblett Gravels is clearly the best place to plant Syrah if one is looking to produce structured yet elegant, ageworthy wines. The free-draining soils and moderate maritime climate are the ideal mix, even for relatively young vines. More people need to champion this sub-region. Second, producers’ drive for physiological ripeness at lower potential alcohol was evident. I was pleased to see there’s a conscious effort to produce premium styles at moderate alcohols. This gives the wine a freshness, elegance and drinkability that is lacking in other areas that purport to produce top-quality Syrahs.

‘For me, vintage did not play a major role, though I know it can have a bigger effect than we tasted here. Nor am I convinced that these wines really repay prolonged bottle age. In my experience the best examples will keep for a few years but rarely will they improve. My advice would be to drink within five years of the vintage on the label. Finally, virtually all the wines we tasted were under screwcap closure. A few wines showed slight reduction, so it might be worth producers experimenting more with Diam corks.’

Babich, Winemaker’s Reserve, Hawke’s Bay 2014

This highly respected family winery can be mighty chuffed with what it has crafted here. Beautifully elegant, with a judicious use of oak and lightness of touch. 19/20 (96/100) Drink 2015-2025

Stonecroft, Reserve, Gimblett Gravels, Hawke’s Bay 2013

I was struck by the purity and poise of Stonecroft’s wines when I first visited Alan Limmer – an early pioneer in the Gravels – in 1993, so am delighted to see the current owners are continuing to produce such fine wines. 19 (96) Drink 2015-2020

Sacred Hill, Deerstalkers, Gimblett Gravels, Hawke’s Bay 2013

Another delicious example from Hawke’s Bay stalwarts. Black pepper, fresh acidity and fine-grained tannins give this a European feel – delicious! 19 (96) Drink 2015-2030

About New Zealand Syrah

Until a few years ago Syrah was New Zealand’s biggest wine secret. That’s beginning to change as the accolades mount for a variety that still represents only 1.2% of the national vineyard. Although Syrah ranks a lowly seventh in terms of vineyard area, it is growing faster than any of the top 10 varieties planted. In the two years to 2014 the area of Syrah vines grew by 22.2%.

It’s easy to understand why more winemakers are planting Syrah. It is now the country’s most expensive wine, outstripping the other glamour red variety, Pinot Noir, by nearly NZ$5 (£2) a bottle for the 2013 vintage, according to my database.

Syrah/Shiraz is Australia’s signature variety, and yet when that country’s best wines are tasted blind against the best from New Zealand and South Africa at an annual Six Nations Wine Challenge in Sydney, New Zealand wines have topped the category seven times against four Australian victories and one each from South Africa and the US. That’s impressive when you consider that Australia has more than 40,000 hectares of Shiraz, while New Zealand has just 433ha.

In 1983 there were only a few Syrah vines in New Zealand, planted at the Government Viticultural Research Station south of Auckland. They were destined to be destroyed when Allan Limmer, founder of Stonecroft Wines in the Gimblett Gravels district of Hawke’s Bay, uprooted them all and planted them in his own vineyard. Recent evidence suggests that those cuttings may be derived from original early imports of French Syrah which James Busby sent back to Sydney’s Botanical Collection in 1831-32. Most of the country’s Syrah derived from those vines, thanks to Limmer’s generosity.

The sweet spot

To many wine drinkers, the Gimblett Gravels sub-region of Hawke’s Bay is New Zealand’s Syrah sweet spot. Syrah makes up 134ha of vineyard plantings from a total of 630ha on dried up, stone-strewn riverbed, producing inky wines with powerful fruit flavours.

The nearby Bridge Pa Triangle in Hawke’s Bay, also formed from an ancient river bed with free-draining gravels, boasts an even greater area of Syrah vines while smaller sites from cooler coastal areas and hotter hillsides add further diversity to the region’s wines.

Waiheke Island in Auckland harbour has the largest area of Syrah vines outside Hawke’s Bay, giving wines that are often richer and more textural than those from the Bay, often with a savoury edge adding extra complexity. Outside these key regions, there are at least small plantings of Syrah in every wine region including Central Otago in the south of the South Island.

NZ Syrah: the facts (Source: NZ Winegrowers vineyard register 2014)

Hectares of Syrah under vine in 2014 (total 433ha; increase of 22% since 2012) Auckland/Northland 55.1; Waikato/BoP 3.1, Gisborne 5.4, Hawke’s Bay 332.2; Wairarapa 9.1; Nelson 5.7; Marlborough 11; Canterbury/Waipara 8.2; Otago 3.2

Exports in 2014 26,888 cases (16% of total production)

Tonnes harvested in 2014 2,178 (6.03 tonnes/ha = 35 hl/ha)

Hawke’s Bay Syrah: know your vintages

I’ve rated these out of 10. Auckland/Northland (mainly Waiheke Island) is similar, enjoying slightly better vintage conditions in 2008, 2010 and 2012, but slightly less favourable conditions than Hawke’s Bay in 2009.

2014 9 A cool start then a hot, dry period followed by Cyclone Lusi which did little damage. A challenger to the excellent 2013s.

2013 10 A long, warm summer with modest rainfall. An easy vintage producing many top wines.

2012 3 Wet; the worst in 20 years.

2011 6 Warm and wet conditions were better for reds than whites 2010 8 Moderately cool vintage but low crops of Syrah helped achieve good ripeness.

2009 10 A cool start with a warm, dry finish. Syrah was the star.

2008 7 Rainfall and humidity made this a challenging vintage. Quality was patchy.

2007 9 Very dry vintage and lots of heat produced soft, ripe wines.

Five Outstanding New Zealand Syrah wines: