Conclusions from the tasting:
This tasting presented at Trinity Hill winery, Hawkes Bay, highlighted yet again the enormous promise that syrah shows, both in the New Zealand viticultural climate in general, and in Hawkes Bay in particular. The tasting proved to be of interest to wine enthusiasts, and to staff and management of the two wineries primarily involved. It was however disappointing to find little interest among other Hawkes Bay wineries, notwithstanding these two wines are acknowledged leaders in the New Zealand syrah field. Achieving wine quality is not advanced by parochialism: there is a perfectly rational self-interest in assessing, studying, and being familiar with the wines of other wine companies, both from the immediate district when of this quality, and from overseas.
The single factor which attracted most comment was the relative youth of the wines. Thus far it has been supposed that New Zealand syrah would have a shorter life in cellar than matching-vintage cabernet / merlot blends and the like, but both this tasting and the 2002 vintage review tasting (reported on here suggested otherwise.
Consistent packaging for Craggy Range Syrah Le Sol, and Trinity Hill Syrah Homage over the years, the 2002 pair on the left, 2010 to the right. There is a slight change in Le Sol label height only. With both companies employing heavy / prestige bottles to signify quality, the Le Sol six averaging 965 grams, and Homage 1035, the chances of one company reverting to standard-weight packaging seem slight. The Homage bottle is one of the heaviest in common use worldwide, 1.7 times the weight of a quality Rhone bottle (averaging 605 grams), only 30 or so grams lighter than a Burgundy magnum. The contrast with a comparable New Zealand premium producer such as Felton Road (for pinot noir) is dramatic. The latter seeks to gain prestige for their wine from quite another angle, by lately moving to a 417 gram bottle across their range. The average for New Zealand burgundy-shape bottles is around 575 grams.
Background information provided for the Tasting:
Syrah is quietly emerging as perhaps the most exciting red wine in New Zealand. Our modern syrahs are derived from the thoughtful work of Dr Alan Limmer, then Stonecroft, who first (in the 1980s) both planted out syrah from the then Te Kauwhata Research Station in his Mere Road (Gimblett Gravels) vineyard, and actively promoted the variety as suited to New Zealand. The first commercial Stonecroft Syrah wines date from around 1988. It is important to note though, that other people also had planted this material. Corbans for example had experimental syrah in Marlborough in the 1980s, and made wines from it – a fact tending to be forgotten today. Denis Irwin at Matawhero as so often then was in the lead, too, planting it in his Riverpoint Road vineyard, with wines from the 1990 vintage. And Glenn Thomas, having been at Corbans in the mid-80s, planted some in the Awatere Valley, for Vavasour, the first commercial wine being again in 1990. Te Mata too quickly recognised the potential for syrah in New Zealand, planting the now highly regarded Bullnose vineyard in the Ngatarawa Triangle in the late 1980s, with their first commercial release of the now-famous Bullnose Syrah in 1992. Te Mata can now be seen as the most consistent pioneer and long-term leader in New Zealand syrah, the Stonecroft efforts having wavered at times, and with some wines having reduction issues.
Our best New Zealand examples combine the beauty, floral charm and varietal excitement of the wines of Cote Rotie, but with many wines also offering clear suggestions of greater power, as if from a slightly warmer climate – as for example the wines from the Hill of Hermitage, just down the road. It is going to be a long struggle to achieve recognition though, because the Old World cannot see past the best of those lovely Northern Rhone examples, despite the long-standing achievements of the (at best) exquisite Te Mata Bullnose Syrah, and the New World tends to be obsessed with size and power in wine, rather than beauty, and thus rewards the wines of Washington on the one hand, and South Australia (as Shiraz) on the other.
