There are two red varieties that New Zealand does special examples of. So what are they?
We all know the first, and few would disagree: Pinot Noir. New Zealand is one of only a handful of countries famous for this grape, because we are a rare case – here cooler, moderate climates are the rule rather than the exception. In a world where mainly hot, dry places make wine, New Zealand is one of the only countries whose entire global brand is built around cool-climate freshness and pristine, luminous aromatics. That is, around aromatic whites. And Pinot Noir fits right in, because – apologies to lovers of rich Pinot – it is by nature somewhat more like a white wine with red colour (think red Burgundy with tons of acid freshness but hardly any colour). Which explains why we grow it and sell it so well globally.
But what about our other ‘special’ red?
Some may hoist the flag for pet favourites, old and new – Malbec, Tempranillo, Montepulciano, et al. But while some show promise, the market hasn’t decided how many people agree – or for how long. Others may point to the Bordeaux tradition. To be sure we produce superb Bordeaux-styles – with Te Mata, for example, being a top world class producer and decades ahead of the game locally. Yet such wines are mainly blends and therefore fit uneasily under the general ‘Brand New Zealand’ umbrella of clean, single varietal winemaking. Are they successful and world class wines to celebrate? Absolutely. Will they ever be our global marketing headline? Perhaps not. Besides, Merlot and Cabernet grown in New Zealand, while admirable, are not hugely distinctive varietally. Merlot may enjoy a slight aromatic brightness and floral spiciness it doesn’t often get in hotter climates – but that only places it in the shadow of Pinot Noir (where it seems to be languishing in the polls). Cabernet ripens late – and therefore sometimes not at all here (except with the utmost care of the best growers). So the clever Kiwi examples seem to aspire to a classical balance, perhaps, rather than recognisable varietal-terroir character. When was the last time you sniffed a wine and it screamed at you “I am a New Zealand Cabernet – and here’s why you love me!” By contrast, Australia has a whole continent of hot climates to choose from, and many of the spots they stumbled on – like the iron rich soils of Coonawarra – produce wines that do indeed shout their individual character, do captivate the drinker’s senses with one of the world’s most special and ‘meant to be’ examples of the grape. New Zealand has no such leeway with Cabernet, the few corners of our country hot enough to ripen it having been determined by climate alone, not by soil or the other terroir factors that clothe a varietal expression, as it were, in greatness.
Which leads us to get to the point – what exactly is this other special red? It is of course the only one we haven’t mentioned yet – New Zealand Syrah.
Syrah is something we do beautifully in New Zealand – famously in Hawkes Bay and Auckland/Waiheke, along with elsewhere too. But it also represents a kind of bridging product in the market, linking what we might call the modern, fresh and aromatic ‘branding’ of New Zealand wine and, on the other hand – with a touch of richness gleaned from our warmest regions – it (almost) satisfies the old-school appetite for the structured and slurpy hot-climate red, based on the only decent red available here for many decades, Aussie Shiraz.
So, what does New Zealand Syrah taste like?
Ahhh… the smell and taste of New Zealand Syrah. A glass that’s bright ruby with purple tinges, going on inky-black. You swirl it and put your nose in and… a flood of smells and flavours – red and black fruit sweep about, with crunchy fresh berries above and layers of dark, jammy notes below. White and black pepper pierce the front and top of your sensory-bubble, right up in your nostrils, then fade as you notice the more delicate florals, violets, and the rich black fruits which contain alluring, savoury licorice flavours, with some truffle and umami – similar to the wine’s ‘gamey’ nature, but not quite the same – then the red berry fruits and plum, in which are embedded a healthy swathe of earth and mineral tannins that seem to ground and frame the palate.
This is a truly great wine style! A lot of other wines are very nice, but they are like a choir attempting a great concert with only sopranos and tenors (where are the altos and baritones?). By contrast, the Syrah experience is beautifully, extraordinarily complete – from high notes to low notes, aromatics to structure, sweetness to savoury, delicate nuance to obvious richness. Syrah offers complexity of so many kinds. In fact, rather like Pinot Noir, there is virtually no category of flavour which is NOT present: fruity, spicy, oaky, mineral, floral, licorice/savoury – New Zealand Syrah has it all, and usually in one single wine! But it isn’t just the completeness of the classic kiwi Syrah, it is the stunning consistency with which we produce them. Believe it or not, the above is not a description of an expensive wine, but applies to about 80% of the Kiwi stuff on our shelf! From the point of view of the market, that makes Kiwi Syrah an extraordinary value proposition. From the point of view of global wine culture and history, that is the making of an international legend.
Or it should be. But sadly for Kiwi Syrah it’s more complicated. Which takes us back to the Pinot comparison. As we cast our eye across the world of Pinot, we see good ones coming from the isolated, cooler parts of Australia, likewise the cooler parts of Argentina, likewise pockets of the US. That is, ‘pockets’ of everywhere else… except for New Zealand, where the majority of our regions are suitable if not outstanding. That is why, aside from superb but tiny volumes from Austria and Germany, the ‘serious’ Pinot world is basically France vs New Zealand (a biased opinion perhaps, but you’ll struggle to convince us otherwise). Uniquely dedicated to the cooler climate, New Zealand is not only touted by experts as serious competition for Burgundy but also offers the global market something new, building on traditional Old World style while being an arguably more exciting and unfolding story of Pinot Noir.
