For many New Zealanders, Pinot Noir has long been a favourite when choosing red wine, but now it has a serious competitor. Vince Labat from Elephant Hill Wines, Hawke’s Bay predicts a bright future for Syrah.

There is a red wine, which is flying below the radar of many wine drinkers, yet reaping huge praise from wine critics and wine lovers in the know. It has been referred to as ‘Pinot Noir for grown-ups’, but jokes aside this complex, expressive, supple wine has a very bright future as a world-class wine in raising the profile of the Hawke’s Bay region of the North Island of New Zealand. 

Pinot Noir has attracted a huge amount of attention within New Zealand red-wine circles over the past 15 years, and rightly so. So why has Syrah not had a similar level of visibility? There are several reasons, but the simple fact is that not enough is produced because not much of this variety is planted. Without critical scale it is very difficult to make a global impact, because there is just not enough for wine lovers – even in key markets like the United Kingdom, North America and Asia – to experience it. 

Hawke’s Bay is by far New Zealand’s largest producer of Syrah and, according to statistics from New Zealand Winegrowers, 2,000 tonnes of it were produced nationwide in 2013. This represents 0.6 per cent of all New Zealand wine production and just 0.1 per cent of New Zealand wine exported that year. To put this into context, 31,000 tonnes of Pinot Noir were produced in New Zealand in 2013, which is dwarfed by the 310,000 tonnes of Sauvignon Blanc produced in 2014. 

In February 2012 Master of Wine Jancis Robinson, the doyenne of wine writers and one of the most respected wine critics in the world, penned a piece called the new New Zealand. Reflecting on her experiences Robinson wrote: “My tastings suggest that Pinot Noir is far from the end of the New Zealand red wine story. The country is now a source of some very respectable Bordeaux blends and is perhaps even more distinguished as a source of fine Syrah.” 

Another highly respected Master of Wine, Tim Atkin, describes New Zealand Syrah as “white pepper-scented liquid gold”. He goes on to compare it with the most famous Syrah region in the world, the Northern Rhone in France. “There are very few places on earth (Chile’s Elqui Valley, Washington State, coastal California and western Victoria perhaps) that produce wines that could be mistaken for a Cornas, a Hermitage or a Côte Rôtie, but New Zealand’s range of microclimates seems to do it on a consistent basis.”

It is no secret that some of the most dynamic and highly skilled Hawke’s Bay Syrah winemakers have a huge respect for and love drinking wines from the Northern Rhone. Warren Gibson (Trinity Hill & Bilancia), Steve Skinner (Elephant Hill), Rod Easthope (Easthope Family Winegrowers and ex-Craggy Range) and Ant Mackenzie (Dry River and ex-Te Awa/Kidnapper Cliffs) have all expressed their appreciation for the wines from this region and are to a certain extent influenced by them in their winemaking and their styles of wines. 

What is it then about premium Hawke’s Bay Syrah that has so captured the attention of Masters of Wine and Master Sommeliers around the world? Perhaps it is the elegance and complexity with the underlying power that New Zealand Syrah offers, along with its versatility to go very well in a restaurant setting with fine food or a more relaxed barbecue. 

It has a fantastic texture, and the relatively cool climate of New Zealand offers excellent acidity to the wine, which is balanced by pure fruit expression. The huge diversity of soils in Hawke’s Bay adds to the complexity in the wines. A very distinctive pepper character along with a mesmerising perfumed aroma is associated with Hawke’s Bay Syrah, which again adds to the uniqueness of this variety amongst New Zealand and Australian reds. The world has known and tried a huge amount of South Australian Shiraz (what Australians call Syrah) for many years, but this is in general a very different beast from a hot climate making far bigger wines, and poles apart from the subtler and elegant Hawke’s Bay Syrah.  

The bonus for us in New Zealand is that, firstly, it is not as difficult to find brilliant examples of great Hawke’s Bay Syrah as it may be in export markets. Secondly, the two recent vintages of 2013 and 2014 in Hawke’s Bay have been hailed by winemakers as the best in 50 years. The quality of these wines will go a long way to further establishing Hawke’s Bay as a world-class wine region.

This shortlist of wineries comes highly recommended for Syrah – Bilancia, Craggy Range, Elephant Hill, Stonecroft, Te Mata, Trinity Hill, Villa Maria and Vidal.