With all the hype over Kiwi Pinot Noir, it has been a huge surprise to me that the most exciting wines I have tasted for this spotlight have been not of the famed Burgundian grape, but rather of the Rhone Valley sleeper: Syrah.
Syrah the Neglected
Syrah gets short shrift in the world of wine. One of the major noble grapes, it has yet suffered from consumer disinterest and abuse at the hands of huge Australian producers who labelled the grape as Shiraz and turned it into a commodity wine. The over extracted syrahs of central California have done little to help the grape’s cause, despite the fact that the region is very well suited to the grape and that the best producers are making fantastic wines.
Both of the two dominant new world styles that most new world consumers are exposed to have failed to express Syrah’s impressive ability to express terroir – an ability only matched by Pinot Noir. Whereas Pinot seems more able to express the unique divergences of terroir in the tiny region of Burgundy, Syrah seems to have the uncommon capacity to carry forth the stamp of almost any region in which it is planted, if only it is treated properly.
In the old world, focus on Chateaneuf du Papes has taken away from the great Syrah based wines of both the Languedoc and the Northern Rhone, particularly the top wines from St. Joseph and Cornas, which have a brooding depth coupled with a level of aromatic complexity not unlike Pinot Noir. A great Cote-Rotie is not unlike a great Burgundy, which has much to do with the two Cotes’ proximity.
Very few wines in the New World have managed to capture the elegantly intense allure of the great wines of the Northern Rhone Valley and yet retained their own unique sense of place. The Syrahs I have tasted from New Zealand, however, have gone collectively further than any other new world region to honouring the true beauty of Syrah while maintaining a unique sense of terroir that is unmistakably New Zealand.
On Soils and Farming
Sacred Hill’s Deerstalker Syrah is planted in the Gimblett Gravels region of Hawke’s Bay, which is an old gravel river bed (alluvial soils of sand, silt, clay and gravel result from the shifting river bed – if you want to read more about the soils go here) with warm soil temperatures and low moisture. This allows for early ripening.
The grapes are hand picked, destemmed without crushing and fermented in small open vats and hand pressed. I’m not sure how the vines are cropped, but I am sure the yields are on the lower side – it is clear that all of the fruit used in this wine is at or very near ideal physiological and phenolic ripeness.
Syrah the Great
The wine itself smells purple with dark plum fruits and definite oak on the nose. The palate is completely unexpected: pepper pot, savory herbs, low toned fruit, game and meat. This is a rich wine but not at all over the top and the finish is of good length but not yet incredible. Of course, all the components smooth out nicely with a decant. Overall I find this to be surprisingly well balanced, and the alcohol integrates well with the tannin and fruit. There is no doubt that this is unique Syrah and another fascinating example of what New Zealand is doing with the grape. It may be that it is Syrah rather than Pinot that will ultimately make NZ’s greatest wines.
$50 at Playhouse International Wine Fest