After exploring syrah from Gimblett Gravels, Peter Ranscombe casts his net wider to look at other parts of New Zealand.
WINES fall into two categories.
There are the crowd-pleasing styles that most fans will recognise – Prosecco from Italy, shiraz from Australia, sauvignon blanc from Marlborough.
Then there are the niches, the bottles about which wine geeks get excited.
And New Zealand syrah is a niche within a niche.
Gaze along the UK supermarkets’ shelves or restaruants’ home-delivery wine lists and New Zealand occupies a commanding position that belies its size.
In fact, Scotland’s cousin in the southern hemisphere accounts for just 0.5% of global wine production.
That ranks the Kiwis in 31st place in terms of global output, sitting between Mexico and Uruguay, as master of wine Rebecca Gibb reminded her audience during an online tasting on Friday to mark New Zealand Wine Week.
About 437 of the country’s 40,000 hectares of vineyards are planted with syrah, dwarfed by the 25,000ha dedicated to sauvignon blanc and the 5,600ha turned over to pinot noir.
Some 339 of those 437ha of syrah are planted in the Hawke’s Bay region on the North Island, with the focus sitting firmly on the Gimblett Gravels area.
Crunching the gravel’s tannins
The gravels starred in one of my “12 Wines of Christmas” articles; with a similar number of growing days to Bordeaux in France, it’s a marginal climate for syrah, which tends to be planted in warmer climes.
Gibb characterised New Zealand’s cool climate syrahs as “perfumed and vibrant”, pointing to their peppery flavours and acidity.
That freshness was definitely on show in the two examples she plucked from the Gimblett Gravels.
The 2018 Trinity Hill Gimblett Gravels Syrah (£22.95, The Fine Wine Company) offered fragrant violet and redcurrant peeking out from the blackcurrant on the nose, with echoes of that redcurrant coming through on the finish after a blast of blackcurrant and blueberry.
Its tannins have grip – a characteristic of wines from the gravels – and there’s plenty of acidity there too.
Similarly, the 2019 Craggy Range Gimblett Gravels Syrah (2018: £21.99, Waitrose Cellar) had texture and freshness.
It kicked the aromas and flavours up a notch, with even more violet on the nose, which was joined by roast meat aromas, before launching into a complex mix of juicy black fruit, mint, and vanilla on the palate.
Gibb called 2019 a “legendary” vintage for the gravels and the Craggy Range example definitely showed lots of promise through the intensity of its flavours.
A hawk-like focus
Gimblett Gravels may be home to the most-famous syrah, but other parts of Hawke’s Bay also grow the grape.
The fruit for the 2018 Te Mata Estate Syrah (£16.99, Majestic Wine) comes from the Bridge Pa and Woodthorpe Terraces, producing really intense blackcurrant on the nose and palate.
It was perhaps the most accessible of the wines on show during the virutal masterclass, with soft tannins, juicy fruit, and that tell-tale cool climate syrah acidity.
The 2018 Paritua Syrah (£31.99, Amathus Drinks) captured the more savoury side of Hawke’s Bay syrah, with roast meat, wood smoke, and spicy mace notes on the nose, alongside the blackcurrant.
Lots of complexity on the palate too, with deeper black fruit flavours, plus mint, and surprisingly-subtle vanilla, considering 50% of the oak used to age the wine for a year was new French wood.
The tannins were still ripe but more assertive than the Te Mata, lending themselves more to pairing with pork or melt-in-the-mouth slow-cooked stewing steak.
Venturing beyond the bay
Staying on the North Island and heading up to Auckland, Gibb’s tour of syrah brought us to Waiheke Island, a fast 40-minute ferry ride from the nation’s largest city, which brings one million visitors each year to swell the island’s population of 10,000.
That influx of tourists means Waiheke is to New Zealand what Napa is to California – having affluent buyers on its doorstep means the price of wine rises.
That’s why the 2017 Man O’ War Dreadnaught Syrah (£32.50, Vintriloquy) is excellent value, even above the £30-mark – a complex mix of smoky bacon, wood smoke, and layered blackberry and blackcurrant on the nose led into more roast meat, dark chocolate, cocoa, and black fruit on the palate, wrapped in mouth-filling tannins that would lend themselves to food.
Gibb compared its aromas to the peaty smoke of Islay whisky.
Our journey ended on the South Island and sauvignon blanc’s spiritual home in Marlborough with the 2016 Frome Vineyard Syrah (£42.50, Hard to Find Wines), which delivered complex dark chocolate, wood smoke, blackcurrant, and blueberry on the nose, plus a spectrum of flavours on the palate ranging from roast meat and pruney dark fruit through to dark chocolate and brown sugar.
Its savoury, grippy nature reminded me not to dismiss unexpected varieties from familiar locations – after all, there’s nothing wrong with finding a niche that’s as good as syrah in New Zealand.
Read more of Peter’s wine, beer, and spirits reviews on his drinks blog, The Grape & The Grain.