NZ Syrah 2012

What a difference a vintage makes, our syrah tasting panel decides. John Saker reports.

by John Saker | Wednesday, 13 June, 2012

New Zealand wine’s ascendant red prodigy, syrah, is predominantly concentrated in one region – Hawke’s Bay. That makes a syrah tasting one where vintage conditions in the Bay are very much on show, and three very different years – 2009, 2010 and 2011 – were a talking point at our latest syrah event. “In 2009, the best wines were ripe and rounded and it’s not surprising that three of our top five were from that vintage,” said panel chair, John Belsham.

“Both 2010 and 2011 were cooler years and it showed. Ripeness was an issue with a number of wines from these vintages.” From the 69 wines entered, four went solid gold with fi ve-star awards, all shining examples of the quality that is being achieved with syrah. Another 10 received four or 4½ stars. “More experience with syrah is needed and that problem is being remedied with every vintage,” said Ralph Kyte-Powell. The panel discussed the widening practice of adding a small portion of the Rhône Valley viognier grape to syrah – something most of our Top 5 wines had done. John Belsham felt that overall, winemakers are using this technique to good eff ect. “Adding viognier will enhance the wine’s aromatics, though too much will overdo it. Balance is the key and our two top wines in particular are great examples of achieving that.” Concluded Ralph Kyte-Powell, “The best wines were fantastic. And I’ll add that it was almost impossible to separate the top three wines.”

The Tasting panel
A vintage pair joined Cuisine’s regular panel chair, John Belsham, international judge and owner of Foxes Island Wines: Ralph Kyte-Powell, Cuisine’s Australian wine writer, and Martinborough winemaking legend, Larry McKenna. The associate judges (non-scoring) were Cuisine’s NZ wine writer, John Saker, and Andrew Parkinson, fine-wine specialist at Negociants NZ.

1. Bilancia Syrah 2010 (Hawke’s Bay) $24-$26 -7
Bilancia is Italian for balance and Kiwi for "syrah doesn't get much better than this". The dedication to craft comes through in this beautifully structured, ripe wine. Scents evocative of dark roses, a vivid mosaic of red fruit and dark fruit flavours, and velvety tannins come together with harmony and class. A small amount of viognier adds freshness and aromatic lift.

Two shades of La Collina
They’re both syrahs made mainly with fruit from the same distinctive, naturally farmed, sloping vineyard called La Collina. Behind both is the commitment of winemaker Warren Gibson and his partner in life and business, Lorraine Leheny. But that’s where the similarities end. Our top two syrahs have contrasting personalities. “They’re from diff erent vintages, for a start,” says Gibson. “The Bilancia has a few more buttons undone – it’s a more showy wine. We get it into bottle early, the tannins are not aggressive, and we try to make it in a style that is not big, but will still engage well with food. “The La Collina has a very diff erent structure. It’s aged in 100 per cent new oak barrels, though the vineyard purity is not compromised. It’s a tighter, more coiled wine that hasn’t released everything yet. It’s made for the long haul and we’re trying to create some heritage with the label.” With Gibson working fulltime as winemaker at Trinity Hill, the boutique Bilancia is squeezed in on the side. Though he makes the wine and Leheny handles the admin and marketing, she is also a trained winemaker with an excellent palate. “Which means there’s the odd barney – or should I say ‘good discussion’ – around the winemaking.”

2. La Collina Syrah 2009 (Hawke’s Bay) $95 -7
Commonly regarded as New Zealand syrah royalty, La Collina is the Bilancia label’s top syrah. It is grown on a sloping, terraced vineyard (la collina means the hill) on the northern flank of Roy’s Hill, near the Gimblett Gravels. Blackberry, spice and charry oak notes provide charming flavours, and the assertive tannic grip is a real feature.

3. Villa Maria Reserve Hawke’s Bay Syrah 2009 $45-$50 -7
“That’s very good cool-climate syrah,” noted Ralph Kyte-Powell. It’s a tightly woven rendition, offering dark berryfruit flavours, edged with a savoury straw-like note and seasoned with subtle oak spice. The texture is stylish and svelte. Match it with slow-cooked lamb shanks.

4. Kim Crawford Small Parcels Victory Hawke’s Bay Syrah 2010 $33 -5
A stream of compliments matched the smooth flow of this dark, fleshy expression, among them “ripe and balanced” (Larry McKenna) and “a tar-and-roses style that works well” (John Belsham). This is quite a muscular, masculine wine that would suit a gamy dish, such as venison. [A]

5. Church Road Hawke’s Bay Syrah 2009 $29 -5
Winemaker Chris Scott has been building a very fine reputation for his Church Road syrah and his 2009 effort is up with the best. All the key ingredients are there: gorgeous floral aromatics, fine tannins and a generous helping of dark ripe fruit. [B]


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