John Livingstone-Learmonth, 2005: Syrah lies at the heart of the Northern Rhone, a variety that finds a natural habitat in the temperate climes of this region. As with Pinot Noir in Burgundy, it grows here towards the northern extremes of its ripening, and it is a misconception to consider it is a hot-weather variety. Finesse, integration of flavours, and complexity are achievable if the wine is not subjected to excess heat day and night.
Conclusions from the tasting:
It has long been fashionable for United Kingdom-based wine-writers to rather patronise New Zealand syrah. On a good day, a New Zealand syrah might be compared with a better Crozes-Hermitage, for example. Virtually never is comparison with Hermitage or Cote Rotie invoked. The likely cause for this blind-spot seems to be, that very rarely if ever do United Kingdom wine-writers set up properly objective blind tastings of wines from several countries, where the candidate wines are seen totally anonymously. Thus in their reviews, these people approach any tasting and review of a New Zealand syrah with mental baggage: that everybody knows the definitive examples come from Hermitage, maybe Cote Rotie, occasionally Cornas, so the issue becomes the extent to which any New Zealand wine measures up to their (sometimes unfocussed) ideals for the wines of those places. And naturally, these are the winestyles with which they are familiar, which adds to the subconscious bias.
Such an approach needless to say poses a very different question from facing up to a line-up of 12 unknown wines, though you know two are French, and appraising the varietal accuracy and syrah quality each wine may show. Thus it is hard for any New Zealand syrah to score much above 18 / just into the 90s, in these British evaluations.
In contrast to the British approach, in this Wellington tasting designed for the benefit of keen customers of Regional Wines, the goal was to assess which current New Zealand syrahs were ‘Worth Cellaring’. Two reputable labels from the Northern Rhone Valley, one from Hermitage, and one from Cornas, were included to (hopefully) calibrate the tasting. The wines were presented totally blind. 21 tasters (some pretty experienced) were presented with 12 syrah wines in total, all out at once. The tasters’ task was to determine which wine best expressed the essential character of syrah the grape. Tasters were also asked to nominate a second-favourite wine, and their least wine. And then consider the question, for each wine, might this wine be from France.
The results were interesting, in that they highlighted exactly how closely these better New Zealand syrahs match wines from Cote Rotie, Cornas or Hermitage, in style. They matched on bouquet, they matched in flavour, and now that finally, after a long struggle, leading New Zealand producers are cropping at rates comparable with AOC guidelines, several of the wines matched on palate weight / dry extract. This was not the case even 10 years ago. And the other great advance revealed by the tasting is, many New Zealand syrah producers have now registered that syrah, like pinot noir, does not benefit from noticeable new oak. I acknowledge there are some notable exceptions, but there is a tendency for those wines to conform to a house style, rather than being first and foremost an expression of syrah’s exquisite varietal character. The goal in New Zealand must be to make fine syrah winestyles, not shiraz.
For the 12 wines, the highest vote in response to the question: might this be a French wine, was seven tasters – and this wine did turn out to be the Cornas. The next in line with six votes was the Elephant Hill Syrah Airavata, perhaps due to its class-leading dry extract, plus a whole-bunch component. Next in line was the Man O’War at five votes, for reasons I simply cannot explain, the dilemma being further complicated by it being the least-liked wine. It was followed by two wines receiving four votes: the Greystone, which displayed quite a Jamet-like quality (despite no whole-bunch), and the Hermitage proper. With 42 possible votes for the French candidates, yet the actual French wines only achieving 11 votes in total, there is a fair indication that tasters found it difficult to tell which wines were French, and which New Zealand.
These results indicate how exciting the average quality of these current better New Zealand syrahs is. There seems little doubt that one day New Zealand will become famous for the floral and aromatic qualities of its temperate-climate syrahs. In style they contrast vividly with most of the syrah / shiraz wines from Australia and North America, instead sharing much with the famous appellations of the Northern Rhone Valley. Individual wines mimic some of the most famous. The top Elephant Hill syrahs for example can remind of Hermitage, as the Airavata did in this tasting. A surprising number of the wines in this tasting joined Te Mata Bullnose in being reminiscent of Cote Rotie. And in other wines, there are reminders of Saint-Joseph and the afore-mentioned Crozes-Hermitage, if oaking in the New Zealand wines is restrained. And as in the Northern Rhone Valley, but on a much more geographically spread-out scale, we have the potential to develop distinctive regional syrah styles.
