Hawkes Bay Syrah; could you tell it apart from a Rhone wine?

Hawkes Bay Syrah; could you tell it apart from a Rhone wine?

"I'm getting pepper in this..." might not be as bizarre a comment as you'd imagine. At least not if the wine in question is a Syrah (aka Shiraz).

There was a strong whiff of pepper, almost like ground white pepper, in the 2011 Tinpot Hut Syrah. No, I wasn't going mad. It took until 2008 for scientists to identify the pepper aromas as coming from a compound called rotundone, though of course it had been there all along.

Not surprisingly, it's also found in pepper (twice as much in white as in black). Sounding uncannily like a garden weed-killer, rotundone is simply not detected by around 1 in 5 of us; another reason why wines can smell different to others.

 Freshly ground Hawkes Bay Syrah with your meal sir?

Freshly ground Hawkes Bay Syrah with your meal sir?

The vineyard conditions in Hawkes Bay (on the east coast of New Zealand's north island, surrounding the city of Napier) appear to bring out this character in ways that create dead ringers for the wines of the northern Rhone in France.

So similar in fact that the thought occurred that it would make for a particularly devious blind test to pit a Crozes Hermitage against this Kiwi wine. Together with its fine grained tannins, it was truly difficult to attempt to identify it as being from New Zealand.

As for those "fine grained tannins"; what actually is that? Well, remember school physics and iron filings?

The way they stand to attention when a magnet is placed underneath the card, and move as one as the magnet does?

It's kind of like that. As if the tannins are all neatly aligned, so integrated so as not to be a distraction from the wine's fruit flavours, adding an element of texture to the taste of the wine as it glides across your tastebuds. If anything, these beautifully rendered tannins could give you the nod to the wine being New Zealand in origin, but that would be a tough call.

Hawkes Bay and Syrah are practically synonymous. Here's why:

  • Hawkes Bay is New Zealand's second largest wine region, producing around 10% of the country's wine grapes
  • Syrah makes up just 0.5% of New Zealand's wine production, and only 0.1% of what's exported
  • Hawkes Bay's 332 ha of Syrah grapes makes up 70% of the country's plantings of the variety (423 ha in the country)

By contrast, Sauvignon Blanc makes up 72% of New Zealand's wine production, and a colossal 86% of wine exports.

So if you see a Hawkes Bay Syrah, grab it whilst you can; you're looking at a rarity that you might not see again.

The 2011 Tinpot Hut we tasted, with those benefits derived from a little age, was superb. However, word has it that the 2013 vintage for Hawkes Bay Syrah is the best yet.

It's a decade since Tim Atkin suggested in The Guardian that Syrah "could save the day in Hawkes Bay", and the quantities produced certainly haven't borne that out.

Hawkes Bay Syrah, with it's distinct pepper aromas, fine, textural palate, and an almost perfect balance between savoury/fruit, is, however, undoubtedly one of the triumphs of New Zealand winemaking.

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