Conclusions from the tasting:
For some reason strictly blind comparative evaluation tastings are quite rare in New Zealand. It seems to be part of a general reluctance to seriously cellar wine, and hold it for a classical interval which might allow meaningful later comparison. Syrah in New Zealand has emerged as arguably the 'serious' red with the greatest claim to being internationally competitive with the best examples in the world, namely the defining / yardstick syrahs of the Northern Rhone Valley. There was therefore palpable excitement amongst participants beforehand, that we had some of the word's best syrahs, and some of New Zealand's best syrahs, in front of us. Would be be able to tell which was which ?
And in the event, it was not easy. Participants included some of the most serious syrah winemakers in New Zealand. I am not aware of anybody getting all the wines sheeted home to their correct countries. When you look at the wine-list, this says volumes about the quality of New Zealand's emerging syrahs. Thus, tasters came away from this tasting excited by the quality of the top wines … from both countries … and rather wishing that all the wines had been from the 2010 vintage. In hindsight it was a mistake to include the earlier and later vintages of Chave Hermitage. They were too shown up by the magnificence of the 2010s. The initial thought in offering one younger, one older, was to offer winemakers and tasters the opportunity to be more familiar with the J L Chave approach, the wines being scarce and little-known in New Zealand. Not all ideas for tastings work out.
For the top 2010 wines, the principal conclusion for the Northern Rhone Valley is that the best wines are of benchmark quality. With the technical quality of winemaking nowadays, some of them may rival the now near-mythical 1961s. The very best of the 2010 New Zealand syrahs can be tasted amongst them, and not easily recognised. And stylistically, some of the lesser New Zealand wines are very much heading in the right direction, needing only for their winemakers to taste the classics more frequently. I cannot wait to offer a wider cross-section of 2010 Northern Rhone syrahs, with some of the top New Zealand wines. It should be a benchmark tasting.
The top five wines in this tasting were of sensational quality, the kind of wine one could not have too many of in one's cellar, wines to return to again and again. From the left, 2010 Trinity Hill Syrah Homage truly is a wine to challenge La Chapelle, and thus pay ‘homage’ to Gerard Jaboulet. Bouquet is both floral and aromatic, with great freshness of berry weight through the rich palate, 19; in one sense the next wine 2010 Guigal Ermitage Ex Voto is a Guigal wine first, and a definitive syrah second, but nonetheless it is going to provide its owners with immense satisfaction. It is richly cassisy and concentrated, with noticeable but soft, fragrant and cedary oak, 19 +; then the surprise wine to nearly all tasters, 2010 Cable Bay Syrah Reserve, from Waiheke Island. This wine offers a softness, suppleness and burgundian charm which contrasts vividly with the Guigal, yet is just as exciting. The touch of blueberry implies greater berry ripeness than some of these syrahs. This was clearly marked the top wine of the tasting by the group, in part because in New Zealand tasters are not sufficiently familiar with the undisputed benchmark syrah wines from the Northern Rhone Valley, 19.5; next the supremely exciting 2010 Jaboulet Hermitage La Chapelle, a winery totally recapturing its earlier glory, under Caroline Frey (Ch La Lagune, Ludon near Margaux). This wine has magnificent cassisy berry, and at this stage a little more oak than is ideal in syrah, but it will marry away. Glorious wine, 19.5; and as my top wine of the tasting, the highly-regarded 2010 J L Chave Hermitage, showing all the florality and berry aromatics one could ask for in definitive syrah, in a wine of great richness. This wine is a total ‘style’ statement, there being a slight unease amongst technical tasters, that it was not immaculately pure – see text. In my view it defines syrah as a winestyle, 19.5 +. Any New Zealand winemaker truly serious about making internationally-recognised syrah in New Zealand (as we will do) needs these five wines in their cellar, to serve as the absolute reference point for decades to come.Information provided for tasters (abbreviated):
How many New Zealand wine people have tasted the definitive syrahs from Domaine Jean-Louis Chave Hermitage, the now-resurrected Jaboulet Hermitage La Chapelle, and the latterday Guigal Hermitage Ex Voto, all together ? Let alone when the wines are from a year of the quality of the great 2010 year, and two are Robert Parker 100-point wines. Not many, I suspect, for these are rare (and expensive) wines. For a winemaker or viticulturist in a temperate climate, these are the greatest syrahs on earth. The vineyards on the hill-slope above the village of Hermitage are the absolute spiritual homeland of the world's greatest syrahs, but the planted area is tiny – 139.6 ha = 345 acres, give or take. Cropping rate for the appellation averages 4.3 t/ha = 1.75 t/ac, adding to their rarity of the wines. Yet understanding these wines is essential, if New Zealand winemakers are to move New Zealand syrah into the top echelon of the world of fine wines.