So in this gap in received wine wisdom, two New Zealand wineries (in particular) have set out to not only create fine Northern-Rhone styled syrahs,
but also to lift New Zealand syrah to a new level, and create New Zealand icon wines – in the style of certain Californian wineries, maybe. John Hancock at Trinity Hill planted syrah in the early 1990s, with the first commercial wine from these plantings in 1997. Their first prestige bottling of syrah, Homage, was from the 2002 vintage. Craggy followed soon thereafter, buying their first land in 1997, but pipping Trinity Hill to the post by first launching their prestige syrah Le Sol from the 2001 vintage. For both Craggy Range, and Trinity Hill, their top syrahs are their highest-priced wines (though Craggy aim to have their top pinot noir Aroha matching it very soon). For Trinity, Homage is proudly their top wine. It is named for Gerard Jaboulet, and that family's top wine, Hermitage La Chapelle, for many years regarded as the finest syrah in the world. It has now been displaced by the wines of J L Chave also from Hermitage, following the premature death of the inspirational Gerard in 1997. John Hancock worked a full vintage with Gerard in 1996, and has an eternal souvenir of that association via planting stock of syrah from the Jaboulet vineyards on the Hill of Hermitage, now forming part of the vine material resources for Homage.
What better way to background this tasting therefore, than to ask John Hancock and Steve Smith MW to outline their approach to creating their now-famous wines:
John Hancock, co-founder and initial chief winemaker, Trinity Hill: Back in the late 1990s I was intrigued by the very French proposal that lower yields produced better quality wines. Of course, within reason, this is obvious. High yields do not result in serious quality wines. Starting with moderate yields, we reduced crop levels further by appropriate pruning, floret removal, early bunch removal and green harvest – removal of bunches that showed delayed ripening after veraison. One of the issues that we were dealing with at the time was that our vines were still very young. Nevertheless, we came to the conclusion that there was a (low) crop level, that if we went lower, simply meant that the wine was no better, there was just less of it!
Then, when the vines were 5 or 6 years old, we determined that yield was about 2.5 tonne/hectare (about 18 Hl/Ha). Again, one issue was that our vines were not close planted back then. Now, with our vines around 20 years old and with plantings from the early 2000s much closer, we now have determined that 4 – 5 tonnes per hectare is the low end of the yield equation to give us fruit of sufficient quality to be considered for Homage. Thus we now grow to that level specifically for Homage. We made the first wine in 2002 using that philosophy.
The first serious wine that I bought by the case when I came to New Zealand was the 1978 La Chapelle, in 1981 at about $16/bottle. It was partly because of my Australian background in Shiraz (and I was a fan of fruit from Eden Valley – the cooler part of the Barossa Valley, or more appropriately I guess, Adelaide Hills) at Leo Buring. Delegats had sent me on a comprehensive trip to France and Germany in 1981, during harvest there. I had an appointment to meet Jaboulet via their NZ agent, who I think were New Zealand Wines & Spirits back then. I met the old man Louis and Gerard (his son). They were very kind to me, spent a lot of time with me and we tasted their wines, including La Chapelle. They did make a big impression on me and I had the opportunity to do harvest with them in 1996. Their wines were a bit erratic by then, but the best vintages of La Chapelle were still outstanding.
I was lucky enough to spend quite a lot of time tasting with Gerard, a wonderful man. He told me that in his opinion, the best vintages of La Chapelle were 1961, 1978 and 1990. I have been lucky enough to taste quite a few of the 1978 and the 1990 but never the 1961!! Anyway, Gerard organised cuttings of 3 clones of Syrah and one clone of viognier that they were recommending, to come back via quarantine to New Zealand. We subsequently propagated these clones up and they were planted in our vineyards. Some of these vines, 15 years or so old now, produce fruit that is potentially used in Homage. Unfortunately, the year after I was there for harvest, Gerard sadly died, way too young. So when we were looking for a name for the new wine made in 2002, we chose Homage as a tribute to Gerard.
