I’m writing this column the morning after having done my first spin class.

If you’re a squeamish sort then hop up now and go and move the cat or phone a horoscope hotline for the next few minutes because this won’t be pretty.  I’m not talking about  channelling my inner rumplestiltskin with a bag of freshly carded wool to create something half decent to knit with.  No.  I’m talking about trusting someone’s “it’ll be fun” advice and then being locked onto a stationary bike with a rock-solid seat the size of a chicken drumstick and being yelled at by a sinewy sweat-freak to pedal like the clappers for a whole hour.  12 hours later I am positively crippled. Swollen, chaffed and bruised in places that I’m sure (dare I say it) were in better nick 12 hours after childbirth. Yuck.  Why didn’t someone warn me?  I could’ve brought along padding of some kind, purchased those special lycra shorts with reinforcement in the bum that proper cyclists wear, or at the very least, sellotaped a cotton-wool-stuffed showercap to the seat.

So the deal is because it’s too painful to walk around, I have decided to spend my day sitting down.  The upside is that within arms reach of my comfy chair is a selection of syrah’s that I’ve been looking for an excuse to taste.  Excellent.

I’d recently blind-tasted 74 examples for the inaugural Dish magazine Syrah Tasting.  Fellow judges included Nick Picone, winemaker at Villa Maria in Auckland and Cameron Douglas, New Zealand’s first and only Master Sommelier.  And it was at that tasting that I realised despite having loved syrah since my first ever sip, years later I still didn’t know much about the variety at all.  So throwing a few questions around revealed some great info from my colleagues.

“Syrah is demanding because it’s a very ‘vigorous’ variety, meaning careful site selection and vine management is imperative for producing quality wine,” explained Nick.  “Syrah can also dramatically suffer from water and nutrition stress. It also doesn’t like too much heat or excessive cold snaps of weather, things that can bring ripening to a standstill”.   According to Nick, syrah needs a long growing season, favourable conditions well into April along with enough heat to fully ripen and concentrate its flavours and tannins, “but also some coolness to encourage floral aromatics and acidity”. And if that wasn’t high maintenance enough, syrah also has tight bunches, making it highly vulnerable to disease in times of humidity.

“New Zealand winemakers have come a long way with handling Syrah” Nick added, explaining that they’re taking more care not to overdo the tannin extraction and oak influence; and to harness, balance and create something positive from syrah’s tendency to produce sulphides during fermentation.  “An advantage Syrah has over Bordeaux varieties is the ‘picking window’ is greater, and the range of acceptable styles is diverse and forgiving. Lighter bodied, ‘pretty’ and floral wines are just as relevant as the darker, richer and more powerful wines,” he said.

Since those first vines went into the ground in Hawke’s Bay back in 1984 our winemakers have learned to understand syrah so well that we now have a signature New Zealand expression.  An expression which also manages a nod to it’s spiritual home of the Rhone Valley in France. “This point of difference also means there is little to no need in comparing our style to the Shiraz wines from our friends in Australia” commented Cameron, “Hawke’s Bay holds a commanding position, but taking big chunks out of its heels are producers on Waiheke Island”.  You might also be surprised to know that good syrah has been coming from Marlborough, Waipara, Gisborne, Wairarapa, Matakana and Northland for quite a few years.

“Syrah is certainly as good as anything else this county produces” adds Nick. “And therein lies the attraction.  While it challenges viticulturists and winemakers at every step of the way, it’s capable of producing truly outstanding wines. With increased vine age and experience the future is extremely promising”.


Elephant Hill Airavata Hawke’s Bay Syrah 2009 $90 ★★★★★

Wow!  Inky, purple-black in the glass and what a nose!  Seductive aromas of plum paste, white pepper and chocolate lead to spicy, luscious liquorice and Belgian biscuit flavours, which are just fantastic. Winemaker Steve Skinner has created a really special wine here, with delicious warmth, succulence and generosity in the mouth.  Lovely stuff.  www.elephanthill.co.nz

William Murdoch Syrah 2010 $35 ★★★★

I really like this snazzy, certified organic syrah sourced from Hawke’s Bay’s Gimblett Gravels subregion, because of its bright, vibrant violet, plum and pepper perfume and its lean, elegant, medium-bodied mouthfeel.  It has lovely texture and a long, spicy finish.

Sherwood Estate RD1 Waipara Syrah 2010 $29 ★★★½

Dayne and Jill Sherwood have been growing grapes and making wine in Canterbury for 25 years, and with expert guidance from winemaker Petter Evans they’ve managed to add a tasty little southern syrah to their repertoire.  Lots of sweet, juicy red fruits on the nose and palate with some pepper and cocoa characters sneaking in there too.  www.sherwood.co.nz

Mahurangi Estate Matakana Syrah 2010 $45 ★★★★½

There’s not much of this about and it’s easy to see why people have been snapping it up.  Packed with raspberry, blackcurrent and plum characters and has a gentle, smooth, chocolatey finish.  So drinkable it’s dangerous.  www.mahurangiriver.co.nz

Goldie Wines Waiheke Syrah 2010 $36 ★★★★

A rich, savoury wine with a lovely layer of ripe fruit sweetness, pomegranate, pepper and plum flavours alongside solid tannins and a warm, smooth finish.  I would love to try this wine again in another year or so because I think it’ll be great with some extra time.  www.goldiewines.co.nz