Syrah. Rhodanien Treasure.

Syrah and Shiraz: are they the same? Yes, they are indeed, but you know how it is with wine: one person’s lean and refined Loire Sauvignon Blanc bears little resemblance to the tastebud-tingling fruit-bombs that emanate from Marlborough. However, we digress; we’re meant to be talking here about the legendary red grape, Syrah.

Many grape varieties and their wines have a spiritual home, and Syrah’s benchmark location is the Hermitage appellation in France’s northern Rhône Valley. The famed Hermitage hill, complete with iconic chapel atop its crest, sits as a backdrop to the village of Tain l’Hermitage, the home of Valrhona chocolate. Indeed, a session involving well-matured Syrah and Valrhona chocolate is not easily forgotten. Around the globe, winemakers pay homage to the legendary Syrahs of Hermitage, for they are indeed the world’s greatest. Lavish and haunting aromatics accompany intricate, smoky layers of blackberry, black currant, liquorice and coffee interwoven in a near-perfect union.

New Zealand’s Syrahs have far more in common with those from the northern Rhône than they do with our Australian neighbours and their ubiquitous Shiraz wines. The Aussie version of Syrah tends to conjure up an abundance of warm, juicy red fruits, voluptous tannins and a rich, creamy palate, descriptors that are far from what New Zealand’s expressions are all about. American wine critic Stephen Tanzer categorizes our Syrah wines thus: ‘In weight and level of ripeness, think of Crozes-Hermitage or Saint-Joseph rather than Côte-Rôtie or Hermitage … fresh, firm and food-friendly.’

While Syrah only constitutes 0.5% of the total wine produced in New Zealand, it is creating a bigger name for itself than that volume might suggest. If you’re a Syrah grape residing here, Hawkes Bay is the place to be, with 70% of the plantings found there. Excellent wines, though, are also coming out of Waiheke Island, and Marlborough’s Fromm winery is leading a resilient if somewhat solitary charge in those parts. While Syrah is not new to our shores, the international reputation our expressions are amassing and a recent string of brilliant vintages means there has never been a better time to jump on in and try them.

Our top picks for April:

New Zealand

International

A day in the Bay

Spending a day with Peter Robertson reminded me of why I love working in this industry, the wine industry is full of colorful individuals that make it fun. Peter is a gifted wine maker, insightful, generous and most of all a gentleman. The Brookfields fruit comes predominately from the Ohiti vineyards, nestled on the opposite side of the river to the Gimblett Gravels and Roys Hill. As we drive out there, Peter notes the water running beside, the slight increase in gradient to the plateau the vineyards sit on as well as the hills that act to protect the vineyards. Once at Ohiti we meet Peters very youthful vineyard manager (he’s knocking around 70). Up the road a little is the Back Block vineyard, we jump out and walk around it – the hills in the back are full of lime stone and whilst you can feel the heat in the vineyard, the vines look in great shape. The limestone in the hills absorbs the water in the winter, as this vineyard is well established the vines have dug deep to ensure they have all the water they need to get through the hot Hawkes Bay summer. To the right of the Back Block vineyard, which is planted mainly with Syrah is Peter’s prized Malbec. There were loads of ripe juicy Malbec bunches on the vine, this fruit is heading for Brookfields Sun Dried Malbec, made in an Amarone style, Peter dries the grapes to concentrate the flavours before making the wine. The last vineyard for the afternoon was the Hillside vineyard site- interestingly only half of the vineyard was netted – the reason why, practical of course. Birds don’t like to be exposed to prey – so half way up the hill side – it is too far from the nearest tree for the birds to fly to feast on the fruit. After a visit to Hillside, we enjoyed some early samples of the 2013 vintage in the winery – what a vintage it is going to be, all the fruit we saw looked excellent and the samples spot on. And the big question? Will there be Hillside Syrah 2013? Time will tell, but it is certainly looking very promising.