One of the other top syrah appellations in the Northern Rhone Valley is Cote Rotie. In this tasting, we will have one of the best, Domaine Jamet, from the same great year. It is a pity that we cannot also have the top 2010 Cornas, from Domaine Auguste Clape, for that wine is simply sensational … but it is also extremely rare in New Zealand.
Instead, the other half of our tasting is a muster of some of the top New Zealand syrahs, at this early stage in their evolution, barely 25 years after the first examples were committed to bottle (in the post-Prohibition era). These New Zealand wines include Trinity Hill Syrah Homage, and are again all from the same year. Homage was named by John Hancock (when winemaker at Trinity Hill) to acknowledge the great contribution to syrah understanding that the late Gerard Jaboulet made.
The taste of great Syrah (abbreviated):
Syrah grown in a temperate climate such as the Northern Rhone Valley, or Hawkes Bay or Waiheke Island (in both of which places it excels, but it is thriving in a number of other places in New Zealand too), is a wonderfully fragrant and aromatic grape. At varying points in its ripening profile it shares aromas and tastes with pinot noir, merlot, and cabernet sauvignon. Good syrah can even be described as pinot noir on steroids. This may seem facile, but it is intended to highlight the conclusion that great syrah depends for its quality on the floral and aromatic components of the bouquet, the fresh berry palate, and the suppleness of its tannins, in a winestyle not dominated by oak.
The range of styles which are legitimate has however led to both debate and confusion as to the real nature of the grape. And our view in New Zealand was until recently distorted by the sheer weight of numbers of shiraz wines from Australia, wines which usually are so over-ripe (and often over-oaked) as to bear little relation to carefully-made syrah. In the handout I therefore reprinted an excerpt from my ‘Ripening Curve for Syrah’, meaning the sequence of smells and flavours the grape passes through in achieving perfect maturity, and then over-maturity. I first published this in an article in the London-based The World of Fine Wine, in 2011. Rather than include it again here, it is simpler to refer to a lecture I presented to Year 3 Oenology and Viticulture students at Lincoln University, as presented here, scroll down to the section: A syrah ripening curve:
Our tasting assembles 10 syrahs from the great 2010 vintage, five classic from the Northern Rhone Valley, and five which I regard very highly from New Zealand. Four are from Hawkes Bay, and one from Waiheke Island – lest we forget. There are also two other vintages of Domaine Jean-Louis Chave Hermitage, one younger, one older, to give some feel for how syrah develops with a little age. The wines of Jean-Louis Chave are not widely tasted in New Zealand, so this is a worthwhile addition to the scope of the tasting.
The 2010 vintage was an exciting year in the Northern Rhone Valley. It was at the time regarded as among the best vintages in living memory (with 1990 and 1961), but it is now challenged by both 2015 and 2016. The 2010 vintage is rated 98 by Wine Spectator, and is described thus: Cool, wet spring resulted in historically low yields, but excellent growing season backed by well-timed September rain and late Indian summer led to a late harvest of terrific quality. Reds are racy and loaded with minerality; even better defined than '09. robertparker.com also rates the vintage 98 and long-term.
In Hawkes Bay the year was very similar, for in both districts a warmer 2009 year was followed by a fractionally cooler more aromatic 2010 vintage. Both are rated equally highly for syrah, though individual tasters vary in whether they prefer the slightly softer wines of the warmer year, or the vital aromatics of 2010. The two vintages together will provide essential study material for New Zealand winemakers for many years to come.
