You Say Syrah

Paul Blow

One grape, two names: Syrah and Shiraz. Syrah is the French name and connotes the French style, exemplified in the famous wines of the northern Rhône—Hermitage, Côte-Rôtie, St. Joseph, Crozes-Hermitage, Cornas. Shiraz connotes the Australian style, coming out of just about everywhere else—South Africa, Santa Barbara, Walla Walla, Argentina.

Shiraz, widely available, is blowsy and full-bodied, emphasizing fruit and leather over pepper. But if I’m offered a choice, I’ll go every time for Syrah and the wines of the northern Rhône—medium-bodied, savory, peppery, floral, and redolent of wild blackberries and dried herbs. The most obvious difference between the places that grow Shiraz and those that grow Syrah is temperature. Hotter places make Shiraz; cooler places make Syrah. So much less Syrah is produced than Shiraz because in cooler, marginal climates there is a risk that the grapes won’t ripen. Warmer places—much of the wine regions of the New World—are a safer bet, but the wines lose acidity and structure in the warmer weather, and they become too alcoholic. For me, when winemaking starts to become a safe bet, the wines are often not as interesting.

The problem is that once you get past the meager amount of wine made by the handful of small villages in France, there isn’t much Syrah in the world. But New Zealand has joined the cause. The wine coming out of there—also not plentiful—is gloriously in the French style.

I discovered the wine at a Syrah conference in Hawke’s Bay on New Zealand’s North Island. Hawke’s Bay dominates New Zealand’s Syrah-growing area, with 61 percent of Syrah acreage, but even that is only 3 percent of Hawke’s Bay total vineyard land (the dominant varieties are Chardonnay, Merlot, and Cabernet). The symposium was organized in part because the winemakers of Hawke’s Bay wanted some outside opinions about whether they should put their resources into planting and making more Syrah. Count this as a yes.

Of course, Hawke’s Bay Syrah is not exactly like the Rhône’s, and no one’s asking it to be. It’s a little fuller and richer than the best of the Rhône, and at this point a little less complex. After all, they’ve really only been making it seriously since the late ‘80s, and then in minuscule quantities. But the potential is obvious—the best of the wines reel with spicy aromas and generous doses of black and white pepper. They are not overwhelming in size and typically have great intensity and long, savory finishes.

The key is climate. The gravelly soils of Hawke’s Bay are largely different from the famous granite hillsides and limestone terraces of the Rhône, but the climate is comparable. If anything, Hawke’s Bay is even a little bit cooler. It is certainly far cooler than Australia’s scorching Barossa or McLaren Vale. This makes the climate extremely marginal—if it’s a good year, the grapes just barely reach perfect ripeness. But the most marginal climates tend to create the finest wines, and Hawke’s Bay produces a perfectly ripe Syrah, well proportioned with not too much alcohol. The flavors are sharp and intense, and extend from the lips deep to the back of the tongue.

Dr. Alan Limmer of Stonecroft winery was the first to plant Syrah, and his bottles are a good place to start. Stonecroft’s wines have great ripe fruit and wonderful texture—some tannins on the finish, but they’re sweet and ripe. Other great Syrahs are Craggy Range, Te Mata, Trinity Hill, Vidal, and Mills Reef. You’ll find slight variations in style, but they all proudly express the hallmarks of great cool-climate Syrah. And they are perfect, I must say, with grassy, tender Kiwi lamb. New Zealand might be only a small ally in Syrah’s coalition of the willing, but now at least it’s two against the world.

Jordan Mackay is a San Francisco–based wine and spirits specialist whose work has appeared in publications such as Gourmet, the Los Angeles Times, Food & Wine, and Decanter. Follow him on Twitter. Follow CHOW too, and become a fan on Facebook.