Since 2003, I have been a judge at a wine competition in Sydney called the Six Nations Wine Challenge. A selector/judge from each of six countries (currently New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, Chile, the US and Canada) chooses their top 100 wines. A total of around 600 wines are then grouped by grape variety and tasted blind. New Zealand has won the syrah class more often than any other country despite having a relatively small area growing the grape (434 hectares of producing vines in 2021). Compare that to Australia’s 35,000 hectares of “shiraz”, as the locals there call syrah, to get some idea of the scale of that achievement.

Why have we been so successful? Some of the credit must go to the high levels of rotundone in our wines. Rotundone is a chemical found in the essential oils of black pepper, marjoram, oregano, rosemary, basil, thyme, geranium and some syrah wines. Our relatively cool climate boosts the concentration of rotundone compared to warmer regions such as the Barossa Valley of South Australia where the wines are relatively rotundone-free.

France’s northern Rhône, often hailed as the world’s syrah capital, is also well known for its distinctive rotundone-driven pepperiness. That aromatic connection between New Zealand syrah and the syrah of the northern Rhône region gives us a useful leg-up in the eyes of wine lovers. 

Don’t worry if you can’t smell pepper in your syrah while others can. About 20% of the population can’t detect rotundone. 

Syrah, shiraz, what’s the difference?

There is no difference. They are different names for the same grape variety. In ancient Persia (now Iran), Shiraz was an important wine centre and this led to speculation that the grape was introduced to the Rhône Valley by the Crusaders between 1095 and 1291 and that the correct name is shiraz, not syrah. That is unlikely, because the Crusaders did not go as far as Persia, according to Wine Grapes by Jancis Robinson, Julia Harding and José Vouillamoz. 

What should good syrah taste like?

Relatively small berries give syrah a high skin-to-juice ratio, which can result in intense colour, flavour and tannins. Flavour profiles vary from white to black pepper, violet, dark berries, leather and liquorice in less-ripe examples, to chocolate/mocha, dried fruits/Christmas cake characters in riper wines. 

It is not uncommon to co-ferment a small amount of viognier grapes (typically 5%) with syrah to add fragrance and silkiness and (curiously) to promote a slightly deeper colour. Winemakers often don’t declare the use of white grapes on the label but will usually reveal it on their website. 

What is the best food match?

Flavoursome foods are needed to match this equally flavoursome wine. I like seared duck breast with youthful syrah and duck confit with aged syrah.   Most red-meat dishes work well. Avoid spicy dishes.

Does syrah improve with age?

Absolutely, with the best examples exceeding 20 years if well stored. 

Which region makes the best syrah?

Syrah needs a reasonable amount of heat to gain full physiological ripeness. Hawke’s Bay and Waiheke are two star regions, but just about any region can produce good examples given favourable vintage conditions. 

Stand-out vintages?

2019, 2020 and 2021 all show great promise. 

Top five syrahs over $35

2019 Craggy Range Le Sol Syrah, Hawke’s Bay, $150
Dense, intense and complex syrah that combines power and finesse. Deep, dark wine with a heady perfume and dark berry, plum, violet and pepper/spice flavours. Clearly a wine worth cellaring, although it is deliciously drinkable now. Stockists: Glengarry Wines, Auckland; Moore Wilson’s, Wellington.

2018 Blank Canvas Element Syrah, Hawke’s Bay, $55
From the smallest vineyard in the Gimblett Gravels sub-region. Co-fermented with 7% gruner veltliner skins for colour stability, complexity of tannin and a spicy, aromatic lift. The wine certainly has a great depth of colour and rich, ripe flavours including Black Doris plum, liquorice, cocoa powder, mocha and a suggestion of violet. Generously proportioned wine with an appealingly supple texture. Should age well. Stockists: Moore Wilson’s, Wellington;, Auckland.

2019 Dry River Lovat Vineyard Syrah, Martinborough, $71
Dense, inky syrah from a very favourable vintage. Cassis, dried fruits, plum/prune, raspberry, black pepper, violet and spicy oak flavours supported by ripe, sweet tannins. Still a little youthful and locked-in but will certainly benefit from careful cellaring. Stockists: Caro’s Wines, Auckland; The Winery, Arrowtown.

2019 Radburnd Syrah, Hawke’s Bay, $85
Dense, elegant syrah that is delightfully supple with dark berry, violet, black pepper, anise and spicy oak flavours. Delicious wine that can be appreciated now but should develop well with bottle age. A very impressive wine from an excellent vintage. Stockists: First Glass Wines, Auckland; Advintage, Hawke’s Bay.

2019 Church Road 1 Single Vineyard Redstone Syrah, Hawke’s Bay, $90
From the Redstone vineyard in the Bridge Pa Triangle sub-region. Rich, savoury syrah with plum, dark berry, pepper, anise and cocoa powder. High-energy wine with a suggestion of fresh herb flavours. An elegant rather than a blockbuster red with good development prospects. Fragrant. Stockists: First Glass Wines, Auckland; Whisky and More, Waikato.

Top five syrahs under $35

2019 Church Road McDonald Series Syrah, Hawke’s Bay, $27.99
Intense, ripe syrah with plum, dark berry, chocolate/mocha, vanilla, pepper and spicy oak flavours. Classy wine with impressive density and underlying power although it is deliciously accessible. Excellent value at this price. Stockists: Whisky and More, Waikato; The Good Wine Co, Auckland.

2020 Trinity Hill Syrah, Hawke’s Bay, $24.99
Rich, deep and warming syrah with dark berry, plum, black cracked pepper, dark chocolate and subtle floral/red rose petal flavours. Beautifully balanced wine that, like a perfectly prepared dish, manages to harmonise acidity, astringency and alcohol sweetness. Approachable now but will develop well with bottle age. Stockists:, Wellington;, Auckland.

2020 Theory & Practice Syrah, Hawke’s Bay, $24
Fruit-forward syrah with cassis, ripe plum, raspberry and blackberry flavours. Rich, almost juicy wine that is nicely restrained by vibrant acidity. Mouth-watering red that is drinking well now. Stockists: Whisky and More, Waikato; Primo Vino, Hamilton.

2019 Vidal Syrah, Hawke’s Bay, $24.99
Ripe, bright and fruity syrah with plum, red berry, violet, black pepper and subtle spicy flavours. Supple red in a deliciously drinkable style, but no rush. Stockists: The Good Wine Co, Auckland; The Winery, Arrowtown.

2019 Beach House Syrah, Hawke’s Bay, $30
Bright, fresh, medium-bodied syrah with plum, dark berry, black pepper, liquorice and spicy oak flavours. Tangy, vibrant and quite youthful wine that is clearly the product of a good vintage. Good value at this price. Stockists: Whisky and More, Waikato; Primo Vino, Hamilton.

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