After three years of chardonnay domination in the successful pursuit of the Hawke's Bay A&P Bayleys Wine Awards Champion Wine of Show title a syrah has emerged, leading Hawke's Bay Winegrowers Association chairman Michael Henley to simply remark "no surprise there".

The return to form for the red was arguably overdue.

It enjoyed a remarkable six years on the trot winning run between 2005 and 2010 before a merlot stepped up, but then it was syrah again in 2012.

From 2013 to 2015 the chardonnays took the top toast.


In numerical terms, since the awards began in 2001, it is nine syrahs, four chardonnays and three merlots.

So it was effectively a return to form, and the judges were glowing in their praise of the Pernod Ricard Boundary Vineyards Farm Lane Hawke's Bay Syrah 2015.

"Syrah all around the world is a growing category - it is versatile, attractive and easy and enjoyable to drink," Mr Henley said.

Hawke's Bay is New Zealand's leading producer of full-bodied red wines.

They dominate, with more than 80 per cent of the country's plantings of merlot, cabernet sauvignon and syrah grapes grown across the region.

Which is not too surprising given the diversity of soil types as well as the climate, which given the latitude as well as the nearby maritime element creates a climatic influence similar to that of the Bordeaux region of France - one of Europe's red wine hotspots.

Mr Henley said the region was unique in its diversity of soil types and that ensured that it could spread its varieties with equal diversity.

As well as syrah the Bay had developed a fine reputation for producing rich and complex chardonnays.

There was no secret to the terroir, or terrain, it came down to the movement of four major rivers which flowed across the landscape, and like the creation of a fine wine there was time involved - a few thousand years.

The rivers formed valleys and terraces and in the process created more than two dozen forms of soil types from clay loam, to limestone sands, red metal and free-draining gravels.

The diversity of soils was complemented by the geographical aspect.

North-facing warn hills, river valleys, varied altitudes and coastal strips which all eventually provided homes for a string of different varieties.

For the likes of syrah Mr Henley said they looked for stony soils and warmth.

"That's where Gimblett Gravels comes into play."

Mr Henley said it was almost something of a fluke.

He said in the early 1980s Dr Alan Limmer of Stonecroft "rescued" some vines and planted the first syrah in the stony Gimblett Gravels region which the agricultural community had basically written off as the terrain was rough, but wine entrepreneurs like Dr Limmer, Chris Pask, Gavin Yortt and David Irving saw real potential.

The vines took and there was a lot of positive reaction.

Clippings and cuttings were happily shared.

It was clearly a red zone - as merlot, cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc had also begun to show good signs there, and prior to 1991 only 20ha of the region was planted in a variety of grapes - by 1997 that had grown to more than 200ha and since 1998 a further 400ha had been planted.

Today, 90 per cent of the "gravels" landscape is planted in red varieties with merlot tops at 35 per cent followed by syrah with 20 per cent of the plantings.

Leading the way in terms of the country's syrah volume was a valuable notch to the winemaking bow but Mr Henley said it would not be prudent to push the variety as the region's speciality, in the way Marlborough had made its name as the sauvignon blanc centre of the country.

Apart from the continuing accolades for the chardonnays, and the need to keep it in the international spotlight, there was simply not enough syrah coming out of the region to stake it as a Bay leader.

Mr Henley said of the around 4800ha of grapes across the region less than 380ha were syrah.

Albeit extremely fine syrah.

"Syrah all around the world is a growing category," he said.

"There is the potential for it to grow here and we hope it does continue to do that - there is certainly the land for it," he said, adding that syrah in growing terms was a hardy creature and did not requite fertile soils.

Making internationally-acclaimed syrah was a result of fine viticultural work, fine winemaking and plenty of "research and experience" through the seasons.

"To see what works and what does not."

He said Hawke's Bay had experienced some difficulties in getting the word out there but the great wines currently being produced were addressing that.

"We have learned a lot and we are still learning," he said.

In terms of where the Bay's wines were at, in syrah as well as all other varieties being created here, and out of 10 - he quickly responded "a nine . . . even a 10".

One of the judges for the competition, Ant Mackenzie who produces his own boutique wines, reckoned on a nine.

"We have had a great run of vintages," he said, adding the region possessed a strength of varieties not seen in other regions.

And the rise of syrah?

He echoed Mr Henley.

"Oh no surprises there, no, not at all."

He also agreed that Hawke's Bay did not produce enough of it to make it the flagship variety but the smallish amount was not the end of the world as the amount we had effectively reflected the growth of the market.

Syrah and chardonnay were both excellent international market contenders and had put the region on the map in a big way.

"It is good luck that Hawke's Bay goes from Wairoa down to Dannevirke because it means there are areas suited for a wider range of varieties," Mr Mackenzie said.

He said in terms of marketing a region had to push its strengths and here they were full strength reds and chardonnays.

"We can do very good pinots but Martinborough and Central Otago - that's their story.
"Our strength is these full bodied reds."