Hawke’s Bay Syrah: ‘We don’t need make up’

Winemakers in Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand, should use “less make up” if the region’s expression of Syrah is to reach its full potential, believes one winemaker, who advocates a less extracted style made with less oak to better express its place.

Warren Gibson, winemaker at Trinity Hill in Hawke’s Bay

Speaking at the Classic Reds Symposium in Hawke’s Bay earlier this month, organised by New Zealand Winegrowers, Warren Gibson, winemaker at Trinity Hill, expressed his belief that Hawke’s Bay Syrah was in the process of evolving past its early hey day, when wines were produced from young typically vines with winemakers working the wines harder in the winery, to a more stripped back style with greater purity of fruit and freshness.

“Syrah is the variety in Hawke’s Bay that says ‘I come from this place’ and anything I do to take away from that is bad,” he said. “Over ripening the wine is not a joy for me. We should be careful that we don’t push that too much in the winery. That’s evolution. It’s not chasing gold medals in wine shows.”

Responding to criticism that some of the region’s wines were overly ripe and over extracted in character, taking away from its sense of place, Gibson drew comparisons to the evolution of New Zealand Pinot Noir, which he says is slightly ahead of Hawke’s Bay in terms of refining and defining its style beyond early expressions, with their approach increasingly one of minimal intervention.

“Five to ten years ago a lot of [Pinot Noir] producers thought they had a little piece of grand cru Burgundy and they were making their wines like that, with extraction, and oak, and colour,” said Gibson. “The good part of the wine was lost and covered up. From my point of view we [Hawke’s Bay Syrah] are probably behind the progression of that. 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.”

Matt Stafford, winemaker at Craggy Range

Currently there are 426 hectares of Syrah in New Zealand, with 330ha of that in Hawke’s Bay in the north island, with Gimblett Gravels, Hastings and Bridge Pa notable sub regions. The grape accounts for just 0.5% of total production in New Zealand, with the maritime climate of Hawke’s Bay typically resulting in dark and heavy wines with lots of plum, black pepper and spice, similar in style of the Northern Rhône style.

However even the Old World style is evolving, says Matt Stafford, winemaker at Craggy Range, who noted a shift toward wines that are more “approachable”, and that prioritise purity of fruit, but which still have ability to age.

“That shift is exciting for us because we have that approachability and balance of fruit,” he said during the symposium. “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.”

However Stafford admits that winemakers in Hawke’s Bay are still finding their way with Syrah and exploring how best to express its terroir.

“I think Syrah is just a tricky one to get our head around,” said Stafford, speaking to the drinks business after the symposium during a regional tasting of Hawke’s Bay wines.

“The success has been pretty quick, with a lot of the excitement from younger vines. We released our first vintage in 2001 and that was made from 18 month old vines – a year before you would normally harvest. That was a bit of a launching pad to tell the whole story. That wine was Le Sol. It was really the opening of Craggy and was making a statement.

“At the same time Homage [Trinity Hill] and La Collina [Bilancia] was released in 2002. That generated a lot of interest and it’s taken us a while to work out how to adapt to that. I think for us it’s an evolving style within quite a wide spread of styles, but without losing what’s unique about Hawke’s Bay.

The oldest Syrah vines in Hawke’s Bay, planted by Alan Limmer in 1984 at Stonecroft

“We don’t want to confuse consumers. We want to set a clear identifiable style with fruit notes and working on texture to make them feel more refreshing and pleasant to drink.”

Importantly, Hawke’s Bay is still a first generation winemaking region. The oldest Syrah vines in Hawke’s Bay date back to 1984 and were planted by Alan Limmer of Stonecroft after he rescued a pile of discarded vines from a rubbish heap. These vines were later discovered to be the last remaining Syrah vines planted by James Busby in the 1830s. Those vines went on to provide much of the clonal material for Syrah planted in Hawke’s Bay today, with Limmer widely credited with rescuing the variety from obscurity.

“This is the first generation in a time when we are learning about our time and place,” said Steve Smith MW, former viticulturist at Villa Maria and co-founder of Craggy Range. “It’s part of the journey. It’s great seeing these wines now and if you come back in five years you will see the natural progression.”

“We don’t hide things,” added Gibson. “We are a young country. We are evolving and we want to get better.”

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