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Shiraz Syrah - why the different names
© by Sue Courtney
This article was published in two parts in the New Zealand Herald on June 13 and June 20 2001. Part 1 was the background, part 2 was the tasting, although I have added an additional tasting note that wasn't originally published in the paper.

Someone asked me the other day why we call some wines "Syrah" and some wines "Shiraz" if in fact they are made from exactly the same grape. I turned to my favourite wine author, Jancis Robinson, Master of Wine. Her book "Vines, Grapes and Wines - a wine drinkers guide to grape varieties," provided a clue.

A pic of Vines Grapes and Wines cover Ms Robinson writes it was probable that Syrah made its way to the vineyards of the Rhone via a route that originated in the Middle East. Is it a coincidence, she says, that one of the earliest producing wine regions includes the city of Shiraz in the country of Iran?

Another hypothesis is that the Romans carried the vine to France during their time of occupation, a vine that travelled from Egypt via the ancient town of Syracuse.

The French use Syrah, a derivative of Syracuse, for the classic red wines of the Rhone Valley in France. The best examples come from the villages of Hermitage and Côte-Rôtie.

Yet Shiraz is what we regard as Australia's gift to the wine-drinking world with their rich red wines made from grapes that revel in the hot Aussie sunshine. For many years, if they were to label the grape as anything other than Shiraz, Hermitage was the alternative they chose.

So why did the Australians call the vine Shiraz if the French use Syrah? Perhaps a delve into the beginnings of colonial grape growing is required.

Grapevines in Australia can be traced to the birth of the colony and the arrival of the First Fleet in 1788. According to Australian author Len Evans in his Complete Book of Australian Wine , David Collins, the Judge Advocate of the time wrote "grapevines were collected en-route from Rio de Janeiro and the Cape of Good Hope."

The First Fleet Commander and Governor of New South Wales, Captain Arthur Phillip, planted those vines. Although the plants struggled in the Sydney humidity, Phillip persevered and by October 1791 had 3 acres of vineyard at Government House.

Vines from the Cape also arrived with explorer, Gregory Blaxland, collected on trips between 1816 and 1818.

There is a possibility, then, that Shiraz was amongst the South African vines. And since they also use the name Shiraz, it becomes conceivable that the Australian use of Shiraz originated from the Cape.

Captain John Macarthur of the New South Wales Corp brought the first vines of European origin into Australia. He was perhaps the first settler to plant a vineyard for commercial purposes. Although arriving in the colony in 1790 he was exiled in 1809. Prior to returning in 1817 he, with his sons James and William, spent 18-months touring France and Switzerland. They studied and collected grapevines. Could Shiraz have been amongst these vines they planted on their return?

Shiraz was definitely amongst the vines that James Busby shipped to Australia in 1832, according to most sources. Busby had previously arrived in Australia eight years earlier where, at Liverpool west of Sydney, he established an agricultural school. Since he was a trained viticulturist and winemaker, he also taught the cultivation of the vine.

Busby travelled to Europe in 1831 to travel through France and Spain for the purpose of studying vineyards and collecting grapevines. Almost 700 cuttings were amongst the shipment that he planted in Sydney's Botanic Gardens on his return.

Little further is recorded until 1840 when some letters of Sir William Macarthur's "Letters on the Vine" came to light. Jancis Robinson writes that James Halliday extracted the following: "Scyras - An excellent grape and promises to be at least equally valuable for red wine as the Verdeilho [sic] is for white. This is the sort said to be chiefly cultivated on the celebrated hill of Hermitage."

"Shiraz, an understandable Strinisation of Macarthur's "Scyras", suggests Jancis.

As for the origin of Scyras, one linguist has suggested it is an old European spelling for the city of Shiraz.

Although grapevines arrived in New Zealand in 1819, it is believed no wine was made until the arrival of Busby in 1833 when he was relocated to the new colony to take up the position of official British Resident. He brought vines with him to plant a vineyard, vines that were undoubtably cuttings from his European trip.

It also seems likely that the name Busby gave to the grape under discussion was either "Shiraz" or "Hermitage" as these are the only names found in early New Zealand vinous literature, although there are few early records.

