Among the perils of being a wine writer is being surrounded by bottles of wine and the temptation to pour a large glass of the best ones. When it comes to Syrah and New Zealand today, the best have  noticeably risen in quality over the past four years, as winemaker Hugh Crichton told me, over a glass of his new 2015 Vidal Reserve Syrah, which costs approximately $20.95.

  • Syrah is now the third most planted red grape in New Zealand with approximately 440 hectares nationwide, mostly in Hawke’s Bay with promising examples also made on Waiheke Island. It accounts for less than one tenth of the quantity of Pinot Noir made in New Zealand, as of 2017.

Why, I asked Hugh, is Syrah on a roll in Hawke’s Bay today – and is it still growing, percentage-wise?

“I see Syrah playing a strong part in the quality story of Hawke’s Bay. It’s a premium variety that can command high prices  in many of the places it is grown around the world. From this point of view it aligns well with the quality story we are also telling with Chardonnay and the Merlot/Cabernet blends grown in Hawkes Bay.”

What about its growth… how’s it doing?

“There’s a growing critical mass of very good examples of Syrah now coming out of Hawke’s Bay – an important factor when going to the market and saying we believe Hawke’s Bay makes great Syrah. You need to back that statement up with more than just a couple of great examples.”

Why does it work in the Bay, in your view?

“Syrah’s style versatility lends itself to being a suitable variety in Hawke’s Bay. In cooler years it’s still possible to make a very acceptable Syrah, albeit a lighter, fresher, spicier/floral example as compared to the richer styles produced in warmer years. The same can’t be said for all later ripening red varieties. Is it more suitable than other red varieties – I’m not so sure but what Hawke’s Bay does create is a fairly distinctive style of Syrah, with a growing following and one that is recognised for quality by wine critics around the world. It’s good to be different if that different is good.

“Shiraz vs Syrah – they both bring different things to the table.”

Tell us about the pros and cons of Syrah in the Bay – how does it differ from Cabernets Franc and Sauvignon?

“Here are my pros:

  • Syrah has a certain amount of uniqueness and differentiates itself away from the bigger, fuller, richer, heavier more alcoholic styles from the hot vinicultural regions of the world.
  • Acceptable styles of Syrah can be produced from most vintages.
  • It has elements of freshness, fragrance and real drinkability but not at the expense of flavour and depth. There is real consumer interest in these style across a number of varieties. The challenge is to have depth and concentration of flavour with in a lighter framework.
  • It’s almost impossible, except in the hottest of years, to make “Shiraz” styled Syrahs. This, I think, is a good thing  – climate dictating style will lead to a greater chance of style becoming reasonably consistent and therefore recognisable from vintage to vintage.
  • It’s natural style  – very little or no need to make adjustments in the winery. This can’t be said for all regions in the world where Syrah is grown. Our acidity is natural acidity – nothing added.

 

 

And the cons?

  • If grown in cooler sites or where it is over cropped, the spice/pepper element can dominate the wine along with higher acid levels. There’s not  a great deal around so will need to grow more to get it over more people’s lips.
  • It can be expensive to some – particularly when grown on better sites, at lower yields and when aged in good quality French oak up to 20 months. But even at higher prices HB Syrah’s are very good value from an international perspective.
  • The name Syrah may confuse some people if they know the variety as Shiraz but the confusion would be greater if we called it Shiraz, given most people have an expectation of what “Shiraz” tastes like.

How does it compare to Cabernet Sauvignon?

“In the right sites (warmer)  and at the right crop loads (low)  Cabernet Sauvignon makes some exceptional wines in Hawke’s Bay. While it may not be as commercially viable and can be challenging in cooler vintages, it has the ability to make wines of great quality that can age gracefully over decades. Many of these wines require  patience  in the consumers cellar, given the often higher levels of tannin. Careful of extraction of tannin (natural) during ferment is key but the tannin in the skins and seeds needs to be ripe in the first place which again comes down to the vinicultural side and the season. One advantage that Syrah can have over some of the Cabernets is that it doesn’t usually show the greener, herbal flavour profile at relatively lower ripeness at higher cropped/less warm sites and cooler years. Consumers can find this green profile off putting. But the future for Hawke’s Bay is not in lower cost, lower quality Cabernet Sauvignon. It’s in the premium examples that show good flavour and phenolic ripeness.”

What are the biggest challenges with Syrah in New Zealand’s cool climate?

  • If site is too cool or vines are over cropped, then wines become  dominated by pepper (rotundone) which can take over the wine.
  • Commercially Syrah can be challenging as in my view some of the best examples come from warmer sub regions and at lower crop levels. Syrah also benefits from time in quality oak – both have financial implications with cost and cash flow with time in barrel.

“Another case for Syrah is that stylistically it can show real fragrance, purity and drink-now appeal, which is important.”

The new 2015 Vidal Reserve Syrah, $20.95, 13% ABV