Cooper, M. 2011 – 2015: Michael Cooper’s Buyers Guide to New Zealand Wines. Hodder Moa Beckett.
Livingstone-Learmonth, John 2005: The Wines of the Northern Rhone. University of California Press, 720 p.
Parker, Robert, 1997: Wines of the Rhone Valley. Simon & Schuster, 685 p.
www.drinkrhone.com = John Livingstone-Learmonth, subscription needed for reviews
www.robertparker.com = Robert Parker and increasingly the associates, subscription needed for reviews
www.jancisrobinson.com = Jancis Robinson MW and Julia Harding MW, subscription needed for reviews
www.winespectator.com = vintage chart, subscription needed for reviews
This report benefitted greatly from comments offered by Warren Cotterill, thank you. I very much appreciate the generosity of Villa Maria Group in hosting these Library Tastings in Hawkes Bay, as well as Auckland.
THE WINES REVIEWED – SYRAH
‘Price’ given is the current wine-searcher value. Because John Livingstone-Learmonth now has a knowledge of the Rhone Valley that matches or surpasses the excellence of Robert Parker’s earlier personal contribution, I have reported his views in full, where available. There is much to learn from his very individual mode of reporting.
The first Table highlights which country the wines are from, and indicates a robertparker.com score (one Vinous), if available:
|NORTHERN RHONE VALLEY|
2010 J L Chave Hermitage (100)
2010 Guigal Hermitage Ex Voto (100)
2010 Jaboulet Hermitage La Chapelle (97+)
2010 Jaboulet Hermitage La Petite Chapelle (92)
2010 Jamet Cote Rotie ( 95-96, Vinous )
2014 J L Chave Hermitage (94 - 96)
|2005 J L Chave Hermitage (97)|
2010 Bilancia Syrah La Collina (89)
2010 Cable Bay Syrah Reserve (89)
2010 Craggy Range Syrah Le Sol (90+)
2010 Mission Syrah Huchet ( – )
2010 Trinity Hill Syrah Homage (91)
Ruby, nearly carmine still, and velvet, a fabulous colour, the third deepest. First sniff, and the immediate impression is: how could syrah be more perfect? There is a sensuous deeply floral dusky quality, on rich ripe aromatic cassis, all shaped by subtle / perfect cedary oak and a hint of spicy sweet black pepper. There is an element of deeper, darker, ripest dark plums too, but no hint of over-ripeness. Palate is both vibrant and velvet, with the volume of cassisy berry and its dominance over the fragrant but merely shaping oak seeming absolute. Again the black pepper spice is subtle and invigorates the wine. To a person interested in wine style as much as, perhaps more, than wine technology, this seems perfection. Tasters present included some of the most experienced syrah winemakers in the country. Some of the latter however tended to be uneasy about a brett component. It simply had not occurred to me. Since the tasting I have cross-questioned the wine very closely, and noted that one equally-experienced winemaker commented: ‘yes, it is there, but bear in mind that the winemaker may want that level of brett, as complexity’. All in all, I continue to think this near-perfect syrah, of staggering richness, freshness and elegance. Cellar 20 – 45 years. Eight thought this a northern Rhone Valley wine, but tasters did not rate it as highly as I did – some for the reasons given. No first places, one second, two least. Interestingly, not one person thought the wine might be Cote Rotie, illustrating the validity of the concept ‘Hermitage’. GK 11/18
Ruby, carmine and velvet, the deepest wine, a sensational rich and youthful colour. On smelling this, the immediate thought of young and great Bordeaux first flits across the mind: Mouton-Rothschild or Pichon Baron. Look again and it is exquisite spicy darkest syrah, a touch of black peppercorn in the spice, a freshness and lift in the cassis which is exemplary, and rather more new oak than the 2010 Chave (hence the Bordeaux thought). Palate confirms the bouquet in every detail, the wine perhaps not quite so rich as the Chave, but because of the oak every bit as big in flavour. And even so, the oak does not dominate or interfere unduly with the classic syrah flavour. I’d just prefer a little less. To judge from 1969 Jaboulet La Chapelle tasted recently, this could be a 50 year wine, just. Cellar 20 – 45 years. One top place, and two second-favourite votes. Only one taster thought this a Northern Rhone Valley wine, perhaps on the oak. GK 11/18