In the warmer, drier years (again, just like the Northern Rhone Valley) syrah in New Zealand is already producing pleasingly ripe and varietal wines over a latitudinal range of 8 degrees, from the Karikari Peninsula and Ahipara in the north, through drier pockets of North Auckland and Waiheke Island, down to Hawkes Bay (the epicentre for syrah quality in New Zealand, where the greatest potential for the variety is found), and from there southwards in scattered very favoured sites in the Wairarapa to Waipara in the South Island. Even Central Otago a full 2 degrees further south can on exceptional sites and in exceptional years ripen the variety appropriately, if France be the reference point, and likewise Marlborough and Nelson. The latter two districts are more on the latitude of the Wairarapa. For most years, in terms of achieved winestyle, the latter three districts bear much the same relationship to Hawkes Bay, as the upland Les Collines Rhodaniennes appellation does to Cote Rotie or Cornas.
All the wines in this tasting need cellaring, in some cases for a number of years, if they are to be enjoyed at their most complex and satisfying best. New Zealand being such a young wine country, sadly the concept of cellaring wine is still almost unknown among a majority of consumers, and indeed most wine-writers and winemakers … to judge from what they write about them. Time is needed … but the outlook for syrah in New Zealand is exciting indeed.
The six wines rated gold-medal level in this tasting. From the left: 2016 Te Awanga Syrah Trademark, a more floral Cote Rotie styling of New Zealand syrah, pretty but not as deep as some of the other wines, 18.5; 2015 Church Road Tom, a big wine which must be rewarded for its richness and depth, but is over-oaked by Northern Rhone standards, 18.5; 2016 Alain Voge Cornas, a totally modern and floral Cornas, beautiful and classic syrah, clearly recognised as a Northern Rhone wine by tasters, 18.5 +; 2016 Craggy Range Syrah Le Sol, one of the most floral and beautiful syrahs thus far made on the Gimblett Gravels, 18.5 +; 2015 Elephant Hill Syrah Airavata, a deeper and richer Hermitage-like syrah for long-term cellaring, 19; and the benchmark wine in the tasting, 2015 Gilles Robin Hermitage, a magical wine combining power and beauty, exquisite purity, and midnight-deep dusky florals, 19 +.
Background information for tasters: Syrah – the grape and the wine:
Syrah, says John Livingstone-Learmonth, lies at the heart of the Northern Rhone, a variety that finds a natural habitat in the temperate climes of this region. As with Pinot Noir in Burgundy, it grows here towards the northern extremes of its ripening, and it is a misconception to consider it is a hot-weather variety. Finesse, integration of flavours, and complexity are achievable if the wine is not subjected to excess heat day and night.
J. L-L goes on to comment that after many years of romantic interpretations of the origin of syrah, DNA finger-printing reveals it is a natural cross-breed between two obscure Northern Rhone varieties, Dureza and Mondeuse. He further comments that the post-war interest in clonal selection and new clones has in general dented the reputation of Syrah, and there is much to be said for the older / original forms of the grape, known as Serine in Cote Rotie, and Petite Syrah in Hermitage.
This is where the New Zealand (and Australian) forms of syrah become interesting, for it is now clear that the main New Zealand clone MS (= mass selection, which in effect includes the Limmer clone) is an old high-quality clone of syrah perhaps from Hermitage itself, brought by James Busby to Australia in the late 1830s. Further detail is available from Gerald Atkinson, undated, on the Stonecroft website.
The hill-slope above the village of Hermitage in the Northern Rhone Valley is the absolute spiritual homeland of the world's greatest syrahs, but the area is tiny. Many people are not familiar with Hermitage the wine, therefore. But understanding these wines is essential, if New Zealand winemakers are to more generally move New Zealand syrah into the world of fine wines. Syrah grown in a temperate climate such as the northern Rhone Valley, or Hawkes Bay or Waiheke Island (in both of which places the grape excels, but it is thriving in a number of other places in New Zealand too), is a wonderfully fragrant and aromatic grape.
At varying points in its ripening profile it shares aromas and tastes with pinot noir (florals), cabernet sauvignon (cassis and dusky florals), and merlot (plummy fruit) … but then syrah adds its own distinctive spice, including white pepper in slightly less-ripe examples, and black pepper in properly ripe wines. In warmer climates, or when over-ripened / left out to hang too long, syrah loses both florals and spice. Hence Australian shiraz. Good syrah (when not over-oaked) can even be described as pinot noir on steroids.
