Tasting Panel – Syrah

, from Issue #66. June 09, 2016
Tasting Panel – Syrah

An overwhelmingly strong show of quality of New Zealand syrah has the Dish Tasting Panel excited for the future of this variety – a testament to the experience and skill of the winemakers. 

To receive 63 entries for only our second-ever syrah tasting panel tells us all is well and healthful here in Godzone for this increasingly popular whiz kid of a wine.  When 11 per cent of those entries earn 4.5 star ratings or higher, that’s even more cause for applause.

Back in 2013, in our inaugural syrah tasting, the top scores were spread among outstanding examples from Waiheke Island and Hawke’s Bay’s powerhouse red regions – the Gimblett Gravels and the Bridge Pa Triangle. The 2016 tasting results again proved the same pattern. We were expecting (and definitely received) big things from two exceptionally strong syrah vintages, 2013 and 2014. However, with all eight entries from 2015 walking away with solid medals, it looks like New Zealand has a three-peat on its hands; a ridiculously uncommon occurrence for red wines.

When the results of our blind, international competition-standard tasting were revealed, our Top 12, or delicious dozen if you will, consists mostly of brands with a proven track record. “I don’t think it’s so much about being ‘the usual suspects’ either,” commented judge Cameron Douglas MS. “It’s actually showing where dedication and attention to detail has a meaningful role to play.” These producers have learned how to create good wines consistently, and if you can’t do it consistently then why continue? Syrah is a highly demanding, "vigorous" grape that needs constant attention in the vineyard. Therefore, success with syrah isn't something that miraculously happens overnight and it won't happen if you don't have the right site and the right conditions, remarked senior judge Jane Boyle. "It's extremely site specific and vintage specific. It’s a grape that also needs to speak for itself and not be overwhelmed with oak or artifice.”

Both Villa Maria and Mills Reef Winery each had multiple entries achieve top scores in our tasting – showing their time-taught talents in this area. “Syrah is our darling,” says Mills Reef’s Chief Winemaker Tim Preston. “We get so much pleasure from the way syrah from the Gimblett Gravels rewards winemaking and we love how it evolves, developing layers of intrigue throughout its 18 months in our care. This style of syrah with its purity of fruit and elegant, powerful structure has a huge global future.”

Our three highly experienced senior judges welcomed associate judge and sommelier at Mt Eden’s Molten restaurant Sven Nielsen to the team, just a day before he was awarded Wine List of the Year at the 2016 Restaurant of the Year Awards. “I was very impressed with the overall quality of the line-up,” says Sven. “Most examples were clean and on the strength of the ’14 vintage, I can definitely see New Zealand syrah being a growth category in the restaurant industry.” 

Style/varietal: Syrah
Tasting date: April 2016
Entries: 63

  • Yvonne Lorkin (Dish drinks writer)
  • Cameron Douglas (Senior Lecturer AUT and Master Sommelier)
  • Jane Boyle (Wine consultant)
  • Sven Nielsen (Sommelier, Molten Restaurant)

Rating System
Gold ★★★★★
Superb. Strongly recommended.

Silver ★★★★
A cut above the rest in quality.

Bronze ★★★
A good quality crowd-pleaser.

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

Top Wines of the Tasting

Valentina Waiheke Syrah 2014 ($38)
★★★★★ Gold Medal

An instant hit of exotic pepper, coffee bean and cocoa complexity on the nose wowed our judges, while wave after wave of concentrated red fruits, plum, blackberry and blackcurrant saturate the palate and add to the already extensive persistence of flavour. “Great oak moments at play here, plenty of acidity and the tannins are well managed,” noted Cameron Douglas, while Jane commented on the textural layers. Grown on Soho’s Jomara vineyard on the island, it’s a stunning example of what Waiheke can achieve when the stars align. 

Legacy Series Gimblett Gravels Syrah 2014 ($79.99) Gold Medal
★★★★★ Gold Medal

From the very first sniff you know this is a huge wine. Dark and inky, intensely floral, violets, peppercorn and herbal hints riff around a masculine texture and a mid-palate bursting with tonnes of fruit, blackberry, boysenberry and blueberry and showing a seam of high acidity. Lithe and slippery, winemaker Hugh Crichton has managed its monster tannins beautifully. It’s got decades of life ahead to build complexity, and our judges agreed this wine will go on to become one of the absolute greats from the region. 

Barnstormer Hawke’s Bay Syrah 2014 ($34)
★★★★★ Gold Medal

The Barnstormer has, in just a few short years, cemented itself as a syrah superstar, with a haul of heavy metal recently requiring an extension to the trophy cabinet. This stunning crimson and glossy- in-the-glass wine, from the red soils of the Bridge Pa Triangle, is beautifully balanced on the palate and shows layers of red apple, raspberry, dark plum and savoury spice followed by a seam of peppered cocoa on the finish. “Sound fruit ripeness and smart use of oak,” commented Cameron. “Mmmm,” agreed the judges. 