  • I found that William Beetham grew Hermitage from the 1880's, in Masterton.
  • A Hawkes Bay vineyard manager's record of the 1902 harvest is reproduced in the first edition "The Wines and Vineyards of New Zealand" (1984). Shiraz is the name used here.
  • Romeo Bragato, New Zealand's first Government Viticulturist, refers to the grape in 1905 as both Hermitage and Black Hermitage, with the name Shiraz often following in brackets.
The grape seemed to be popular but with the devastation by the phylloxera louse and the onset of prohibition, the industry dwindled. By 1980 only one hectare of the vine figured in the yearly statistics.

Credit for the revival of New Zealand Shiraz has to go to Alan Limmer, of Stonecroft Wines in Hawkes Bay.

Alan Limmer In 1984 Limmer worked a vintage at the now defunct Te Kauwhata Research Station, the government station that Bragato set up at the beginning of the 1900's. During that vintage Richard Smart, the respected Australian viticulturist, came to assess the vines growing there. One of the casualties was going to be the heavily virussed Shiraz. Rather than see it destroyed, Limmer took the lot to plant at his own vineyard.

Careful nurturing eliminated the virus and a small quantity of the wine was released in 1989. It was hailed a success. The flavour of the wine, however, was a totally different style to that produced in Australia. The Hawkes Bay Shiraz, produced in a cooler climate, was more like a wine from Côte-Rôtie. Limmer decided to call it "Syrah'.

Gradually the cuttings multiplied and new clones were bought in from France. People were interested. More growers planted it.

In the year 2000 the grape accounted for 2 percent of the country's red wine production from a vineyard area of 62 hectares. The wines of several producers grace the New Zealand Shiraz/Syrah space on the retailer's shelves. There is no set pattern to the use of Shiraz or Syrah on the label - it seems to be a winemaker's whim, although a recent visual survey indicates that Syrah is probably the current favourite.

Recently tasted

Kaitaia is New Zealand's most northerly wine region and the hot days and warm nights are immensely suited to this variety. Many people laughed at Monty Knight when he announced he was planting a vineyard in Okahu, quite close to Ninety Mile Beach, and some laughed even harder when he said he was planting Shiraz. But these same people had to admit they were wrong, when Monty was awarded New Zealand's first-ever Shiraz gold medal and trophy for the Okahu Estate Kaz Shiraz 1994 - the "Kaz" coming from the nickname of his daughter Karen. You can imagine what Monty had to say to the sceptics in his acceptance speech.

The Okahu Estate Kaz Shiraz 1998 (about NZ$50) is deep ruby red with subtle hints of leather and berries, but what it lacks in aroma it makes up for in taste. There's plenty of mouthfilling sweet ripe cherries, raspberries, black fleshed plums and blackberries, accompanied by a floral bouquet of violets and black and raspberry red peppercorn spice. It's warm, round and full with quality French oak loitering in the background, adding structure. There's a moment of tingling acidity, vaguely reminiscent of orange citrus. Then the wine finishes dry and mellow and chocolate emerges, together with liquorice and the merest hint of tar, to linger around for quite a while.

Matakana Estate Vineyard in the Matakana Valley Matakana, about 45 minutes north of Auckland City, is a relatively new wine region in New Zealand. The first wine was produced from grapes harvested in 1985 but with a flurry of planting in the mid-1990's there are now about 10 wineries producing.

The deep crimson-red Matakana Estate Syrah 1999 exudes fragrant aromas of pepper, cinnamon, cloves and sweet cherry fruit. In the mouth there's a burst of freshly cracked black pepper along with sweet cherry, plum and wild blackberry. Smoky oak, meaty tannins, a hint of olive, dried roses and a dry finish all add to the complexity of this creamy-textured taste sensation. Sweet fruit lingers for ages. This is the first release of Syrah for this winery and their warm site in the Matakana Valley obviously provides ideal growing conditions for the grape. At around NZ$30, ex-winery, this wine is a steal.

