Que sera Syrah

09 Oct 2009

Most New Zealanders agree on one point’Kiwi syrah has little to do with Australian Shiraz. It’s always been more about finding the best spot to grow syrah in relatively marginal climates, learning how to grow it as well as possible there, and then tempering the winemaking to show off hard earned, terroir-driven fruit. So, no jam, no added powdered tannins, no acidification, no flavoring with American oak, no fire-breathing alcohol levels and no menthol-eucalypt stink. If New Zealand syrah leans anywhere stylistically, it’s in the direction of the Northern Rhone’but with a New World twist.

Since 1984 syrah has demonstrated a remarkable ability to produce smartly styled, high quality wine up and down the country. Successful North Island producers range between Okahu Estate, Omata Estate and Karikari way up top in subtropical Northland; through Marsden in the Bay of Islands; Matakana Estate just above Auckland; and Kennedy Point, Te Whau, Man O’War, Hay Paddock and Passage Rock on Waiheke Island; down through more than a dozen leading growers in Hawkes Bay (Bridge Pa, Mills Reef, Matariki, Mission, Craggy Range, Te Mata, Stonecroft, Te Awa, CJ Pask, Trinity Hill, Bilancia, Hatton, Church Road, Corbans, Esk, Villa Maria, Vidals, Forrest, etc…); finally ending with Martinborough’s hard core: Dry River, Schubert and Murdoch James.

Given the considerably cooler climates of the South Island it is surprising that syrah has pushed the envelope and found homes in all the southern wine regions as well. Nelson’s Te Mania and Glover make respectable syrah. Marlborough’s Fromm and Domaine Georges Michel cajole very European-styles and further down in Waipara, Muddy Water produce a fine bodied, pinotesque syrah. Winemaker Belinda Gould describes it as ‘Big Pinot, with lovely funk.’ But it doesn’t end there. Way, way down in the heart of Central Otago’s pinot county, Van Asch, Hinton and Aurora are growing syrah in Bendigo on the hottest spots along the 45th parallel.

What’s surprising about syrah’s late 20th-century resurgence is that it picks up where Prohibition stopped syrah dead in its tracks. First planted in Hawkes Bay around1857, syrah was growing near Martinborough by the 1880s. It was there that Italian-trained viticulturist Romeo Bragato judged syrah ‘of prime quality.’ By 1906 syrah was thriving as far north as Auckland, leading Bragato to conclude that ‘Hermitage bears well here, is free of mould and gives a good wine.’ He pronounced syrah and pinot noir as naturally suited to the country’s climates and terroir. Sadly, Prohibition reared its ugly head, the country turned its back on wine and forgot everything it knew about syrah.

Syrah’s resurrection in the late-20th century owes much to Stonecroft’s Alan Limmer, who rescued the country’s last surviving syrah vines from extinction. Following a last minute tip-off that the government was about to bulldoze the old Te Kauwhata vine collection (established in 1897 by Romeo Bragato), Limmer transplanted these old syrah vines to his vineyard in 1984. Those mother plants (TK00080 clone) then went on to seed almost every syrah vineyard in the country.

Research suggests TK is a superior, ancient, pre-phylloxera clone: smaller berried and more loosely bunched than most post-phylloxera Rhone clones used today. These attributes account for much of New Zealand’s current success, as its looseness helps airflow defeat maritime humidity and the smaller-berried, tighter skin-to-pulp ratio naturally delivers greater concentration and lower yields.

The main problem with syrah is that it produces leaves faster than it ripens grapes, demanding intensive canopy management like shoot thinning, leaf plucking, fruit exposure and bunch dropping to focus all its energy on ripening. To further stifle vigorous growth and beat it back into submission, almost everyone agrees syrah is best planted on extremely infertile, free draining, ‘boney’ soils, preferably gravels.

Which naturally leads on to terroir. Although heavier, more fertile soils can produce good syrah with a lot of intensive viticultural effort, Gimblett Gravels is clearly ground-zero in terms of what Alan Limmer believes is syrah’s ‘best, natural ‘terroir’ fit.’

One of the prime indicators of a grape’s suitability to a particular environment is its ability to reach acceptable flavour ripeness and parallel phenolic ripeness simultaneously’without having sugar levels blown through the roof at 14-plus percent alcohol. Limmer sees the Rhone traditionally delivering ample flavour ripeness around 12.5%, specifically because the independent sugar and flavour curves are in closer sync with climate and terroir. ‘In other words,’ he continues, ‘13% is a big Rhone wine. It’s the same here — 13% would be at the high end for us – maybe 13.5% max – but often 12.5% shows good flavour ripeness. This, along with ample natural acidity and a well ripened tannic structure is why our style is more comparable to the Rhone, than Australia.’ Coming from a different angle, Craggy Range’s Rod Easthope adds, ‘we need to work quite hard on finishing the Bordeaux reds with respect to fining, acid adjustment etc – yet with Syrah we do nothing.’ Syrah clearly likes growing on Gimblett’s gravels.