How is New Zealand Syrah special?
So why isn’t Syrah just the same? Cast your eye likewise over the world of Syrah and what do you see? Quite a lot, right? There’s French Syrah – The Northern Rhone classics along with massive volumes of the famous Southern Rhone and Languedoc-Roussillon blends – the latter of which are often very rich, ripe and extraordinary value. Syrah is also made in Sicily and various regions of Spain. The US makes Syrah, while South America does so in a quantity and quality-for-value that New Zealand could only dream of. South Africa also makes Syrah of course, though imports are nowhere near as devastating to the local Syrah market as those of the New World’s biggest Syrah product, Australian Shiraz.
You see unlike Pinot Noir, Syrah is a flexible beast – it gets ripe mid-season, so it ripens richly in hot climates and/or delicately in moderate-warm climates. In either case it produces compelling, complete and satisfying wines. Vibrant and charming in New Zealand – with the aromatic expression and fine structure to compare, perhaps, to a classic Northern Rhone – the hotter styles of Australia’s Barossa more readily align with the Southern Rhone or Mediterranean Syrahs of France – i.e. ripe and rich with black fruit and full body.
But while this flexibility is yet another amazing thing about Syrah, on first glance it doesn’t really help the case of New Zealand. Firstly because we are small – does our Syrah really have an edge on South Africa’s, or California’s, or, or, or…? Secondly because the world seems pre-occupied with the hot-climate style – much more common, and so easy to love! Kiwi Syrah will never be as rich as a Mediterranean, nor shout it’s name like Shiraz. So is Kiwi Syrah really competitive – and if so, how?
Perhaps the answer is obvious. The average Kiwi should pat themselves on the back, because they already love our stuff for pretty much the same reason that French connoisseurs love Northern Rhone Syrah – aromatic brightness with a fine, savoury structure. True, most Kiwi Syrah is sweeter-fruited and fuller bodied than a Northern Rhone wine – marginally – but that trend is changing. And more importantly, if we take a big step back, New Zealand Syrah is not only increasingly close to the world’s very highest expression of the grape, but the fresh and aromatic Kiwi Syrah is also very ‘on-brand’ with our global image – i.e. very marketable even now.
Moreover, the world’s taste buds are edging toward refined and European styles generally. Mid-price Kiwi Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are regularly shipped to the UK to be tasted against great Burgundy (and sometimes come out on top, as Kumeu River did recently next to top Meursault and Montrachet). So while the world once saw our wines as a quaffing fruit-fest (forgive the simplification) it is now coming to expect such quality from our mid-level estate wines that it could open an entirely new chapter in our global marketing: our wines are better than the best – the VERY best – at a quarter of the price!
For those who hanker for the more immediate pleasures of the slurpy style may often forget: the seat of great Syrah is not in Barossa or Chateauneuf-du-Pape (which is mostly Grenache anyway). It’s greatness is not in richness but rather, like Burgundy, in refinement and complexity. Like the Northern Rhone’s famous Hermitage, a wine of supreme intensity but also elegance, florals, a chewy structure but often lighter-body, and an ‘ethereal’ feel… miles away from the sun-baked valley floor of the Southern Rhone. So the ‘high ground’ is literally on our side in New Zealand, if we play our cards right. The rest is just good marketing… and good winemaking.
The winemaking part is more than being taken care of by leading lights of classic labels such as John Hancock of Trinity Hill, Ant MacKenzie of Dry River and Theory and Practice, and Warren Gibson of Bilancia – all of whom make extraordinarily classy, premium examples (not to mention the Craggy Ranges and Elephant Hills of this world, and so many others). While Hawkes Bay has established itself as New Zealand Syrah’s centre, it seems the Northern Rhone analogy is encouraging even cooler regions to explore the grape. In Marlborough Hans Herzog makes a commanding and completely classical Syrah (hardly surprising, as there seems to be no variety this tireless and brilliant man can’t master), while a number of other local producers like Fromm, Giesen and Te Whare Ra have also made commitments to a seriously poised, aromatic and complex style of Marlborough Syrah. Though not exactly rare in warmish Martinborough (home of Dry River), the variety is creeping into production in other cooler spots around the country, like Nelson (Seifried, Te Mania and Milcrest) and Waipara (Greystone, Georges Road and Waipara Springs).
In New Zealand, local Syrah may be all things to all people – bright enough for the typical Pinot lover, yet intense and structured enough for the Shiraz drinker. And it’s interesting – traditional connoisseurs of Red Burgundy (Pinot) often also drink Hermitage (Syrah). The two regions border each other and have a similar climate, so the wines appeal to the same, terribly refined palate. In the same way, can’t our Syrah piggy-back on the global success of our Pinot?
So the answer to the question – is New Zealand Syrah competitive? Well and truly! But only if we do something that’s very, very hard for Kiwis – try not to compete with the Aussies.