Best Syrahs of 2023 in New Zealand

, from Issue #110. July 17, 2023
Best Syrahs of 2023 in New Zealand

New Zealand syrah has been impressing wine-lovers around the world since it was first painted here in 1984. Our expect judges were thrilled with how stylish and sophisticated it's become almost 40 years on...

Ahhh Syrah. Here at dish we absolutely love the stuff, so whenever we decide it’s time to find the most magical examples from across the motu, there’s much excitement in the smoko room and much dancing at our desks. While it’s our third most produced red grape at 445ha, it still only sits at six percent of the total red grapes planted. That’s less than half the amount of merlot and there’s twelve times the amount of pinot noir in the ground. Yet over the last twenty years, our top examples have been quietly scooping some heroically high scores from critics around the globe – so it’s a tiny, but mighty grape indeed. It’s also a highly versatile variety that’ll grow successfully in many different climates, but it’ll adopt a different mood depending on that climate, which is why, (even though they’re the same grape), Australian ‘shiraz’ tastes so different to classic Kiwi syrah.

“Pinot noir gets the reputation of ‘the heartbreak grape’, but I feel syrah is no less a challenge in a cool, temperate climate like ours,” says judge and syrah superstar Warren Gibson. “And like pinot, it’s one of the most expressive of its place. It has very strong clonal diversity with the range of clones almost behaving and tasting like completely different grape varieties. Syrah enjoys drier seasons and is at its most perfumed and textural in cooler seasons.”

It’s a very ‘vigorous’ variety, meaning careful site selection and vine management is imperative for producing quality wine. It can also dramatically suffer from water and nutrition stress. It also doesn’t like too much heat or excessive cold snaps of weather, things that can bring ripening to a standstill.

Syrah also needs a long growing season with enough heat to fully ripen and concentrate its flavours and tannins, but also some coolness to encourage floral aromatics and acidity. And if that wasn’t high maintenance enough, syrah also has tight bunches, making it highly vulnerable to disease in times of humidity. One reason why, (despite most of the country’s rockstar styles coming from warmer, more northern climes), it’s possible to produce excellent syrah in Central Otago – where it’s both cool yet boasts next to nil humidity and the soils aren’t vigorous.

An impressive 60 entries were received, proving that syrah is being taken very seriously by winemakers across the country. So what were our judges looking for in the best?

“A great example on the nose will have things like florals, lavender with notes of star anise, cinnamon, cloves, crushed fennel seeds, a nuance of pepper, smoky meaty notes, red fruits, raspberry, black cherry into the darker notes and boysenberry,” urges judge Phil Brodie. “This should follow through on the palate and the tannins should be silky and even, with a savoury note and salivating acidity.” Warren agreed: “My personal feeling is the best syrahs are the lighter styles which have much in common with good pinot noir. When syrah is grown in warmer regions and picked later, the style gets darker and more structured. Good syrah should be fruit-driven, pure and aromatic and have a lightness on its feet on the palate.”

Since the first New Zealand syrah vines went into the ground in Hawke’s Bay back in 1984, our winemakers have learned to understand syrah so well that we now have a signature New Zealand expression – an exciting, stylishly spicy expression which also manages a nod to its spiritual home of the Rhone Valley in France, which, incidentally, is where the first syrahs Warren Gibson ever tasted came from. Like all great wine, syrah should be delicious on its own, but if you’re thinking about food, what’s spinning the syrah-matching wheels of our judges?

“If you are a carnivore, then I think I’d favour the more gamy options of venison, duck and rare beef,” says Warren. “Syrah is also excellent with piquant cheeses and great with the right type of chocolate.”
Phil stared wistfully into the distance and whispered, “Peppered wild venison, shiitake and truffle and parmesan fries...”

Energy, purity, vibrancy and personality are things we know dish readers look for in the best examples so that’s what our judges strived to find. And boy did we find some absolute stunners.

Welcome to our top 12.

  1. Squawking Magpie The Chatterer Hawke’s Bay Syrah 2021 ($25) – Gold Medal

    With its intense aromatics, generously juicy mid-palate, savoury tones and supple tannins, this stunning syrah sailed straight into the recalls and roared through the final tasting in rockstar fashion. Bold pepper, cherry, and plummy characters merge with hints of lantana and violets to create an incredibly savoury, stylish and elegantly poised syrah that seriously overdelivers in the drink-for-your-dollar stakes. Gorgeous.