Cellar Selection Hawke’s Bay Syrah 2014 ($24.99)
★★★★★ Gold Medal

It’s incredibly exciting to see wines like this being revealed as big winners because it proves that dedication and attention to detail can produce an affordable wine – readily available in supermarkets – that has gold medal-worthy elegance, poise, shedloads of floral, berry and spice character. An extremely pretty colour, exotic, medicinal notes on the nose and a lush, darkly fruited, beautifully structured palate make this a must sip. 

Elspeth Gimblett Gravels Syrah 2013 ($49)
★★★★½ Silver Medal

Tim Preston and Paul Dawick are the winemaking team behind Mills Reef and they’re absolutely, positively obsessed with syrah. Inky-bright in the glass, the aromas of blackberries on toasted brioche merge with dusty, yet caramelised, oak and cocoa characters and there’s a dusting of black pepper linking the florals, fruit and spice. The finish is long, persistent and “brooding” according to our judges.

Reserve Gimblett Gravels Syrah 2015 ($25)
★★★★½ Silver Medal

Another absolute star performer for the price – and for its age. Brand spanking new and already oozing the caramelised oak, plum and berryfruit intensity you’d expect in a much more mature wine. Rich, bold, savoury pepper, spice and leather and “elegant, expressive” complexity were all showing through, according to Sven. The acidity is still very youthful, but it had warmth and generosity which bodes well for a solid future. 

McDonald Series Hawke’s Bay Syrah 2014 ($26.59)
★★★★½ Silver Medal

Inky and impenetrably dark, this wine is smooth, elegant and deeply complex, layered with dark cocoa, spices and yet carries youthful intensity on the palate and a dense, cola-like complexity on the finish, according to Jane. Winemaker Chris Scott has more syrah pedigree than he knows what to do with and that’s evident here in this wine, which boasts a powerful tannin structure and superb length of flavour.

Reserve Gimblett Gravels Syrah 2013 ($59.99)
★★★★½ Silver Medal

2013 was a strong vintage for red wines, in particular syrahs from rockstar region Gimblett Gravels. A couple of years on from bottling and this wine is only just hitting
its straps in the spice department – our judges felt much was yet to reveal itself. It has a deliciously gamey, dusty vanilla note, emery-like grip in the mid-palate and fresh, bramble fruits on the finish.

Single Estate Gimblett Gravels Syrah 2013 ($34.99)
★★★★ Silver Medal

The slow-release aromatics of this wine kept our judges guessing for a minute or two before revealing gorgeous boysenberry, blackcurrant and peppercorn complexity. It’s a very well-built wine that opens up to show classic violet florals, fresh, vibrant plum and berry fruit, finishing with powdery yet elastic tannins. It’s what Yvonne noted to be a “slow-burn syrah”, but it’s definitely worth the wait.

Elspeth Trust Gimblett Gravels Syrah 2013 ($49)
★★★★ Silver Medal

The Elspeth Trust vineyard is located on Mere Road, smack in the middle of the ancient riverbed known as the Gimblett Gravels. The syrah which comes from this tiny patch made a real impression with its red fruits, red liquorice, bright berries and buoyant palate. “Deeply savoury to drink” said Yvonne, “very generous and weighty also”.

Jewelstone Syrah 2014 ($44)
Silver Medal
Paul Mooney has been making wine at Mission Estate for more than 30 years and his experience is expressed in this exotically aromatic syrah, chock full of red and black fruits, youthful freshness and bold spices. It’s a wine that, while impressive now, will reward patient cellaring for another year or three, to help integrate the powerful tannins and bold acidity. The finish has complex tar and smoke notes which speak of great things to come.

Gimblett Gravels Syrah 2014 ($31.95)
Silver Medal
With its gorgeous bouquet garni, black pepper, violet and plum notes on the nose, our judges knew we had a wine with huge potential on our hands. Matt Stafford is the winemaker behind this example and he’s expertly crafted it 
to maintain layers of dark fruit, cocoa, graphite and savoury smoky characters that will release and reward further with time. It’s juicy, refreshing and very elegant to drink right now, but we all agreed it will be a force to be reckoned with in just a year or two. 

With thanks to Janet Blackman and Cameron Douglas from the Professional Wine Studies Department and the AUT School of Hospitality and Tourism. For more on the programmes in hospitality, food and beverage, and hotel management visit aut.ac.nz.

Water kindly supplied by Antipodes. 
Glasses supplied by Spiegelau.