Must-Have Wines of the Lunar Year 2010 – New Zealand Red Wine of the Year
Vidal Estate Syrah 2007 – Hawkes Bay, New Zealand www.vidal.co.nz
Also Shortlisted for Most Consistent Best Value Wine of the Year
My first encounter with Vidal Syrah was the 2004 vintage, served at a wine fair last year in Singapore. The importer had it in a decanter, which no one seemed interested in. I tried it without asking what it was and was immediately blown away by the wonderfully feral bouquet that was nothing short of good Cote Rotie, the palate equally impressive and wonderfully complex with all the alluring secondary nuances one would expect of a top Northern Rhone.
To the importers surprise, I proclaimed the wine absolutely brilliant and I would take every last bottle, immediately, much to the curiosity to the crowd of tasters that were now amassing around this decanter.
As it turned out, there were only 18 bottles of the 2004 left, which by all accounts had been sitting at the bottom of a pallet, carton label hidden from the stock counters. One thing I will say, that it goes to show the merchant in question, The Wine Guru, has good storage conditions.
Having cleaned out all the stock, I decided to take a bottle to a lunch I was having with two of toughest wine palates I know, one of them English and an unrelenting old world fanatic and the other a ruthless Australian wine nut with a nose of a bloodhound that can pick a new world wine from fifty paces.
Blind tasting them, of course, I tried to maintain a deadpan look as to not give anything away, as they both declared the wine French, and definitely in the Rhone, and a consensus that was in the ilk of top Northern Rhone, probably Cote Rotie.
Their jaws dropped when I revealed it was from New Zealand, a 2004 Syrah from the Hawkes Bay, and retails around $45 bottle here in Singapore. They immediately wanted to procure several cases alas we had to split my small booty and waited in anticipation for the arrival of the new vintage – which turned out to be 2007.
Having tasted the 2007 Vidal Syrah many times, with a multitude of Asian cuisines and spicy dishes, it is now my consummate hand-to-hand combat wine for spicy Indian food, pepper crab and the perfect foil to a rich beef rendang. Equally, it’s in that league of the perfect pizza wine, or rushing out the door to a BBQ and wanting something failsafe that will give pleasure and spark interest from the most indifferent wine drinker.
At the same time, it is a wine of profound complexity and elegance with the sort of vitality and expressive character that will induce meaningful compotation amongst serious wine enthusiasts.
Interestingly, I tried the Vidal Reserve Syrah 2007 alongside the Vidal Estate Syrah 2007, the former being the one I am reviewing now, and whilst it was impressive in its slightly denser, weightier structure, it seemed to me to lack the balance of the apparently lesser Estate cuvee, largely I feel due to too much new oak. Perhaps I am being a little harsh on the Reserve as the oak could well integrate or subside with bottle age, but to my mind, it was a case of too much use of new oak simply because they want to have a Reserve cuvee.
Michael Hill-Smith MW spoke of this at his recent launch of Shaw & Smith new vintages declaring that they use only 20% new oak in their syrah, and that in his extensive tastings as a wine judge and writer, he saw many examples of syrah being over-oaked for the sack of a reserve cuvee or the desire to build a hierarchy in a wineries range of wines.
And this is saying something, coming from an Australian, however there is a misconception internationally of what Australian cool-climate is all about; in as much they are wrongly type-cast as producing just only big, rich, sweet and oaky shiraz.
Across the Tasman, the distinction has been purposely made, with New Zealand winegrowers all labelling their wines as syrah, so not to be confused with the Ocker shiraz.
As you would expect with the rivalry between the two countries, the Australian’s allude to the New Zealanders making thin, acid, white peppery syrah, and perhaps this might have been true of the early wines, but it is not so now. I am not sure whether its riper vintages (climate change?) or just evolution and learning more about syrah’s characteristics in their soils and terroir, but there is something distinctly Northern Rhone about kiwi syrah.
On a personal note, the hardest thing to swallow about the Vidal Syrah 2007, for me; is it’s made by a big wine company. So the hypocrite suit comes out of the closet, and I have to contradict my championing of the small, artisan vigneron and bow to the efforts of owner Sir George Fistonich (who also owns Villa Maria and Esk Valley) and the talents of Vidal winemaker, Hugh Crichton.
