Around this time of year we start seeing the release of red wines that are considered local icons. In recent decades, increasing amounts of syrah have appeared in the mix.
If I were to encounter an alien insisting they couldn't return to their home planet without a selection of the finest reds our fair land produced, I'd be lining up La Collina, Le Sol, Homage, Bullnose, Elspeth, Esk Valley, Deerstalkers, Cable Bay, Crucible, Church Road and Passage Rock lickety-split.
The 2013 examples of these wines I've tasted so far have been intense experiences. Yet if it weren't for Alan Limmer's efforts in the 80s, we simply wouldn't have rock-star syrah at all. You see, he's responsible for rescuing the only syrah grapevines in existence from the bucket of a bulldozer, and planting a single row in his fledgling vineyard in Hawke's Bay's Gimblett Gravels district.
Back then, syrah was called "hermitage" and Limmer had seen hermitage wines being made by Collards and Matua who'd sourced their vines from the Te Kauwhata Government Research Station south of Auckland's Bombay Hills.
"Those wines weren't particularly exciting. They were growing them on vineyards up north on heavy, volcanic soils," says Limmer.
Combine that with high rainfall and you've got troublesome syrah. "Those guys pulled it out after a couple of vintages and the wines disappeared."
Limmer started planting his Hawke's Bay vineyard (Stonecroft) in 1983 when mates from university alerted him to the impending closure of the local research station.
"I was looking through a mishmash of what had become a really rundown vine collection, all of which was about to be bulldozed, and I discovered these "hermitage" plants. I made arrangements to grab material from this one row of vines and I asked at the time where they'd come from and no one actually knew, because the record-keeping wasn't good either."
Different tags and names were assigned to the row, which Alan replicated when he planted the vines at Stonecroft. "It was the only un-grafted material that I put in my vineyard because our rootstock selection was very limited and because I didn't really know what the genetic base was. I thought I'd just take the risk, plant it and preserve it on its own roots."
It transpired that the tags and names represented the first DSIR heat treatment trials in the 70s to eliminate virus from grapevines. "That was another lucky thing because it worked," says Limmer. It turned out that the syrah material most likely was inherited from one of New Zealand's first research/quarantine stations, in Maumahaki, Wanganui, dating back to the 1800s.
Just four imports of syrah vines into New Zealand were recorded around that period. Records show local syrah was being made then - most famously by Frenchwoman Marie Zelie Hermance Frere Beetham at Lansdown in Masterton and Hawke's Bay's Te Mata.
Essentially, Limmer discovered the surviving piece of that original source material. That single row eventually went on to propagate vineyards across the country.
But things could have been different, according to Limmer, as site selection has everything to do with producing great syrah.