Waiheke Island is the glamour wine region of the north, just 35 minutes by fast ferry from downtown Auckland. The best example of Syrah comes from one of the island's long-established wineries, Peninsula Estate.

The Peninsula Estate Syrah 1998 shows the variety well with peppery spice and well-balanced bright fruit flavours of cherry, red berry and plum. There's floral nuances and a good tannin structure. I was impressed with this wine. It is Peninsula's 4th vintage of Syrah and retails for about NZ$35. With its sweet fruit up front, soft tannins and spicy complexity, it is very very drinkable. It was aged in predominantly 2-year old oak and just 8 barrels were made.

Hawkes Bay is the biggest wine region in the North Island and produced 206 of the 257 tonnes of Syrah harvested in 2000. There are quite a few producers of Syrah, but these are some I've tasted recently.

Pepper leaps out on the plummy nose on the deep red Stonecroft Syrah 1999. Beautifully structured, it is soft and creamy in the mouth and heading towards a velvety texture. There's a lovely ripe taste of red berries and plums and a nuance of roses with the spice of carnations but subtle tannins with creamy oak emerge on the finish. This is a very classy Syrah and shows the excellence that can be achieved from the 1999 vintage. Just 30 per cent new oak was used in the maturation of this wine, which costs about NZ$45 ex-vineyard.

The Te Mata Bullnose Syrah 1999 from the Bullnose Vineyard in the area west of Hastings, has rich, fragrant creamy aromas. It's supple and forward with plums, blackberries, peppery spices and hints of fruitcake. The spice firms up in the palate along with fine medium tannins and cedary oak and although there's just one-third new oak it is perhaps a tad dominant in the youth of this newly bottled wine (tasted November 2000)- expect it to integrate as the wine settles. Hints of leather and some chocolate box characters emerge. The spicy, brambly, peppery flavours linger for ages climaxing with a concentration of berry fruits. About NZ$36.

The Mills Reef "Elspeth" Reserve Syrah 1999 has a deep rich violet red colour and aromas that exude freshly cracked pepper. It's warming in the palate with at first the flavour of smooth vanillin oak alongside firm dry tannins. Then, about a minute after has the wine been swallowed and the saliva starts working on the tannin residue in the mouth, the fruit starts to appear as a sweet flirtation. On the next sip the mouth is ready and the fruit is there in full frontal mode - sweet ripe raspberry, blueberry and strawberry with a touch of tar and roses. As the mouth gets used to the tannin the flavour is sweet and creamy with crackling spice and good acid balance. The youthful wine has excellent potential. It retails NZ$32.50 ex-winery.

The Morton Estate White Label Hawkes Bay Syrah 1998 (about NZ$17.95) is one of the best value New Zealand examples of the grape variety. Brightly coloured red with an attractive aroma that hints of raisins; it is creamy in texture with plum, spice and aniseed savouriness merging in well with the vanilla smokiness of American oak. Empty tobacco tin flavours linger on the finish. Ripe fruit flavours and soft tannins make the wine immediately approachable.

Martinborough is best known for Pinot Noir, just 17 tonnes of Syrah were harvested from the 2000 vintage. Dry River is one of the country's leading wineries. Every wine they make is exceptional.

The Dry River Arapoff Syrah 1999 has a good depth of colour with a crimson-rose hue to the meniscus. Attractive aromas of pepper, violet and cherry prepare for the taste that follows. There's rich peppery spice in the palate, then a burst of floral and a sweet fruit with savoury herbs. A meaty richness in an elegant kind of way combines with juicy citrus and stone fruits followed by the richness of Christmas cake fruits. Classy oak integrates well with the round flavours and firm tannins and the lingering aftertaste is of peppery spice. About NZ$43.

There are several producers in Marlborough and Fromm is one of the most respected. I had a sip of the Fromm Syrah 1999 late last year and my quick impression was that it was full of pepper and ripe fruit with lovely creamy, rich, full, underlying flavours. A delightful wine and one I'd like to try again.

Clearly, the future for New Zealand Shiraz and Syrah is exciting.

Sue Courtney, July 2001

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