Ruby, carmine and velvet, a fine colour, but not one of the deep ones, the third to lightest. One sniff of this, and there is a florality, a sensuality and a beauty to this wine which is comparable only with the finest Cote de Nuits grand cru burgundy. Yet running alongside that statement, it is also clearly syrah: textbook florals including Prof Saintsbury's wall-flower (likely to be dianthus, then), sweet red roses, beautiful cassis, a touch of blueberry, and subliminal black pepper. This is extraordinarily beautiful syrah. Palate shows a restraint in oak handling which is in vivid contrast to the Guigal, and consequently a softness, suppleness and charm on palate which again takes one straight back to the Cote de Nuits. In a sense therefore it is exquisite pinot noir, but pinot noir on steroids. It is not as rich as the Chave or the Guigal, yet in some ways it is even more beautiful, and technically perfect. It is more Cote Rotie than Hermitage in style, with its softness, florality, and (no other word for it) femininity. Prof Saintsbury did after all hold the view that Hermitage was the most ‘manly’ of wines. On the night this was far and away the top wine of the tasting, 12 first places, three second – an extraordinary unanimity, and a remarkable result. In part that result reflects familiarity: it is telling that not one person present had ever previously tasted and compared the three great Hermitages La Chapelle, J. L. Chave and Ex Voto together (and blind on this occasion). We are isolated in New Zealand, and it is imperative winemakers assemble tastings to counter that. Eleven thought it Northern Rhone Valley wine, but curiously, only 2 Cote Rotie. Cellar 10 – 35 years. GK 11/18
Fresh ruby and velvet, not the depth of the top two, due to the greater oak exposure, in fact below midway in depth. At the tasting this wine was not quite singing: nobody felt any fault showed, but one or two agreed it was quiet on bouquet. So I put it to bed that night with 100 mm² of Gladwrap® in the XL5 glass, and the following day it was transformed. A textbook illustration of scalping, by TCA below threshold. The next day it smelt how it tasted the night before: wonderful cassisy berry matched stride for stride by sweet vanillin cedary oak, the vanillin dominating any grape-floral component, so in one sense the wine presents as a Guigal first and foremost, and Hermitage second. Fruit richness in mouth is colossal, however. How the Guigals get their oak so soft, sweet, cedary and fragrant, I know not. Perhaps for their wines of this calibre, their grand cru / individual vineyard wines, they weather it five or six years instead of the three other conscientious coopers now use. The Guigals do after all have their own in-house cooperage. The length of flavour here is extraordinary, but it is vanillin-infused (rather than due to varietal spice, say). Dry extract here is on a par with the Chave, but the wine being technically faultless, it clearly is a 50 year proposition. As would be anticipated for a wine with this quality of oak, two tasters rated it their top wine, and two their second. Six thought it Northern Rhone Valley. Cellar 25 – 50 years. GK 11/18
Ruby, some carmine and velvet, a good young syrah colour, precisely in the middle for depth. Bouquet is a little different from the wines rated more highly, there being quite a whole-bunch fragrance to the wine, akin to the Jamet but much sweeter, riper, and more positive. Floral notes therefore include suggestions of buddleia and boronia as well as roses, on vibrant cassisy berry plus black pepper. Oak is invisible initially, on bouquet. Palate is very aromatic, the oak now immediately more apparent, plenty of cassis not quite as sweet and ripe as the Cable Bay, black pepper spice, just a subliminal thought that slightly more ripeness would have been good, to make it more like the 2009. This 2010 Homage is richer than 2010 Le Sol. Voting on this wine was interesting, no first places, but seven second places. So it too was well-liked, and again the caveats expressed re the Cable Bay wine probably apply. Eight thought it Northern Rhone Valley wine, and five further thought it Cote Rotie. Cellar 10 – 30 years. GK 11/18
