Tasting Panel – Syrah

, from Issue #49. November 14, 2013
Tasting Panel – Syrah

The Dish Tasting Panel assesses Syrah

Varietal/Style: Syrah

Tasting date: July 2013

Entries: 74

Judges: Cameron Douglas (senior lecturer at AUT and Master Sommelier); Nick Picone (senior winemaker, Villa Maria Estate). Panel led by Dish wine editor Yvonne Lorkin. 

(NB: All wines are judged blind and the scores of winemaker judges for their own wines cannot exceed those of other judges.)

Notes from Yvonne: New Zealand syrah has got to be the most exciting development in red wine this country has seen since pinot noir’s skyrocket to fame,” says Cameron Douglas MS, one of our three judges for the syrah tasting.

I’d always thought the trickiest grape to grow was pinot noir, but after quizzing winemaker and fellow judge Nick Picone about the challenges involved in cultivating syrah, I’m amazed we manage to produce it at all. It’s all about care, attention and, most importantly, balance according to Nick. “Syrah is demanding because it’s a very ‘vigorous’ variety, meaning careful site selection and vine management is imperative for producing quality wine,” he explains. 

Syrah can suffer dramatically from water and nutrition stress; it doesn’t like too much heat or excessive cold snaps, which can bring ripening to a standstill; it needs a long growing season, favourable conditions well into April with enough heat to fully ripen and concentrate its flavours and tannin, but also some coolness to encourage floral aromatics and acidity. Syrah also has tight bunches, making it highly vulnerable to disease in times of humidity. Clearly, that careful care and attention paid off for our top wines in this tasting. From the 74 wines entered, five went solid gold and achieved 5 Star status. 

Industry pundits have of late been speaking in hushed tones about the syrahs from 2010, with the term “benchmark vintage” thrown about with increasing regularity. That has been borne out in the tasting results, with our Top 5 wines all coming from 2010. Of the 17 wines achieving 4 Stars and above, 15 hail from Hawke’s Bay. “There’s no doubt Hawke’s Bay holds a commanding position” agrees Cameron Douglas, “but taking big chunks out of its heels are producers on Waiheke Island. There have also been fine syrahs coming from parts of Marlborough, Gisborne, Wairarapa, Matakana and Northland for quite a few years and I expect, and hope, that this will continue to be the case.”  

Since those first syrah vines went into the ground back in 1984 our winemakers have learned to understand it so well we now have a signature New Zealand expression, which also manages a nod to its spiritual home of the Rhône Valley in France. “This point of difference also means there is little to no need to compare our style with the Shiraz* wines from our friends in Australia,” adds Cameron.  

Our top wines from this tasting covered the full spectrum of styles: some singing with youthful fruit, florals and fresh spices, and others delving into deep, concentrated, funky earthiness. “Syrah is certainly as good as anything else this country produces,” says Nick Picone. “And therein lies the attraction. While it challenges viticulturists and winemakers at every step of the way, it’s capable of producing truly outstanding wines. With increased vine age and experience the future is extremely promising.”

One thing is also very clear: good syrah is expensive to create, meaning great examples are going to cost. The best wines in our tasting show a fantastic combination of power, presence and finesse and it was incredibly difficult to separate the top two. So we didn’t.

*(Shiraz and syrah are the same grape. The Aussies call it shiraz while in New Zealand and France it’s called syrah.)


Top Wines of the Tasting

1. Church Road McDonald Series Hawke’s Bay Syrah 2010 $34 First Equal ★★★★★

An immediately impressive wine with beautiful inky purple-black colour, gorgeous rose petal and dark berry aromatics. “Serious structure, density and ripeness,” commented Nick Picone. Deliciously complex with concentrated cedar and spice cloaked in an elegant body and leaving a youthful blackcurrant and cocoa-forward character on the finish. A seriously exciting and satisfying wine.

1. Crossroads Winemakers Collection Syrah 2010 $42 First Equal ★★★★★

“A warm, generous wine with a solid fruit core and peppery, savoury edges,” noted Cameron Douglas. It oozes ripe blackcurrant, spices, sandalwood and liquorice and shows beautiful density and concentration on the palate. It’s also plump, generous and boasts tannins that are rich and meaty. A memorable wine and one to watch.

