For most UK wine drinkers I suspect New Zealand and Syrah are far from synonymous. The country’s fame mostly rests on Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir, yet there are some pockets of excellence for Syrah (as well as the Bordeaux red varieties) that have been causing excitement for decades now. At the top of that list must come Hawke’s Bay, the important wine-producing region on the North Island that has carved a considerable reputation for the more structured red wine varieties, especially Syrah.
This tasting early in 2021 featured half a dozen examples of premium Syrah from New Zealand, most from the gravel soils of Hawke’s Bay, but also from Waiheke Island, another red wine hotspot just a short ferry-ride from Auckland, and from a perhaps more unlikely source: Marlborough on the South Island, where Syrah is certainly a minor player, but where specific sites are proving suitable for the great grape of the Rhône Valley.
What New Zealand can do incredibly well with all of its wines is capture freshness and vivid fruit flavours. Relatively cool maritime vineyards and a clear climate seem to imbue its wines with a more European character than many from hotter southern hemisphere vineyards. That plays well with Syrah, where many people, myself included, enjoy the slight fresher, more aromatic style of some Northern Rhône examples.
(2021) From the Bridge Pa Triangle, one of the specific terroirs of Hawke's Bay, prized for its deep gravel soils, and the very hot 2018 vintage. It spent five months in oak and has a small percentage of Viognier in the blend. Very attractive floral and cherry lift to the nose here, all bright fruit and freshness, a little green cool streak (12.5% alcohol). On the palate it is relatively lean, firm, tart raspberry and plenty of acditiy keeping it fresh into the finish. £16.99 on a mixed six deal.
(2021) Also from Bridge Pa in Hawke's Bay, made from whole-bunch fermentation of the Chave clone of Syrah, and aged 12 to 14 months in a mix of 225-litre and 500-litre French oak barrels, 50% new. Again, a fine sense of lifted, more delicate fruit character here, but beneath a more solid blackberry weight comes through and just a nice little herbal note of stemminess. In the mouth relatively plush and smooth, a darker fruit quality than the Te Mata, and a liquoricy stripe of tannin and tart, plum-skin acidity gives it some length too.
(2021) From the renowned Gimblett Gravels in Hawke's Bay, this is made with 30% whole bunches and a small percentage of Viognier skins, in 5,000-litre foudres. Slightly more closed than when I last tasted this at the winery a year ago, but a bit of air starts to reveal the perfume, red fruits, violet, but maybe a touch of grilled meat in there too. Juicy stuff in the mouth, sour cherry and liquorice, that smoky/meaty element still there, energy and again, juiciness, strong into the finish.
(2021) From the excellent 2019 vintage, and again from the Gravels, 18% of this was whole-bunch fermented with indigenous yeasts, and it spent 14 months in barriques of French oak, 25% new. Very vibrant in colour, there's a cool, schist and gravel aspect to the nose, over taut red fruit, a sheen of oak. On the palate the wine opens, still with that taut, gravel and graphite cool, but the cherry and red plum fruit is both bright and deep, supported by some understated oak, into a long, poised finish. Impressive young wine. Price and stockist is for the 2018 vintage at time of review.
(2021) From Waiheke Island, which is a short ferry ride from Auckland, lying off the East coast, and is something of a red wine hotspot. This Syrah is matured in 35% French Oak Puncheons, and 65% older barriques. Two years older than the previous wine and a softer colour, and there's a meatiness here, briarwood, game and a little smokiness, the fruit still in the red spectrum and there's cedar too in a very classic style. In the mouth there's great sweetness and ripeness, a fleshiness to the fruit, plum flesh and a bite of cherry pits and a little stemmy wood note that fits really nicely in the picture. Rhône-ish in style for me and very good.
(2021) From the marginal and cool Syrah climate of the Wairau Valley in Marlborough, this came from a warm season. It has 2% Viognier in the blend and comes from 27-year-old vines, no stems were included in the indigenous ferment and it was in oak for 18 months. So fragrant and perfumed, back to a very lifted floral signature here, violet and kirsch, something pot-pourri-like with Asian spice. In the mouth just a little drier than I had expected, the fruit a little shy, certainly not un-enjoyable, but slightly short and quite straightforward.