Ruby and velvet, midway in depth. Great syrah is floral, like great pinot noir, something winemakers in hot climates such as Australia, California and Washington appear to scarcely understand. The silky beauty of the floral components on this wine, with its suggestions even of buddleia and wisteria, as well as roses and carnations, is extraordinary, matched only by the Cable Bay. Palate however is a size smaller than the top wines: there simply is not the dry extract, the matière, in the wine. Flavour shows exquisite cassis berry superbly handled in sweet cedary oak, and subliminal black pepper, a wine of great beauty. How different this is from the rumbustious pseudo-Californian Le Sols of earlier years. This wine respects the New Zealand climate. It is unbelievably close to the Cable Bay in style, but decidedly lighter. It is out and out Cote Rotie in styling, a wine of of extraordinary beauty. The Cote de Nuits analogy also applies here. This wine did not however resonate with tasters, one second-place vote only. Six thought it Northern Rhone Valley, two Cote Rotie. Cellar 10 – 25 years. GK 11/18
Ruby, carmine and velvet, just above midway in depth. Bouquet is in one sense quite different from La Chapelle proper, with a clearly more-ripe component to it which darkens the wine, just a hint of sur-maturité, but nowhere near as ripe as the Huchet. The label reveals it is more alcoholic too, that fitting in with the fruit of the younger vines being deployed in this wine. Palate shows a big dark flavour, lacking the florality and aromatic berry focus of the senior wine, instead more oaky. It was placed fifth in the lineup, and despite these reservations, it was the first to clearly state: I am Hermitage. The middle and later palate show a suggestion of burly almost ‘flat’ flavours, and older oak, relative to the La Chapelle. But the whole flavour is big, strong, and shows good concentration, totally syrah, and Hermitage. Three rated it their top wine, and one their second favourite, but it was the only wine to be thought not Rhone Valley by any of the tasters. Odd. Comparison of La Chapelle proper and this ‘second wine’, vintage for vintage, conveys volumes about the subtlety of the French approach to winemaking, and how they perceive wine quality. It is critically important that New Zealand winemakers, wine judges and wine-writers make these comparisons, but how many do ? Cellar 15 – 30 years. GK 11/18
Ruby and velvet, well above midway in depth. At the tasting this wine smelt huge and burly, and ill-defined, with dark toasty oak and over-ripe fruit, plus almost a hint of coffee (negative in wine, bespeaking artefact, in my sensory lexicon). It tasted equally as big and ripe, but with a promise of velvety textures much later down the track. The following day it was much breathed-up and improved, much fresher, still too ripe for obvious cassis, but now plenty of blueberry and darkest bottled plums, and, glory be, the wine still retaining suggestions of black pepper. There is a high level of fine-grained tannins, which seem as much grape-derived as oak. It will take 20 years for this wine to reveal a more supple charm, as the 1999 Mission Syrah Jewelstone does so exactly now, but in New Zealand the chances of anybody keeping a single bottle that long are zero. Our wine community shows all the shortsightedness of youth – understandably, when you reflect how few years it is since variants on hybrid grapes such as baco and seibel dominated the red-wine landscape. This is the wine from New Zealand to show in a Californian or Washington syrah lineup, if one wanted to ‘fit in’ with their perception of wine quality. Tasters did not relate well to it on the night, no first places, one second, but six thought it Northern Rhone Valley. 2010 Huchet is an extraordinarily rich wine, to cellar 20 – 50 years. GK 11/18