The range of styles which are legitimate has however led to both debate and confusion as to the real nature of the grape. And our view in New Zealand was until recently distorted by the sheer weight of numbers of shiraz wines from Australia, wines which usually are so over-ripe (and often over-oaked) as to bear little relation to carefully-made syrah wines. Our tasting includes both a wine from Hermitage proper, as a reference wine, and one from Cornas, the wines from which (when vinified in a modern way) produce the closest match in style to Hermitage. The syrahs from Cote Rotie are at best more floral than most New Zealand syrahs – though over the years, the richer years of Te Mata Syrah Bullnose have rather consistently showed some Cote Rotie styling.
In Northern Rhone terms, and I suggest therefore for New Zealand, perfect ripeness / maximum complexity for syrah is where sweet wallflower and dianthus florals, black rather than white pepper, and spice, cassis and dark plums with maybe just a hint of blueberry, are all balanced with appropriate natural acid, in harmony with restrained oak.
Regional Wine’s last formal tasting for 2019 puts to the test the $220 Church Road 2015 Tom Syrah against current vintages of all the big names in NZ syrah, one less than a fifth that price: Trinity Hill Homage, Craggy Range Le Sol, Elephant Hill Airavata, Te Mata Bullnose, and 5 others. Our New Zealand wines range from Waiheke Island in the north, via mostly Hawkes Bay, and extend to Greystone (in Waipara) in the south. This reflects grapes grown in districts spanning some 6° of latitude, in contrast to the less than a quarter of a degree the Northern Rhone viticultural districts span. Yet all the New Zealand wines bear some relation to the French model, for the best wines particularly, in their latent florality and spice. To add objectivity to our assessment of the wines, we have two well-rated French syrahs from famous appellations: 2015 Gilles Robin Hermitage (Dunnuck: “serious, 94-96”), and 2016 Alain Voge Cornas Vieilles Vignes (Czerwinski: “another huge success, 93”. Will we be able to recognise the French wines, from such definitive addresses, is the question ? And if it is not easy to recognise them, that rather gives the lie to the conventional wisdom of the British winewriters.
This assemblage of top syrahs should make for a remarkable assessment of the state of syrah achievements in New Zealand today. It should be a first-rate tasting to close the year.
New Zealand winemakers were asked to supply technical details for each wine, to a standard request list. It is a delight to record that all winemakers responded, though one or two were shy about some details. Your help in making this tasting well-documented for participants is very much appreciated, thank you.
Livingstone-Learmonth, John 2005: The Wines of the Northern Rhone. University of California Press, 704 p.
Atkinson, Gerald, undated: https://stonecroft.co.nz/wp-content/uploads/2016/08/Atkinson.pdf
www.drinkrhone.com = John Livingstone-Learmonth … subscription needed for detail
www.robertparker.com = Robert Parker and increasingly the associates (subscription needed for reviews)
www.jancisrobinson.com = Jancis Robinson and Julia Harding (subscription needed for reviews)
# assorted sites on the Net, for individual reviews below
THE WINES REVIEWED – SYRAH:
Participants in the tasting were provided with a detailed Tabulation summarising technical information gleaned from winemakers. This was not suited to website reproduction, so the contents are summarised in the ‘admin’ section for each review, below. Information as at November 2019.
