So before we get started on why Hawke’s Bay “Syrah” is something you should be drinking if you’re not already we need to answer this common question... Is it Syrah or Shiraz? Are they the same grapes but the Aussies got confused?
Some stories around the name and origin of the dark skinned grape link it to the Persian city in modern day Iran named Shiraz. The city was famed for producing a wine of exceptional quality named Shirazi and it is said that the Persians brought with them the Shiraz vines to their outpost of Marseilles in the South of France.
If you have heard the same legend of Shiraz’s origin, it is probably because it is one of the famed stories of Hermitage’s origin. Hermitage is one of the most Iconic wine regions in the world noted for producing the very best Syrah. At one point in the 1800’s Hermitage was the most expensive wine in the world (let’s be fair, it’s still not far off!). You can read about the Hermit of Hermitage here.
However a study at UC Davis in 1999 confirmed that the Australians might have been mistaken (read were mistaken). In fact the grapes origin can be traced back to two extremely rare grapes, that likely crossed while growing side by side in a vineyard in the Rhone Alps of France. Those grapes were Dureza and Mondeuse Blanche - but don’t worry you don’t lose any points for not knowing of them!
So we have established that the Australians might have got a tad confused when they named their wines Shiraz in the 1980’s (they were originally called Hermitage before it was made illegal to call wine Hermitage that was not from the French AOC). But are the wines actually different depending on what they are being called?
Luckily for us as consumers, the name on the bottle does actually tell us a thing or two about what to expect out of the wine. Syrah or Shiraz will usually let us know where the wine is from and what style of winemaking has been used.
Shiraz wines are generally from hot climate wine regions such as Australia and South Africa. The Shiraz wine can also be a way of identifying winemaking style. These wines generally indicate that the wines showcase ripe fruit, and can be high in alcohol with big fat jammy flavours.
Syrah wines are usually from the cooler wine regions of the world (insert sunglasses emoji here) and can express themselves a little differently than the big Shiraz wines most consumers of the world are familiar with. With Syrah we are looking at more linear wines that often have more aromatics with violets, a touch of gameyness and of course the signature spice all indicators of a cool climate Syrah.
The most famous region that make Syrah wines is the birthplace of the grape - the Rhone Valley. In the Northern Rhone appellations of Hermitage & Cote Rotie the only red grape allowed to be used is Syrah. In Southern Rhone, Syrah is often a blending component with Grenache.
Hawke’s Bay is the undisputed homeland of Syrah in New Zealand and at the heart of Hawke’s Bay is the Gimblett Gravels where the majority of the Syrah grapes are planted. The history of New Zealand’s Syrah can be traced back to James Busby, the Scot who is regarded as the “godfather of Australian wine”.
James Busby was appointed the British Resident of New Zealand and was instrumental in the early stages of forming New Zealand as we know it - thanks to his role in the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi. However he is most famously known for bringing vine stock from the famous wine regions of France and Spain, to Australia & later to New Zealand.
From the vine stock brought to the New World there was a particular variety regarded for producing small black grapes - Syrah. James Busby moved to the Bay of Islands in the North Island of New Zealand in 1833 and brought with him his vines.
Fast forward to the mid 1980’s a soil scientist by the name of Dr Alan Limmer, with a bit of luck stumbled upon 20 Syrah vines that could be traced back to Busby’s original vines in a grape research centre. Dr Limmer had to “rescue” the grapes because the Waikato research centre was closing down their nursery and the Syrah grapes were destined for destruction.
In 1989 Limmer released the first modern Syrah wine in New Zealand, from the rescued grapes he planted in his Gimblett Gravels winery Stonecroft. Dr Limmer also had to fight for the Gimblett Gravels protection, but more on that soon!
Since the first vintage of Syrah in 1989, Hawke’s Bay has continued to lead the rest of the country with up to 90% of all the Syrah vines found in Hawke’s Bay.
They say Hawke’s Bay Syrah is similar to Pinot Noir, by “they” we mean Warren Gibson who is the head winemaker at Trinity Hill… yeah, he knows a thing or two! Warren who makes the Trinity Hill Homage and Bilancia La Collina Syrah said it all comes down to Hawke’s Bay Syrah’s varietal character...
“Hawke’s Bay Syrah has a distinctive varietal character. We’re thinking more of Pinot Noir when we make Syrah as you get a lot of variation depending on where it’s planted. A lot of people talk about Pinosity with regards to Hawke’s Bay Syrah”
Warren goes a step further than this, and has even said that he likes to treat the grape the same way winemakers would handle Pinot Noir in the winery. Gentle handling in the winery ensures the wines produced are more perfumed and “feminine” compared to the big dark style that can be achieved with the grape - particularly across the Tasman in Australia.
Some of the defining characteristics of Hawke’s Bay Syrah is its violet perfumed nose with a rich gamey savouriness & liquorice on the palate that compliments its intense bright fruits and dark berries (classic characters of New World wine) - and lets not forget the signature cracked black pepper and spice that screams Hawke’s Bay.
The key to Hawke’s Bay’s ability to produce world class Syrah may very well lie with the evolution of the regional wine industry. The better understanding of the varieties & distinct subregions in Hawke’s Bay has meant winemakers are more informed when they are making decisions. The end result is distinct, premium Hawke's Bay Syrah. The main sub-regions that are important to consider for Hawkes Bay Syrah (and by default NZ Syrah) are below:
Although over 90% of New Zealand’s Syrah comes from Hawke’s Bay, there are a few hot spots around the country that are worth exploring. Syrah is a late ripening grape, so the cooler regions of New Zealand need to take vineyard site selection very seriously to ensure the grapes ripen.
Waiheke has a very similar climate to Hawke’s Bay in terms of sunshine hours and temperature, however it is the impact the seabreeze has on the sites that can be showcased here. From Waiheke Island we expect to get Syrah made in a cool climate style that are highly aromatic, elegant and fruit forward. Our pick of the wineries on the Island has to be Man O’ War and their superb Dreadnought Syrah makes us happy time and time again.
From the region known for producing some of the most iconic aromatic white wines in the world, comes a few winemakers who have carefully selected vineyard sites in the region that allow the late ripening Syrah grape a chance to express itself. The best vineyards for Syrah in Marlborough tend to be hillside sites. There is a famous saying that Syrah likes a view, and what better view is there than from one of Marlborough's most iconic hillside vineyards - the Clayvin site owned by Giesen wines. Giesen’s Clayvin Syrah displays typical cool climate characteristics of red fruits, plums, nutmeg and cinnamon.
New Zealand Syrah represents such a small percentage of all the wine produced in New Zealand (let alone what is exported) so it can be extremely difficult to buy New Zealand Syrah online here in the UK. However… don’t worry because we have a great range of Hawke’s Bay Syrah and even a few Syrahs from other regions in our online store. To view our collection click here.
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New Zealand’s wine industry is almost solely based on the success of Sauvignon Blanc. Certainly by volume with almost 90% of the wine New Zealand exports being Sauvignon Blanc. New Zealand has been making wine commercially since 1851 but it’s success with Sauvignon Blanc is reasonably new.