Syrah from New Zealand?

Distinctive style from Hawkes Bay may be the next big thing
Nov 3, 2009

I was tasting with Ant McKenzie, newly responsible for the winemaking at Te Awa Farm in Hawkes Bay, New Zealand. We had just tried a 2007 Merlot and a 2007 Cabernet blend, and finished with 2007 Syrah. The result was a revelation.

A little background here. McKenzie grew up in Hawkes Bay, a region less known here because it specializes in neither Sauvignon Blanc nor Pinot Noir, the currently fashionable flavors from New Zealand. But he made his name in Marlborough, where Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir predominate, making successful wines at Framingham and then Spy Valley and Mud House.

The folks in Hawkes Bay think they have the golden ground for red Bordeaux grape varieties in New Zealand. Aside from a few really fine ones, however, most of the Merlots and Cabernets taste green to most Americans. Syrah, on the other hand, produces a distinctive peppery range of flavors and seldom veers into the overripe character that has marred the image of that grape variety in some circles.

My notes on the Te Awa Merlot, priced at $20: Crunchy tannins, a bit coarse in texture, with mineral and vegetable notes more prominent than some nice currant fruit.

On the Te Awa Cabernet-Merlot, priced at $25: Weedy, herbal, savory flavors dominate; there’s some nice fruit underneath, but too much other stuff.

On the Syrah, priced at $30: Peppery, beautifully focused, elegant structure, silky, with delicious sweet berry flavors, finishing crisp.

I looked up at McKenzie. “Just wondering,” I asked cautiously. “Which of these wines would you want to drink with dinner?”

Without hesitation, he said, “The Syrah.”

It is not my job to tell the Kiwis what to grow and which wines to make. My job is to inform American wine drinkers of what’s available and provide some guidance. So here’s my guidance: Be wary of Hawkes Bay Cabernet and Merlot. Jump at the chance to drink the Syrahs.

“We are increasing production of the Syrah,” McKenzie allowed. “We made 300 cases of the 2007, and 1,000 cases this year (2009). More vines will come into production in the next couple of years, so there will be more.”

Te Awa is owned by American billionaire Julian Robertson. He also owns Dry River, a renowned producer in Martinborough that pioneered Pinot Noir in New Zealand, and the luxury resorts Kauri Cliffs and The Farm at Cape Kidnappers on the North Island, and recently bought Matakauri Lodge near Queenstown, on the South Island.

Robertson’s original partner was Reg Oliver, owner of El Molino winery in Napa Valley. Oliver died in 2005, but his name persists in R.O. Wines, the import company they formed to bring in the NZ wines.

Robertson is investing in improvements in the wineries and vineyards — both are 100-percent estate labels — and hired McKenzie to refine the winemaking. Robertson’s deep pockets made it possible for Te Awa to sell off all its grapes in 2008 while reassessing the vineyards and pointing in a new direction. Among the changes: lower yields in the vineyard, which is on the Gimblett Gravels section of Hawkes Bay,

At Dry River, winemaker Neil McCallum continues to make lovely PInot Noirs. We tasted the current vintage, 2007, which was aromatic and vibrant with blueberry and currant flavors, finishing tangy and elegant, although at $90 the price might be a barrier. A 2002 bottling was much less opulent, but it showed nice layers of savory flavors to balance the fruit.

Insiders know how good the Dry River Gewürztraminers can be. Made in an off-dry, opulent style, they brim with classic rose petal, grapefruit and litchi flavors. At $45 they are pricy, but truly distinctive and majestic.

Oh, and then there is the Syrah. I didn’t much care for the 2006, which showed too much stewed fruit character and lacked typicity, but the 2007 ($68) delivered classic black pepper-accented berry and plum tart flavors, finishing elegant and very much like some of the riper California Pinot Noirs. Delicious stuff.

I’m telling you, Syrah on the North Island of New Zealand. It’s the coming thing.

New Zealand Red Wines Syrah / Shiraz

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