If Gimblett Gravel’s offers the optimum site, elsewhere syrah is capable of offering an interesting range of ripe characters that illustrate both terroir and seasonal difference. As Te Mata’s John Buck notes, ‘In hotter years syrah will be big, meaty and Ozzy-like, warmer vintages, more Hermitagesque, while in cooler seasons it still delivers charming, eminently drinkable wines.’ Again Craggy’s Rod Easthope expands on this theme, ‘I think that that is the great thing about Syrah. The flavours are completely valid at 13%; i.e. red fruits white pepper (Crozes-style) and at 14.5% move to the blacker more concentrated spectrum.’

Beyond dirt, weather and plant material, the human factor obviously plays a strong role in syrah style. Anyone with knowledge of Northern Rhone should recognize that Kiwi syrah’s varietal profile has the potential to make finely structured, long lived syrah capable of maturing along the lines of Côte Rôtie or Hermitage.

This European orientation is partly due to visionary ‘early adopters’ Stonecroft, Te Mata, Fromm and Dry River, who take a more European approach to grape growing and winemaking than the vast majority of Kiwi producers. These pioneering syrah producers, geared toward ‘grower’ oriented, non-interventionist, lower alcohol syrah styles, were further reinforced by Martinborough and South Island pinot noir focused producers who naturally tended to follow a more aromatic, lighter bodied, linear approach to syrah. So from the very start there has been an acceptance of, indeed gravitation towards, more aromatic, femininely styled syrah throughout the entire country, a Kiwi version Côte Rôtie.

Over time a second group of producers emerged who were more historically focused on Bordeaux grapes in Hawkes Bay. They had a clear preference for more boldly-fruited, larger-scaled, higher alcohol ‘winemaker made’ wines. Led by Trinity Hill and Craggy Range, with the likes of Vidals, Esk Valley, Villa Maria, Forrest and others close on their heels, their natural gravitation has been towards more powerful, masculine, Hermitage-like syrah.

What is common to both groups is a constant refinement of style, with winemakers listening to what the fruit has been telling them about making better wines. With unusual candor, Esk Valley’s Gordon Russell summarizes his own stylistic evolution over the last few years, ‘I recently tried our 2002 Reserve Syrah and the things I didn’t like about it, spoil it for me now. Alcohol at over 15%, 100% new oak. Liked by other tasters, but to me clumsy, immature winemaking. Bordeaux winemaking with Syrah. Now that I treat it more like Chardonnay or Pinot Noir I am enjoying the results far more. The wines definitely seem to be ageing well.’
New Zealand syrah is not without its controversy. One of the current polarizing issues involves alcohol content vs ripeness. To put it bluntly, one persons ‘ultra-ripe’ is another’s ‘over-ripe.’ One camp has a preference for a 12-13% alcohol range versus others who consciously push for ultra-ripe sugar levels that can drive alcohol well above 14%.
Craggy Range were the first to push the ripeness envelope, aiming to pick their fruit when it reaches the ‘shrivel’ stage. Rod Easthope, makes their case: ‘Commonly we see Syrah ripening along fairly predictable curve until about 22 Brix (potential alc of 13%) and then stalling for a week or more. But then we see some dimpling of the grapes and a dramatic change from dilute/non descript to intense blueberry flavours – this is when we pick (ignoring what the sugar might be).’
Hawkes Bay winery Bridge Pa take a contrarian view that Syrah can be left on the vine too long which leading to over ripened aromas that ‘move into bottled plums’ while ‘losing the black pepper and floral notes’ is more typical of Shiraz.

Another stylistic choice centres around whether to co-ferment with viognier, à la Cote Rotie, or not. Trinity Hill trialed blends up to 20%, eventually settling around 5%, primarily for the effect it had on texture and softening of structure. Winemaker John Hancock likes the way it ‘makes a masculine wine more feminine, more pinot noir-like,’ and reduces ‘acidity, tannins and anthocyans, while boosting florals.’ Te Mata like the ‘jasmine’ character viognier adds to their Woodthorpe syrah. Others who favour co-fermenting viognier include Bilancia, Bridge Pa, Fromm, Man O’War and Kennedy Point. Most producers feel their syrahs do well enough on their own, seeing Viognier as dominating syrah aromatically.

All of this adds up to a revitalized syrah culture with many potential styles, all of which grow directly out of terroir. After a century of collective forgetfulness, syrah is back on track.

Paul White is an American journalist and writer. He lives in Wellington, New Zealand

Article first published in Slowfood n. 42

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