2. Coopers Creek Reserve Hawke’s Bay Syrah 2010 $45 ★★★★★

“Beautifully balanced,” said Nick Picone of this wine, “with a strong baked raspberry, anise and white pepper character.” The judges were also particularly impressed with how perfumed this syrah was. A juicy, lush and sweet-fruited flavour, emery-like tannins and an elegant, youthful finish all combine to make this a wine with great personality and drinkability.

3. Cable Bay Reserve Waiheke Island Syrah 2010 $85 ★★★★★

This wine has fantastic dusty carpenter’s workshop aromas clothed in fresh, lifted spices, violets and dark fruit. In the mouth it has finely tuned oak and generous complexity, oozing “…cola, coffee bean, black fruits and great concentration,” noted Nick Picone. “It’s a serious wine which will reward time in the cellar.”

4. Villa Maria Reserve Hawke’s Bay Syrah 2010 $60 ★★★★★

Fragrant with a very pretty colour, this is a dark, brooding wine and according to Cameron Douglas: “A classic style with warmth and a distinct earthy note and firm structure.” The roast cherry and plum flavours show through and the tannins are big and chewy.“

5. Forrest Wines ‘John Forrest Collection’ Syrah 2009 $65 ★★★★½

Sourced from the famous Gimblett Gravels it’s a toasty, oak-forward style (“Almost ‘bacony’” commented Nick Picone) and there is no mistaking the spicy, meaty notes, plum and liquorice flavours with a touch of dried herb adding character. Yvonne praised the fruitcake aromas and big, bold tannins.

6. Mudbrick Vineyard Reserve Waiheke Syrah 2012 $55 ★★★★½

“It’s fantastic to see a brand new 2012 example drinking so well,” remarked Yvonne. “It’s bright, floral and peppery on the nose and has a solid, muscular mouthfeel and an enduring, textural finish.” The other judges agreed, both noting its attractive red fruits and rose-like florals.

7. Vidal Estate Legacy Series Gimblett Gravels Hawke’s Bay Syrah 2009 $70 ★★★★½
Loaded with youthful currant, plum and black fruit aromas alongside, according to Cameron, “Well-handled oak, reminiscent of Morris 8 faux leather – nice!” Nick Picone was impressed with its depth, concentration and fleshy texture while Yvonne loved its “oyster sauce richness”. All three judges agreed it was a very interesting, rewarding wine.

8. Te Awanga Estate Hawke’s Bay Syrah 2011 $35 ★★★★½
The judges all commented on the beautiful saturated purple colour and vibrant, floral and spicy freshness on the nose. Solid fruit weight and elegant handling of tannins and alcohol also made a real impression, while Nick Picone noted its “beautiful oak seasoning and fine, sandy tannins.” “A sound, youthful expression,” added Cameron Douglas.

9. Mills Reef Elspeth Trust Vineyard Hawke’s Bay Syrah 2011 $45 ★★★★½

Superb syrah here, sourced from the Gimblett Gravels sub-region and showing classic violet, plum and peppercorn characters on the nose and a burst of dark fruit intensity, which adds to the juiciness of the mouthfeel. “Silky, harmonious tannins,” added Nick, “it’s a lovely wine – very approachable and satisfying”.

Judges’ Notes

The 2011 and 2012 syrahs showed the more challenging vintages, generally producing lighter styles with less concentration of ripe fruit, as noted by lower alcohols and perceived weight on the palate. 2009 syrah and older were still showing well, but tannins were a little assertive in some, promoting a drying finish in a few examples. Brettanomyces (a yeast fault) was present in a few of the wines and oak levels were a concern for some.

Syrah and Food 

When it comes to pairing syrah with food the more robust, masculine styles work best with full-flavoured meaty stews and game meats, and earthy flavours like mushrooms and lentils. “Olives or tapenade with swordfish or marlin will easily dissolve the tannins in younger syrah,” says Cameron Douglas, “while the gentler, more fruit-centred styles are a reliable replacement for pinot noir with lamb, salmon and venison dishes.”