  2. Omata Estate Reserve Bay of Islands Syrah ($52) – Gold Medal

    Densely dark and impenetrably inky, this rich, pepper-edged, spice-stacked syrah bursts with lovely boysenberry, cocoa, and graphite-dusted goodness. Ripe, taut, and terrifically structured, it boasts finely tuned tannins and is already developing delicious maturity and complexity. A total beauty from the Bay of Islands.

  3. Church Road Winery Hawke’s Bay Syrah 2020 ($120) – Gold Medal

    Stacked with peppered blackberry and cocoa complexity, this is a big, chewy wine with incredible concentration and complexity and bold, cheek-puckering tannins. A bright, provocative wine with seductively savoury layers and boasting a long, luscious finish.

  4. Saint Clair Family Estate Gimblett Gravels Reserve Syrah 2021 ($65) – Gold Medal

    An incredibly earthy, complex and savoury wine with a robustly rich structure, a core of coconutty, smoky oak and a soothing, silky finish. It’s a slow-down, tune into your senses experience. Calm, self-assured and showing real finesse and tranquility, it’s a syrah that is a joy to drink now but has real cellar potential.

  5. Esk Valley Great Dirt River Gravel Hawke’s Bay Syrah 2021 ($70) – Gold Medal

    Winemaker Gordon Russell has delivered a true-to-form and fabulous example in the Great Dirt. Highly aromatic, it roars with red rose, violets, ripe red fruits, and ultra-juicy textures, and had our judges gazing skywards with every sip. Rich, full, attractively spicy and seductively complex, it’s a syrah that’s seriously impressive.

  6. Giesen Single Vineyard Clayvin Marlborough Syrah 2021 ($57) – Gold Medal

    A tiny splash of 2.6% pinot noir has boosted the aromatics of this southern syrah beautifully. Sourced from Marlborough’s most famous organic vineyard, this wine sings with savoury, meaty characters stitched together with fruit sweetness and perfectly puckering tannins. Youthful, vibrant, balanced and bursting with character.

  7. Mills Reef Reserve Gimblett Gravels Syrah 2021 ($27) – Silver Medal

    Dense ripe fruit washes across a spicy, peppery palate that’s layered with liquorice and red berries. Classically textural, Gimblett Gravels’ style shows vanilla, smoke and dark cocoa notes wrapped around a core of ripe blueberry and robust tannins. Delicious.

  8. Villa Maria Cellar Selection Hawke’s Bay Syrah 2021 ($25) – Silver Medal

    With its aromas of iodine, blueberry and bright florals, it’s a wine you’ll want to sip super quick. A lick of salinity and hints of smoky, earthy notes give this wine a clean yet earthy character. It has plush tannins that grip in all the good places and a firmness on the finish that speaks to a long life ahead.

  9. Esk Valley Artisanal Hawke’s Bay Syrah 2021 ($25) – Silver Medal

    A seriously attractive, complex wine heaving with texture, floral aromatic, exotic spices, and sweetly concentrated fruit at every level. A very stylish wine that’s still super youthful and one that our judges felt had huge cellaring potential. Stylish and showing taut, finely tuned tannins.

  10. Mt Difficulty Central Otago Ghost Town Syrah 2019 ($65) – Silver Medal

    Whoever said syrah won’t grow so far south has clearly never tasted this beauty from Bendigo. With its bright fruity nose laced with violets and pepper and its palate prickled with exotic spices, blueberry, dried herbs, vanilla, and beautifully balanced textures, it’s a total star. Maturing magically and one to watch.

  11. Church Road Grand Reserve Hawke’s Bay Syrah 2020 ($40) – Silver Medal

    Crammed with complex dark fruits and very attractive cracked pepper and cocoa powder punchiness, this floral, richly structured syrah is saturated with soothing textures and smoky notes. Elegantly lengthy and lovely to drink.

  12. Mudbrick Vineyard Reserve Waiheke Island Syrah 2020 ($75) – Silver Medal

    If lifted red fruits dusted with graphite and pepper sounds like your cup of tea, then get ready to fill your boots. Full, juicy and showing soothing, ripe fruit saturation and chewy tannins, it’s a very bold, savoury style that’ll impress with every sip.