Lincoln University is already working to transform itself as suggested in a hard-hitting report warning it is underperforming in many areas.
Although as Chair Steve Smith MW explained, the classic red varieties of Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot go right back to the 1830’s and 40’s.
“James Busby brought his first grapes to New Zealand in those days, although they weren’t really known as Syrah. Instead the variety was known as Hermitage. Then in 1883, William Beetham’s vineyard in Martinborough was recognised for producing fine Pinot Noir and Hermitage.”
So with a history that goes back nearly 200 years, why is it that these varieties have not led the way in terms of New Zealand wine?
“Well we had phylloxera,” Smith explained, “followed by World War 1 and World War 2 and then it took extra time for the birth of the modern wine industry to appear in the 1970’s.”
In Syrah’s case, the clones that had derived from the 1830’s and 40’s were so badly virused, “they were no use in New Zealand wine’s arsenal.”
“In the 1970’s the virus was so vigorous and in that time in New Zealand, it was much easier in the warmer parts of the country, to make a decision to plant Cabernet and Merlot, rather than Syrah.”
Thankfully Alan Limmer founder of Stonecroft Wines was able to see past the trials and tribulations of Syrah in the past, when in 1984 he headed to Te Kauwhata Research Centre, to pick up the only virus free Busby clones to be found in New Zealand.
“He heard that the vines had been ripped out and left in a pile to be burnt," Smith said.
He brought them back to Hawke’s Bay and planted them. They are still producing today.”
Others followed suit with Syrah, not just in Hawke’s Bay, but also Martinborough, Waiheke and Marlborough. Smith describes the vines seen here now as being clonally diverse.
“We talk about Pinot Noir being clonally diverse, and certainly it is. But I believe that a story that hasn’t been told is the clonal diversity of Syrah. We have some mature plantings at Craggy that are all in one block and it is almost as if you are looking at different grape vines.”
Trinity Hill’s Warren Gibson said the variety is probably even more terroir oriented than Pinot Noir.
“Syrah is the variety in Hawke’s Bay and maybe in New Zealand, that says I come from this place. I think New Zealand Syrah tastes like New Zealand Syrah. In Hawke’s Bay, wines from the Gravels say, I am a Syrah from the Gravels. I am from a hillside, I am from this place and I think we need to be very mindful that we don’t push that too far away.”
In what was a unique tasting, Smith devised a system where the 16 Syrahs were placed on a graph like form.
“As you move across left to right, one aspect of terroir changes. As you move down the page, one aspect of terroir changes.”
So the wines at top left were from the coolest of the areas, the ones to the right gradually got warmer. The terroir change moving down from top to bottom, reflected changes in the amount of stones within the vineyard.
The 12 New Zealand wines were rounded out by four international, all from regions deemed to be as close to New Zealand as they could be.
There was a lot of positive response to the tasting, and the discussion following reflected the quality shown. But if there was one comment made that was taken on board, it was about allowing the wines to speak for themselves, without pushing them.
“We have just come from Pinot Noir, where a few years ago the wines were fighting for attention,” one international said. “But now there appears to be more confidence to let them be what they are. Looking at some of these Syrahs, I see that they are still fighting for (attention) and showing off. Maybe you might need to trust what you have.”
That was backed up by Warren Gibson from Trinity Hill.
“My point of view is that Syrah is behind the progression Pinot Noir has undergone, and we need to take those comments on board. This is our progression, to respecting the fruit and not trying to put too much make up on top of what we already have. You don’t need makeup if you are already beautiful.”
In terms of recent heritage, Cabernet and Merlot have more than Syrah according to Smith. All varieties suffered from virus, phylloxera and the slow growth of the industry. But thanks to Cabernet and Merlot wines made by Tom MacDonald in the 50’s and 60’s, those varieties were taken on board in the Hawke’s Bay sooner than Syrah.
The fresh fruit styles of the wines from New Zealand was a talking point after the tasting, which like Syrah was done in a grid style. The changes from left to right moved from Merlot predominance, to Cabernet. From top to bottom, it was again moving from less stones, to more.
“So this time it’s not just about physical aspects,” Smith explained. “It is about the relationship with the land, the stones and the human element, which is the blend.”
In all there were 12 wines, nine from New Zealand, three from overseas. Fresh when young, but with the potential to age was a winning combination according to Matt Stafford, winemaker at Craggy Range.
“That shift is exciting for us because we have that approachability and balance of fruit,” he said. “We have been surprised with how well our wines are ageing. That’s one of our great hallmarks. They have that approachability in their youth but there’s that potential for ageing.”
He went on to say with the food culture exploding globally, New Zealand wines have a golden opportunity to push the remarkable ability to match our gentler styles of red wine, to the fresher, cleaner food options now available.