Ruby, carmine and velvet, the second deepest wine, partly on youth. At the tasting this wine looked awkward and youthful, in one sense, imperfect ripeness being commented on, but on the plus side a good volume of fresh red plummy fruit with some cassisy complexity. This was another wine which breathed up considerably, the following day showing buddleia and carnation florals, a touch of pepper hovering between white and black, and suggestions of cassis notes though still red fruits more than black. Total acid like La Collina is somewhat elevated, so both these wines do not show ideal ripeness, for syrah. There is also a touch of brett in this wine, more apparent than the 2010. This was another wine to not receive any votes in favour. Cellar 10 – 25 years. GK 11/18
Good ruby, some velvet, the second lightest wine. Bouquet is a little odd on this wine, a kind of buddleia florality but with a hint of stalk, then a cassisy quality but with a hint of plum-stone rather than plum-flesh. It does not quite come together, plus there is dry hessian oak, and a suggestion of parmesan rind. Palate is markedly better, red plummy fruit but showing quite a tanniny / stalky streak, white and black pepper almost too much, some new oak, acid elevated. It is all totally unknit, at this stage, but quite rich, richer than the 2014 Chave but less ripe, needing time. Tasters were less tolerant of this wine’s awkwardness than I was, no favourite votes, five least votes, four thinking it Rhone Valley, but none Cote Rotie – odd. Like Huchet but for different reasons, this wine will have more to say at the 15-year point. Cellar 15 – 30 years. GK 11/18
Ruby and velvet, the third lightest wine. This wine has a very clear-cut bouquet, showing stalky / floral notes tiptoeing towards the jonquils / paperwhites spectrum, a character which is negative for many syrah tasters, even in New Zealand where we are still tolerant of under-ripeness in red wines. There is clear white pepper, not black, fragrant berry notes but here more redcurrant and red plum than cassis, plus a stalky quality entwined with new oak. Palate is rich, and softer than expected even though acid is slightly elevated. Like La Collina, this is a wine which will come together appreciably by the 15 year point. It is exquisitely pure, but tasters did not reward that, no favourable votes, and six for least wine, the clearest negative statement for the set. New Zealanders share with Australians a dislike for white pepper in syrah, most not tasting widely enough to register it is almost diagnostic for syrah from that part of the Les Collines Rhodaniennes IGP which lies above the favoured AOC-delimited slopes of Cote Rotie proper. These wines in fact cellar surprisingly well, in their own distinctive fresh style, as the cool 1984 Cote Roties show today. Cellar 8 – 25 years. GK 11/18
Ruby, a little garnet creeping in, some velvet, the lightest wine. Initially opened, this wine smelt tanniny, oaky to a fault, and the palate lacked berry freshness and excitement. With air both the berry qualities and some brett developed, but the wine showed less freshness than the big Huchet, with quite a gamey quality developing on palate. The goal of having the 2014 and 2005 Chaves in the tasting, complementing the set of 2010s, was to give a suggestion of how syrah ages in a ‘definitive’ example such as J. L. Chave. The intrinsic quality of these two vintages of the wine did not however facilitate that. One vote as favourite wine, one second place. Eight thought it northern Rhone Valley. Cellar 10 – 25 years, though if this bottle is any guide, brett may become intrusive later. GK 11/18
2010 Matua Valley Syrah Reserve
The Triangle, Hawkes Bay, New Zealand: 14%; $ – screwcap; Sy 100% from vines up to 15 years age from the Matheson Vineyard; French oak; Michael Cooper, 2013: … clearly the best yet … the plate is vibrantly fruity, with substantial body, a strong surge of blackcurrant, plum and spice flavours and ripe, velvety tannins, ****; www.matua.co.nz
2010 Yves Cuilleron Cote Rotie Terres Sombres
Cote Rotie, Northern Rhone Valley, France: 13%; $147 cork; Sy 100% hand-picked @ c. 5.8 t/ha (2.3 t/ac) from vines planted at 8 – 10,000 vines / ha, on darker schist soils; some whole-bunch, cuvaison c.21 days; MLF and c.18 months in barrel; production 900 x 9-litre cases; Wine Spectator, 2013: A very racy red, with good cut right from the start, delivering mouthwatering damson plum, red currant, blackberry and bitter cherry notes, seamlessly layered with iron, violet and dark tapenade flavors. The long, pure finish is precise. 2016 - 2026, 95; www.cuilleron.com