Is our inspiration Hermitage or Cote Rotie? In actual fact, the first Homage had a small portion of Roussanne co-fermented with the Syrah! So perhaps it is a combination of both. I guess in more recent times, with the potential use of Viognier (our Roussanne was virused and so removed back in early 2000s, not replaced as yet) and whole bunch Syrah, the wine has become more aligned to Cote Rotie. Either way, our argument now might be that Homage is an evolving Gimblett Gravels statement about fine New Zealand Syrah.
Steve Smith MW, founding technical adviser and first CEO, Craggy Range: The original thoughts behind planting Syrah in The Gimblett Gravels were based around some wines we actually made in Marlborough, from Syrah planted on a really rocky vineyard, when I was with Villa Maria. We made some big rich dark amazingly fresh and aromatic Syrah, though with little knowledge on what to do.
I had seen what Hancock and Limmer had done in the Gravels. The idea was if the vines were planted close together, with lower cropping levels and a bit more attention in the vineyard, could we make some Syrah that was ripe, dark and relatively full bodied, but still retain the amazing aromatics we saw in Marlborough, but with better phenolic ripeness. The idea was always closer to the Rhone than Australia, but with a definite feel of ripeness and purity from the New World. We used the heritage [Limmer] clone of Syrah because that is all I knew, and the source in Marlborough was virus-free.
Overall style-wise the wine turned out where we wanted it to be, in general, but what has surprised me is the absolute sense of place we are seeing in the wines. They have a definite personality that we just could not predict. Also unlike almost every other red grape, except possibly Pinot Noir, there is a range of ripeness characteristics in these warm maritime environments that allows for some real expression from the winemaker.
For the first Le Sol, as mentioned it came about from a discussion with Doug Wisor on picking criteria: he wanted riper, I not so. So we split the pick in 2001 and the riper pick went to Le Sol. Since that time as the vines have matured there is not so much emphasis on really pushing ripeness, as we did in the early days. It has become more about the older heritage clone, mature vines from the stoniest parts of the vineyard, and cropping levels that are lower than the standard Gimblett Gravels [then Syrah Block 14] wine. Le Sol has grown up from the rambunctious days of its youth, as we always expected, since vine age is a critical component in the wine being more complete and grand vin-like.
This tasting will take 6 vintages in the decade 2000 – 2010 where both wineries made this top wine, and present them blind. Neither winery makes this top syrah every year, but Craggy Range have made more than Trinity.
It is not practical to have a back-up set of wines, so in the case of a corked wine, the Reserve wine will be Craggy Range's maiden wine (in this context), the 2001 Le Sol – for interest.
I am not aware of this matched-vintage evaluation of these two emerging classic wines of New Zealand being offered publicly before. This tasting therefore presents a rare opportunity to share in the first steps of an emerging great New Zealand wine story. The wines will be presented blind, from youngest to oldest.
Acknowledgments: John Hancock, Warren Gibson, and Janine Bevege (all from Trinity Hill), and Matt Stafford from Craggy Range, all took the keenest interest in this tasting being successful. Thank you.
Cooper, Michael, 2005 – 2013: Buyer's Guide to New Zealand Wines. Hodder Moa Beckett, variously 416 – 670 p.
www.robertparker.com Robert Parker and Neal Martin particularly, for this set
THE WINES REVIEWED:
# The first price given below is the current wine-searcher value, which gives an indication of the broader market estimation of the wine now. Where available, the original purchase price is given in the text following.
