In New Zealand’s warmer North Island, there is a growing feeling that the best reds are being made not with Cabernet and Merlot, but Syrah. Rebecca Gibb heads to Hawke’s Bay and discovers a battle between winemaking idealism and hard-nosed pragmatism
Home to ski-fields and swathes of Sauvignon Blanc, you could be forgiven for thinking New Zealand has a cool climate. However while the country’s South Island can be freezing in the bleak midwinter, it’s a different story on the North Island. This half of the country is home to wine regions including Hawke’s Bay, Gisborne and Auckland, and peaches, olives and lavender grow alongside vines in these warmer climes, giving a Mediterranean feel.
It’s here that later-ripening varieties including the Bordeaux five and Syrah flourish, rather than Pinot Noir. Currently, the two styles co-exist, but with Cabernet Sauvignon plantings slowly falling and Syrah plantings shuffling gradually upwards, the question of which style will take the upper hand is being hotly debated.
The time is ripe
Cabernet Sauvignon/Merlot blends from New Zealand are still tarnished with a reputation for being pale, thin and acidic attempts at a Bordeaux blend. Once, there would have been some justification for this, especially regarding examples from Marlborough, but times have changed. Whether it’s global warming, better clones, lower yields or improved canopy management (or all of the above), the wines are riper than they once were.
The two leading lights for Bordeaux blends are Hawke’s Bay and Waiheke Island. Hawke’s Bay fruit accounted for 86% of the Cabernet/Merlot production in New Zealand in 2010. It has an average temperature of 19-20°C, which is just shy of Bordeaux’s 20.3°C.
On the Gimblett Gravels, a 400 hectare (ha) section on a former river bed, the stony soils perform the same job as the pudding stones of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, warming up quickly in the early spring, allowing for an earlier budburst and thus longer growing season, and retaining heat throughout the season.
Tony Bish, winemaker at Sacred Hill, says: ‘We have to break the paradigm that we are cool climate. People associate Sauvignon Blanc with cool temperatures but Gimblett Gravels is hot compared to even Napier. We have more heat-degree-days than Valence in the Rhône and this shows we are warmer than most people imagine.’
Green behind the years
Nevertheless, there are some years when the late-ripening Cabernet Sauvignon doesn’t quite make it to full maturation in Hawke’s Bay, especially those vineyards outside the Gravels. Elephant Hill sits on the coast and enjoys moderating sea breezes throughout the growing season. Having originally planted Bordeaux varietals, it soon transpired that the temperatures weren’t high enough to ripen them.
‘We have taken out most of the Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, to concentrate on Syrah and Viognier because the vineyard is much cooler than inland Hawke’s Bay,’ says Günter Thies, the winery’s managing director.
Blending is also a key component for finding balance in the cooler years, explains Vidal winemaker Hugh Crichton. In 2008, he made a Merlot/Cabernet blend whereas in 2009, it was a Cabernet/Merlot. ‘The Cabernet didn’t reach the ripeness we wanted in 2008, plus there’s the added attraction of Merlot being luscious and more drinkable,’ he adds.
Heading north, Waiheke Island is also a Bordeaux-blend specialist. Just 40 minutes by ferry from Auckland’s Central Business District, Waiheke sits on a similar latitude to Australia’s Cabernet capital, Coonawarra. While Coonawarra boasts higher maximum temperatures than Waiheke, Waiheke’s mean temperatures are higher due to the maritime influence. However, Cabernet Sauvignon isn’t always a success story.
Syrah: an old faithful
David Evans, owner-winemaker of Passage Rock, acknowledges: ‘Bordeaux blends are great on Waiheke in the good years, but Syrah performs much more consistently. In 2001 and 2003 the Cabernet was horrible, it was far too cold for it to ripen properly.’
Site selection is also crucial, particularly when it comes to Cabernet, adds Neill Culley of Waiheke’s Cable Bay winery. ‘It needs to be in a sheltered spot or the middle of the island, away from the cooling sea breezes, to ripen fully,’ he says.
Both Hawke’s Bay and Waiheke dominate the Syrah scene in New Zealand. There are some individuals in the cooler climes of Marlborough and Waipara having a bash too, but results are patchy thus far.
The country’s best examples have gained international acclaim for being unique – offering the ground-pepper and violet aromatics of the northern Rhône combined with the dusty tannins and sweet fruit of the New World. The varied climate also offers flexibility, producing legitimate styles in both cool and hot seasons, from light and spicy to rich and ripe respectively.
Bish says: ‘Syrah has grown and grown, and the accolades are still coming. People are planting Syrah with some even taking out Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.’
The figures support this claim: the country’s Cabernet Sauvignon plantings have fallen from 614ha in 2005 to 519ha in 2010; Syrah has seen an increase from 211ha to 297ha in the past five years. However, these figures are a drop in the vinous ocean considering there are close to 17,000ha of Sauvignon Blanc on Kiwi turf.
Slow out of the blocks
It’s perplexing that Syrah plantings haven’t risen more quickly, but Gordon Russell, senior winemaker at Esk Valley, suggests the issue is less to do with winemaking than consumer demand. ‘We do have something different with Syrah and it can find a niche in the global wine market. No matter how good our Bordeaux blends are, there is a sea of wines like them across the world.
‘Maybe we will get there with Syrah, but the Americans don’t like it – they want Cabernet. In Australia they are always going to drink their Shiraz, so that just leaves us New Zealand and the UK.’
There are hopes that Kiwi Pinot drinkers will migrate towards Syrah, attracted by its softness and perfumed fruit – but, however encouraging the results, the grape remains a difficult sell in the short- to medium-term.
Both in Hawke’s Bay and on Waiheke it’s not clear whether Bordeaux blends will retain their supremacy over Syrah.
Can the country continue to do both styles or is that giving a mixed message? Most claim the two can co-exist but such diversity creates marketing headaches.
Duncan McTavish, winemaker at Man O’War, Waiheke’s largest producer, says: ‘I don’t think we necessarily need to have a flagship. The two can co-exist. We built our reputation on Bordeaux blends. Syrah is the new kid on the block and it has made a big statement early on. But we can’t focus on one to the detriment of the other.’
There have also been solutions suggested that include blending the Bordeaux grapes with Syrah, an idea posed by Rod Easthope, winemaker at Craggy Range and chair of Gimblett Gravels Winegrowers Association.
‘The flagship should not be a varietal,’ he says. ‘We have always looked to replicate the classics in our formative years. But we are now getting to the stage where we are confident with our fruit and winemaking. Why not do a Cabernet/Syrah blend?’
Syrah’s growth in New Zealand may be slow, but it’s on the up. It is both a unique and appealing style, especially attractive to wine enthusiasts, but the challenge remains convincing the regular wine drinker to try it. While Cabernet/Merlot blends remain more successful in sales terms, they lack the distinctiveness that sets the country’s Syrahs apart.
If Syrah becomes more popular, the decline in Cabernet plantings is likely to accelerate, making way for its Rhône rival. Until then, the status quo will remain.
| FRONT OF HOUSE…
Two top sommeliers give their thoughts on Kiwi Syrah versus Bordeaux blends
Ronan Sayburn MS, director of wines and spirits, Hotel du Vin
Garry Clark, sommelier, The Chester Grosvenor
Tinpot Hut Syrah 2008, Hawke’s Bay, £11.88, Liberty Wines, 020 7720 5350