The colder months are the perfect time for a seductively spicy Syrah. Jo Burzynska looks at this red varietal experiencing a rapid rise in popularity
We call it Syrah, in Australia it’s Shiraz, and this spicy red variety has also been known by a multitude of other monikers around the world. Whatever name it goes by, it’s currently considered to be hot stuff internationally and, here in our cool climes, New Zealand is producing some singularly stylish examples.
While the variety only started to take off in our vineyards in recent years, Syrah’s story in New Zealand goes back a long way. It was one of the grapes brought over in the 1830s by James Busby, the British consular representative credited for helping found both the New Zealand and Australian wine industries.
It initially proved to be a case of sour grapes however, as in its early days it was planted in places where the fruit struggled to ripen. The real buzz with Syrah only started in the 1980s when Dr Alan Limmer rescued some Syrah vines from a viticultural research station and planted them in Hawke’s Bay. The vines flourished in this warmer region and inspired other local winemakers to give it a go.
A row of Limmer’s original Syrah vines are still alive, well and making wine today at his old Stonecroft estate.
These have been joined by hundreds more hectares of Syrah in Hawke’s Bay, now the variety’s most important New Zealand region, as well as in other warmer (largely North Island) regions, such as Waiheke Island.
Despite its Shiraz alias causing some to believe Syrah originally hailed from the city of the same name in Persia, its roots lie firmly in France. This was something proved by the DNA tests now possible, which showed that superstar Syrah was the offspring of two relatively obscure Southern French varieties, found close to what became its heartland of the Rhône.
With its often plush texture, plump fruit and exotic aromatics, Syrah has been seducing wine drinkers the world over. It’s been one of the fastest growing varieties, moving up the top ten of the international winegrape charts, as long established plantings in France and Australia are joined by its expansion in the likes of Argentina, South Africa, California and Chile.
In New Zealand, Syrah is currently our seventh most planted variety. While it accounts for a fairly small (0.6 per cent) proportion of our annual wine production, it’s been growing rapidly, from under 50 hectares in the 1990s to more than doubling in the last decade to over 400 hectares today.
A lot of the excitement that’s been generated by the Kiwi versions is due to their elegant, aromatic cooler climate profile. Rather than echoing the rich, blockbusting styles coming out of Australia, they’re often compared with benchmark examples from the Rhône, with their fresh plum and boysenberry fruit, often threaded with beguiling aromatic notes of florals, exotic spices and black pepper.
It’s this black pepper character, found in cool climate examples such as ours, that is particularly prized in Syrah. In a recent scientific study conducted by the Australia Wine Research Institute, it was discovered that Syrah actually shares a compound with peppercorns, making this a descriptor that’s particularly apt when describing the variety’s aromas.
I’m a huge fan of New Zealand Syrah, which can combine the freshness and fragrant element of a Pinot Noir with a fuller body more akin to Merlot.
With the cooler months upon us, it’s the perfect wine for the season and with an increasingly impressive range of examples issuing from our vineyards, there’s never been a better time to explore our sensational Syrahs.
You can’t go far wrong with New Zealand Syrah: most are good, some superlative and, given a series of stellar vintages from Hawke’s Bay in 2013 and 2014, there are rich pickings to be had. Here are some favourites from the Liquorland range.
Elephant Hill Hawke’s Bay Syrah
Even in the more challenging vintages, Elephant Hill has managed to produce some stunning Syrahs which, as well as possessing concentrated dark fruit, are redolent of the classic cool climate black pepper Syrah character.
Church Road McDonald Series Syrah
There’s a wonderful elegance and aromatic intensity to Church Road’s Reserve level Syrah, with its satin-like black plum fruit threaded with rose florals and cinnamon spice.
Selaks Reserve Hawke’s Bay Syrah
Supple plum and blueberry fruit combine with plenty of attractive peppery spice in this great value example.
Crossroads Winemaker’s Collection Hawke’s Bay Syrah
An attractive midweight style with ripe plum fruit overlaid with notes of sweet spice and pepper.
Mission Estate Hawke’s Bay Syrah
One of only a small number of Syrahs under $20, this is an affordable introduction to the variety with its ripe black plum fruit laced with exotic spice and hints of sandalwood.
Te Mata Estate Hawke’s Bay Syrah
Juicy and bright, the ripe plum fruit of this silky Syrah is given an aromatic lift of star anise, pepper and florals by the addition of a touch of the white variety, Viognier.
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