Ruby, carmine and velvet, a good syrah colour, the third deepest wine. Bouquet epitomises fragrant, dark-berry, aromatic new-world syrah grown in a temperate climate, showing nearly floral (darkest roses) aromas, fresh trace black pepper, dark cassisy berry, exciting. Palate is rich, wonderfully soft, but neither low tannin nor low acid, just perfect wine balance. Aftertaste is long, beautifully varietal on the cassis and black pepper, sustained. This is a lovely wine. Two people rated it their second favourite wine. Cellar 5 15 years. GK 09/16
Ruby and some velvet, both lighter and older than the same-year Le Sol, in fact the second to lightest wine. One sniff and the difference between these two benchmark wines is obvious. Le Sol is fresh, vibrant and new-world in style, whereas Homage is mellower, softer, more floral, much more European. Here there are the wallflower florals of great Hermitage, above cassisy berry now browning a little relative to the 2009 Le Sol. Palate is simply great syrah from Hermitage, at a lesser price than many. This is classic syrah in a very complex handling, all kinds of savoury tastes as well as browning cassis, yet long, soft and lovely. Interestingly, nobody rated this their top or second wine, and three had it as their least wine. I wondered if we in the New World are becoming too habituated to squeaky-clean high-tech wines, such as the Australian wine industry favours, wines which sometimes lack vinosity. Cellar 5 12 years. GK 09/16
Ruby and some velvet, below midway in depth. Bouquet is wonderfully pure and fragrant, a slightly more restrained wallflower / more roses floral component, on cassisy berry browning a little, lifted with trace black pepper. Flavours in mouth follow on perfectly, all a little older and more melded than the 2009, soft, rich, like the 2009 shaped by oak but in no way dominated by it, a highly varietal and winey expression of New Zealand syrah. It is richer, softer and more complex than the 2007 Le Sol, with true Hermitage affinities. Two people rated this their second-favourite wine. Approaching first maturity, this will cellar 3 10 years more, at least. GK 09/16
Ruby, carmine and velvet, not a huge wine, but the second deepest. Bouquet shares much with the 2009 Le Sol, but is cooler, fresher, more aromatic, more cassis, more black pepper, again a near-perfect expression of temperate-climate syrah at pinpoint peak maturity, for syrah. Palate shows even more cassis than the 2009, but it is not quite so rich and plump, instead real thoroughbred lines, with an attractive long sustained aromatic cassisy flavour lifted by noticeable black pepper. This is textbook new-world syrah. One vote for first place. Cellar 5 15 years. [ Date tasted should be 9/16 ... technical hitch. ] GK 10/16
Ruby and velvet, well above midway in depth. One sniff and this bouquet is totally Hermitage of comparable age, cassis and dark plum melding now (with the elapsed 14 years) with the oak, to be beautifully aromatic, highly varietal, oak well under control, no trace of Martin's concerns. Palate is mellow, hints of brown mushroom complexity creeping into browning berry, a complex and beautifully soft yet rich wine at early maturity. Two tasters had it as their second-favourite wine. It has the concentration to cellar 3 8 years more, at least. GK 09/16
Ruby, the lightest wine. And the bouquet matches perfectly, the first nett impression being of an extraordinarily fragrant and burgundian (Cote de Nuits) red, soft, enticing. Flavours do little to dispel that interpretation, the fruit being soft, mellow but still faintly aromatic as in good burgundy, spreading, beautifully framed by cedary oak completely in the background. On the later palate, a passing thought of ripe stalks again reminiscent of good burgundy occurs. This is a very special New Zealand wine, extraordinarily European. How one wishes the European winewriters ever undertook rigorously blind cross-country tastings. Three people rated it their top wine. Cellar 2 6 years. GK 09/16
Ruby, some velvet, midway in colour, so redder and deeper than the 2004 Homage. The clear stylistic difference between Le Sol and Homage evident in the 2010s was apparently already there in 2004. This is much more a pure new-world varietal expression of syrah, still clearly cassisy and aromatic, clear black pepper possibly even with some white, leading to a berry-rich palate nearly as pleasing as the 2004 Homage, but not as soft and complex / old-world. Depth of fruit likewise is comparable with the 2004 Homage, but perhaps the tannins show a little more in the later palate there is not quite the softness. This Le Sol was clearly seen as the wine of the night, 11 tasters rating it their top or second-favourite wine. No hurry here, cellar 3 8 years. GK 09/16