Magenta, ruby and velvet, the deepest and inkiest of the 12 wines, magnificent. Bouquet is not the most demonstrative in the set, but it has exquisite purity and midnight-deep dusky florals, darkest roses, on quietly aromatic and spicy cassisy berry. Oak is almost invisible, on bouquet. This is very beautiful syrah. Palate has a varietal accuracy and focus which is amazing, the oak now detectable as a shaping influence only, the flavour lingering delightfully on deep cassisy berry, grape tannins as much as oak, and a hint of black pepper. Richness is in the better half of the set. A magical example of Hermitage, to cellar 20 – 30 years. Six people rated this their top example of syrah, by far the clearest vote on the night, while four thought it French. GK 11/19
Magenta, ruby and velvet, well above midway in depth. Bouquet is a little different on this syrah, with a deeper duskier note hinting at black olives as sometimes found in the Jamet whole-bunch approach, on deeply cassisy berry, dark bottled plums, and cedar. On palate the richness of the liquid is immediately palpable, as confirmed by the class-leading 30.9 g/L dry extract, with a gorgeous texture. New oak with suggestions of cedar creeps in, and extends the flavour greatly. It is not quite as floral and fragrant as Le Sol, but is longer and deeper in flavour, reminiscent now more of Hermitage proper. This will be a long-term cellar prospect, 20 – 30 years. Tasters liked the wine greatly, three first places, four second-favourites, and six thought it French, second only to the Cornas. GK 11/19
Carmine, ruby and velvet, a great colour, the third deepest wine. How different this Le Sol is from the wines of 7 – 14 years ago. The bouquet is unusually floral for a Gravels wine – nearly wallflower. I wonder if there were sequential picks. Incidentally, it is now the conventional wisdom on the Net to say that the Gimblett Gravels are most famous for their syrahs. This represents a blinkered and non-thinking approach to syrah. Great syrah is floral, a concept virtually unknown to Australian and American wine-writers … and rather many elsewhere too. And in the warmer years, the most floral syrahs in New Zealand come from the Triangle, and maybe other Hawkes Bay sites fractionally less warm than the Gravels. Early Le Sols were much too much influenced by the over-ripe and hence non-floral syrahs of the Napa Valley, and Washington. Le Sol then was made in an heroic wine style. Now it is much more fragrant, floral, supple, understated, and beautiful. There is nearly a suggestion of dianthus / pinks florals on a dusky red rose component, akin to the Robin but more floral. Behind that is dramatic cassis, the subtlest oak, and imperceptible alcohol. Flavour is remarkable too: after those first burly wines, Le Sol went through a lighter phase matching most New Zealand reds: that is, lacking dry extract by AOC standards. This 2016 Le Sol however is remarkable. Craggy Range are reluctant to advise a dry extract number, but the wine tastes as if it is approaching 28 – 29 g/L. The ratio of berry to oak is delightful: a function of good dry extract mopping up the 40% new oak. Three tasters rated Le Sol as their top or second-favourite wine. It can be cellared for at least 20 years, with total confidence. GK 11/19
Carmine, ruby and velvet, midway in depth. Like the Airavata, this wine too has a clear whole-bunch complexity note in its lovely roses and even violets florals, beautiful aromatic cassis and other dark fruits, and no new oak recognisable on bouquet. Palate is reminiscent of the Hermitage, this wonderful pure deep dark berry, with not quite the lushness of fruit the top New Zealand wines show. Some oak shows on the palate, shaping and lengthening the flavours, but it tastes more of big or older oak, rather than new. This Cornas is more floral than the Hermitage, but then the palate is in a sense more straightforward, and not quite as rich. This wine too was well received, two top places, two second-favourites, and the clearest vote of the 12 for it being a French syrah – seven people. A beautiful and classic wine, to cellar 15 – 25 years. GK 11/19
Carmine, ruby and velvet, a very deep, dense colour, the second darkest wire. Bouquet is different from the other 12, showing a lot of new oak, so much so you immediately think at the blind stage: uh-uhh … someone copying the Penfolds approach. But below the vanillin and cedar, there is rich cassis, though the oak-related top-notes drown any floral analogies. Palate is rich, aromatic and vibrant on the still-very-noticeable oak, with a depth of fruit approaching 29 – 30 g/L … I’d estimate. Pernod-Ricard too are shy about admitting to dry extract analyses, but this wine does show grand cru qualities. The saturation of cassisy berry flavours and relatively big new oak makes for a bold wine, so for those who respond well to new oak, this wine was a favourite: two top places and five second. Worth noting that only one person thought it could be French, though. This will cellar for 20 – 30 years, maybe longer, but at the price, few will do so. Pernod-Ricard seemed to be hell-hell bent on capturing some of the marketing pizzazz of the Grange concept in their aggressive pricing, but curiously, thus far relatively little has been exported. In European terms, it would be a better wine with less new oak – but maybe China is the long-term target market. GK 11/19