There is a good story behind Vidal, established by a certain Anthony Joseph Vidal, who was all of 22 years old when he arrived in New Zealand from Spain in 1888. He eventually settled in Hawkes Bay in 1905 purchasing a small property in Hastings, planting grapevines and subsequently expanding with further vineyard plantings in Te Awanga and Te Mata. Vidal’s three sons took over the winery after his death, but after a difficult period in the New Zealand wine industry sold the winery to George Fistonich in 1976.
One can only wonder at the hundred years or more of the evolution of Vidal winery and the true grit of those pioneering in the early days and the challenges of making a winery work in a country that had no real wine culture.
Thinking back on my formative years as a sommelier in New Zealand, in the early 80s, there were no older vintages or any real trace of the formative years of the wine industry, with many decades both before and after the Great Wars dominated by beer and hard liquor with much of grape production going to brandy and sherry.
Such drinking history is fresh in my mind having had lunch with Sam Neill last month at his winery, Two Paddocks, celebrating 150 years of the Neill clan being involved in the New Zealand wine and spirits industry, with his father founding the family wine business Neill & Co in Dunedin back in 1861. As it turned out, this was very timely indeed, as 1862 marked the discovery of gold in Central Otago and one of the biggest gold rushes’ in history with the Neill’s making their fortune from a propriety brand called Beehive Brandy.
Fast forward to the 21st century, I am not sure of the total production of Vidal Estate Syrah, but assume it’s not small. However the track record of Sir George and his wines is formidable, for such a large company, although family owned. I liken Villa Maria/Vidal/Esk Valley to the sizable and also family owned, Yalumba winery in Australia, run by Robert Hill-Smith, with both these wineries producing wines with a commendable level of personality and consistent quality.
Not sure if that exonerates me from my recalcitrant denegation of big, commercial wineries, nevertheless I’m at peace with myself in declaring this my New Zealand red wine of the year, as it was unequivocally the most captivating wine I encountered during my tastings in 2010. If I could remind readers this is a retrospective of the drinking year with no commercial motive in timing it with the wines release on the market.
As it happens, the 2007 Vidal Estate Syrah is still available in many Asian markets; however in traditional western markets and certainly their core markets like Australia, New Zealand and the UK, they have ticked through the vintages and now on to 2009, which I can highly recommend as well.
My tasting note below reflects my enthusiasm for this wine moreover; I had also shortlisted it my “Most Consistent Best Value Wine of the Year”, given the extraordinary price quality rapport of this wine. However, as I have only experienced a few vintages of this wine, it did not make the final cut, but no question, it is a bargain!
My note on 2007 Vidal Estate Syrah reads:
Freshly ground pepper and a smoky hot wok with cardamom and Sichuan pepper infused in rich blackberry and black cherry captivates the senses, with a sweetness and lactose-like creaminess, and a hint of apricot and musk (viognier in the ferment?) that accentuates this richness, drawing you deeper into the glass as it breaths out to reveal more spiciness amongst dried thyme and aromas of baked earth and iron-filings-flinty minerality. A saturation of high-pitched sweet and sour blackberry engulfs the mouth, the crunchy and pure fruit explosive and invigorating as it races across the palate with a spicy, peppery, edgy tang, the indelible acidity emphasizing the piquant blackberry fruit. Whilst it is still very youthful and gushing in primary fruit with a hint of menthol pubescence, there is already some discernible complexity of flavours with black olive and briary, earthy, subtly feral notes with an overall nervosity, with impressive length and carry of flavour and the requisite acidity that any Rhone Valley winemaker would be impressed with.
It is absolutely delicious drinking now although I will be putting a least 2 cases in my cellar, maybe more, although I am also about to buy a fair chunk of the brilliant 2009 for our UK cellar, which you can get for around £11 a bottle through Noel Young Wines www.nywines.co.uk I would highly recommend you do the same as it really is an incredible bargain, even here in wine-tax-heavy Singapore, where the 2007 is still available through Wine Guru www.wineguru.sg