Ruby and velvet, much less vivid than 2010 Le Sol, just above midway in depth. Bouquet is quieter too, a more evolved winestyle with darker berry notes and even black olive creeping into the cassis and black pepper. Palate shows furry tannins again more European than new-world, and the wine is drying a little to the finish. The question of low-level brett was raised, but winemaker Warren Gibson says there is none. It will be interesting to see how these two (the 2010 Le Sol and 2010 Homage) compare in the years to come. Two tasters rated this their top or second-favourite wine. Cellar 5 12 years. GK 09/16
Ruby, carmine and velvet, well below midway in depth. Bouquet shows fragrant, aromatic, clean maturing syrah, some cassis browning slightly now, some black pepper, beautifully pure. Flavours grade from cassis to bottled black doris plum, softer, riper and richer than the 2006s, maybe a thought of ripening to the blueberry level with an associated fleshy finish, even though the tannins do creep up too. This is very much a new-world syrah, to cellar 3 12 years more. It attracted four first or second-place votes. GK 09/16
Ruby and velvet, redder than the 2006 Homage, just below midway in depth. Bouquet is delightfully fragrant and aromatic, and this being the only Le Sol with a splash of viognier in it, you wonder if you can recognise it. Mingling in with the berry aromas there is a touch of white pepper / stalk, rather than black. Palate reinforces that thought, fair berry and fruit but also a further reminder of stalks, with a shorter finish than the '06 Homage. CEO at the time (and in effect chief wine maker too) Steve Smith commented that this is the only year Le Sol has been made mostly from non-heritage (i.e. non-Limmer) clone fruit. There are plenty of Cornas syrahs (in lesser years) tasting just like this. No first or second-place votes perhaps the least-liked wine, the white pepper I assume. My relatively higher mark reflects my quite liking the white pepper phase, in the syrah ripening curve. Cellar 3 8 years. [ Date tasted should be 9/16 ... technical hitch. ] GK 10/16
Ruby and velvet, midway in depth, deeper but less red than 2006 Le Sol. Bouquet is complex on this wine, clear cassis and black pepper, but also a more clearly European note hinting at brett and adding complexity. Flavours are berry rich but high in tannin, with a slight medicinal note detracting. It is riper than the 2006 Le Sol, but not as pure. You can't help thinking of Crozes-Hermitage here rather than the more highly-regarded appellations. This wine may seem quite different in a few years' time, once it has lost more tannin. Curiously, five tasters rated this wine in first or second place. Cellar 3 10 years. GK 09/16
Ruby, garnet and velvet, older and darker than the 2002 Homage, and in fact the darkest wine. Bouquet is immediately somewhat outside this set, the berry inclining to baked berry tart and hot climate notes reminiscent more of the Barossa Valley than the Gimblett Gravels. Palate is still enormously rich, with browning flavours again more plum tart or even prune than plum, ripened well past cassis aromatics. This wine is a textbook example of the need for New Zealand winemakers to constantly be tasting the European yardsticks, to know when to pick. In 2002 Craggy Range had a Californian winemaker, Doug Wisor, and the season allowed ripening to and beyond sur-maturité in European terms. This may have seemed appropriate to a Californian-schooled winemaker, but New Zealand's red wine destiny lies in the French model, not California or Australia. The wisdom in great temperate-climate winemakers lies in knowing when to pick, and when to cut off nature's generosity as for example in 2002. It is noteworthy that four tasters rated this their top wine of the evening, presumably reflecting their liking for shiraz as in Australia, rather than syrah as in Hermitage, Cote Rotie and Hawkes Bay. Five tasters all told had it in first or second place. The wine is fully mature, but not as smooth as some of the wines to the finish. It will cellar at least 3 8 years more. Steve Smith noted that in its youth this wine showed relatively high VA, but for me the ester component has now completely married away. Likewise the acetic component is not now noticeable on bouquet, but is on the aftertaste. GK 09/16