Ruby, carmine and velvet, just below midway in depth. Bouquet is highly floral on this wine, with a lighter component linking exactly to the dianthus / carnations and wallflowers spectrum of florals which typifies fine syrah. Below is aromatic cassis, beautifully pure dark berries, and cedary oak. There are reminders of Cote Rotie here. Palate reveals a good sensation of berry flesh, and quite good richness, with somewhat lighter fruit flavours, not as darkly cassisy as the Hermitage. This will become a very pretty wine in cellar, as the berry and oak marry up, with reminders of a richer year of Te Mata Bullnose. Tasters were not as keen on this wine as I was, one second place. It will cellar for 10 – 20 years. GK 11/19
Ruby, carmine and velvet, well below midway in depth. Bouquet is fragrant and distinctive in this wine, another with suggestions of the Jamet black olives / whole-bunch approach. The only problem here is, the wine has no whole-bunch component, so we must be smelling whole berries plus the cooler climate. Below the near-floral notes there is some cassis, and a bottled plum like omega, with its distinctive aromatics rather different from Black Doris. In flavour the wine is rich, confirmed by the dry extract figure, more Cote Rotie in styling than Hermitage, with considerable syrah presence augmented by exquisite oaking, but also perhaps just a hint of stalk. I don't have them alongside, but my impression is, this 2016 is less ripe than the magical Greystone 2015 Syrah. Tasters were less attracted to this wine than I was, no favourites, and four least votes. A wine to try before you buy six, therefore, though the style is well within the ambit of Northern Rhone syrah. It will cellar well, on its richness, 15 – 25 years. GK 11/19
Ruby, carmine and velvet, below midway in depth. In one sense this wine smells like a mini-Le Sol, showing similar sweet floral notes on cassisy fruit, with a touch of (also sweet) black pepper, but all a size smaller. It is quite uncanny. Palate follows appropriately, but whereas Le Sol hints at the inky depths of the Gilles Robin, this wine is appreciably lighter and softer. In some ways it reminds also of the Trademark wine, but is not as floral or rich on palate. Oaking is subtle. This is another wine to closely match good Cote Rotie (English wine-writers notwithstanding): it should be marvellously accessible, and good with food. Again tasters did not warm to this lighter, more fragrant, syrah variant as much as I did, so no favourite votes. Clearly I need to present more Cote Rotie Library Tastings. Cellar 10 – 15 maybe 20 years. GK 11/19
Magenta and velvet, midway in depth. Bouquet is complex, dusky dark rose florals but lifted with a touch of dianthus, some sweet black pepper, and good dark berry the exact character of which is somewhat obscured by rather a lot of nearly cedary oak. Oak becomes more noticeable on palate, but the depth of cassisy berry is quite good, and nearly carries it. Compared with the Deerstalkers Syrahs of 10 years ago, this is a much more appropriate styling of syrah, the wine much more grape-dominant. This trend could desirably be continued. As always however, (New World) tasters like oak, two first places, three second. Cellar 10 – 20 years. GK 11/19
Ruby and velvet, just above midway in depth. Bouquet is one of the more integrated and harmonious in the set, but it is hard to tease out which are the floral, and which are the berry, components. The wine is certainly fragrant, nearly suggestions of pinks, hints of pepper and cedar, and good berry but not as deep as cassis – unusual. Palate is one of the smaller in the set, fine-grained, softly oaked, but nearly white pepper now. This seems a smaller Homage relative to earlier offerings. It attracted one first place vote, but otherwise no comment. It will cellar for 10 – 20 years, on the basis of this bottle, but I wonder if it may not be an ideal bottle of 2015 Homage. I look forward to seeing it in another blind tasting. GK 11/19
Ruby, carmine and some velvet, the second to lightest wine. Bouquet is wonderfully floral, absolute dianthus, carnations and wallflower so characteristic of temperate-climate syrah, backed by nearly cassisy berry, but with hints of white pepper as well as black. Palate is markedly smaller-scale than the wines marked more highly, fragrant red berries but tending stalky and acid, with white pepper notes. This is very much in a cool-year Cote Rotie styling, or some of the upland Les Collines Rhodaniennes syrahs. In this set, this is the wine you would think the South Island example of syrah. Being so fragrant, I set it as wine one, to reinforce the concept of florality as a key issue in temperate-climate syrah, whether French or New Zealand. The palate however is lacking ideal ripeness, body, and dry extract. It will be good with food though – refreshing. One second-place vote. Cellar 7 – 15 years. GK 11/19
Ruby, the lightest wine. Bouquet is different on this wine, some thoughts of whole-bunch / Jamet characters, fragrant but not exactly floral, fair berry but not as dark as aromatic cassis, a suggestion of black olives. Several tasters also found rubbery notes. Palate is the most distinctive in the set, plummy berry a little richer than Bullnose, suggestions of black pepper, but then a markedly briny / saline quality to the finish, which makes the flavours savoury (in one sense), and perhaps good with food, but is dubious for French / New Zealand syrah (though not all Australian shiraz). Two people rated this their second-favourite wine, but six their least, the clearest statement on this facet of the twelve wines. You only need to look at the Man O'War website, and the map, to see why salt load is inescapable in this most scenic site – a factor shared with the Karikari Peninsula to the north. Whereas in Hawkes Bay the prevailing wind is from the landward. Cellar 7 – 15 years. GK 11/19