A New Style from Down Under

Following a WSET Level 1 class a couple of weeks ago, I stopped by my neighborhood wine bar and ended up talking syrah and shiraz with the sommelier. In class I tend to pour a Barossa Valley shiraz because it is a classic example of the Australian approach to the grape. The widespread use of two names for the grape highlights two very different styles in can produce: a voluptuous, fruit-forward and almost jammy style in very warm climates and a leaner style derived from relatively cooler climates and less fertile soil.

 Craggy Range's Gimblett Gravels vineyards (Photo: Craggy Range)

Craggy Range's Gimblett Gravels vineyards (Photo: Craggy Range)

While one tends to go to the northern Rhône Valley for the archetypal syrah in the leaner, more mineral-driven style, I am increasingly drawn to the cool-climate style one finds not all that far from the Barossa in Tasmania and New Zealand. Here in North America, Tasmania is barely a blip on the horizon so far. What little wine we see from Tasmania shows the island’s huge promise as a source of sparkling wine; I love the sparklers from Jansz who produce wines in the traditional method that they dub “Méthode Tasmanoise. However, I’ve had a few syrahs from Tasmania that were shockingly good (the Tasmanians are divided on whether to call their wine shiraz or syrah) and I am eager for more Tasmanian pinot noir, chardonnay and syrah to make its way to the U.S.

New Zealand is cooler than even Tasmania and thus far Kiwi syrah (I have not seen any labeled shiraz) is produced in small quantities as the vintners carefully assess where it grows best. On site that undeniably produces great syrah is the part of Hawke’s Bay called Gimblett Gravels. This is a relatively new region that I first learned about a few years ago from Craggy Range winemaker Matt Stafford. 

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He says the vineyards in Gimblett Gravels “are deep and porous which reduces vigorous growth and decreases heat retention. This allows the fruit on the vines to ripen perfectly and gives syrah from the region the world-class distinction of wines with sensational elegance and beautifully defined aromatics.” The viticulturists at Craggy Range made a careful survey before planting. “The region was once an ancient river bed, and our Gimblett Gravels vineyard has been planted following the old river flows to ensure uniformity of gravel depth and optimum ripeness.”

As we see in other areas, vineyards with a lot of stones achieve two important characteristics: they have good drainage, and the stones gather heat during the day and reflect it back during cool nights to enhance ripening. Stafford says his syrah is, “a vineyard parcel selection showcasing the unique purity of the varietal in these young, stony soils with a finesse of tannin that is approachable and enticing.”

That’s a pretty technical assessment of a wine that to my mind is simply ravishing, not in an ostentatious way but with restraint and elegance. Here’s my tasting note:

Craggy Range 2015 Hawke’s Bay Syrah

This wine from the increasingly famous Gimblett Gravels area has wonderful blackberry and black cherry aromas with a cleansing note on the palate of wild herbs and cracked black pepper. Lively acidity, perfectly balanced with great finesse and a long finish.

Shiraz is tricky. Like zinfandel, it can have just medium acidity and gets “blousy” and poorly defined if the alcohol is pushed to to high a level by over-ripening. I find a more balanced style is much more appealing to my palate, and I heartily recommend scoping out the terrific Hawke’s Bay syrah from Craggy Range.

As an added note, the trade group New Zealand Wine Growers just reported that New Zealand is now the third largest wine exporter to the U.S. measured by value. Italy and France rank one and two, but considering the size of the country and the fact they produce only about one percent of the world’s wine, that’s a pretty astonishing statistic. Quoted in The Drinks Business, NZ Winegrowers CEO Philip Gregan said, “What began as just a few hundred thousand cases per year in the late 1990s, is now over 7.7 million cases imported to the US per annum.” He went on to note, “We have a reputation for premium quality and innovation. New Zealand itself is also a vital part of the success, with our sustainability practices and clean, green image very attractive to consumers, meaning they are prepared to pay a premium for our wines.”

I hope that means more wines from New Zealand are heading our way. And your way, too!