‘Syrah, not Pinot, is NZ’s best red’

The following article was written by Jancis Robinson and published on www.jancisrobinson.com on the 5th June 2019 . Jancis wrote this after she attended a Dry River tasting in London this month hosted by Wilco Lam and Neil McCallum – Dry River aficionados past and present. 


A view from a particularly experienced Martinborough gemologist.

Dr Neil and Dawn McCallum, founders in 1979 of Dry River and, effectively, what is arguably New Zealand’s most promising wine region Martinborough, were in London this week. En route to a tour of the Highlands to celebrate their Scottish roots, they presided with current winemaker Wilco Lam over a tasting of Dry River wines back to a 1992 Craighall Dry Riesling to mark this landmark estate’s 40th anniversary. Zubair Mohamed of Raeburn Fine Wines of Edinburgh was the impresario of the event and admitted that McCallum had been quite a mentor of his in his early days in wine. 

McCallum, an Oxford-educated research scientist, has certainly always gone his own way, and instituted many viticultural techniques designed to maximise phenolic ripening. He had such high standards that eventually he was worn out by his sustained attempts to match them, so he decided to sell. (He told us how he would despair of particular wines, and then open them up after a two or three years in bottle and find that actually they were rather good.) In 2003 Dry River was sold to Americans Reg Oliver and Julian Robertson. Oliver died soon afterwards and McCallum stayed on until 2011 when he handed over to Lam and retrained as a gemologist.

This adds more letters after his name and, more importantly, an excuse to travel to all sorts of fascinating places such as Mozambique and northern Myanmar, which, for geological reasons, are sources of precious stones. There are strong parallels with wine, he readily acknowledges, and was off to Kenya after the Highlands to do battle with the Sri Lankans, who have traditionally dominated the gem trade. He turns 76 any minute.

We tasted a range of current wines, of which the aromatic Pinot Gris and Gewurztraminer particularly impressed me, and then verticals of Dry Riesling (McCallum’s first love), Pinot Noir (probably Dry River’s most famous wine) and Syrah. They all demonstrated the strong Dry River signature of firmness and longevity (all stoppered under natural cork; tasting notes to come), but it was notable that the Syrahs were even more impressive than the Pinots.

It was not surprising therefore to hear McCallum declare, ‘I believe the real red grape for New Zealand is Syrah – certainly for Hawke’s Bay and Martinborough. The wines can be quite similar to some of the greatest wines of the south of France. Syrah should work quite well for North Canterbury, perhaps not for Marlborough.’ He admitted that Syrah struggles to ripen even in Martinborough (where the quality of Kusuda‘s Syrah certainly vindicates McCallum’s theory).

The history of the clone of Syrah most commonly planted in New Zealand (known prosaically as MS, or Mass Selection) is debated. Wilco Lam told us it was James Busby who introduced historic cuttings of Syrah to New Zealand in the 1850s on his travels en route to Australia. Others, according to Rebecca Gibb’s recent book The Wines of New Zealand (Infinite Ideas, 2018), think it was Romeo Bragato. All are agreed however that the immediate source was the government nursery at Te Kauwhata, in which Alan Limmer of Stonecroft recognised the special qualities of this Syrah and planted it on his site in the original Gimblett Gravels in Hawke’s Bay. His first, impressive, vintage was 1989 and it then spread from there, with Dry River planting 1.25 ha (3 acres) of Syrah in 1992. The oldest Dry River Syrah we tasted was 1999. Neil McCallum believes that some of the quality of Dry River Syrah is due to the fact that these early cuttings are of the superior Sérine clone. 

Dry River, needless to say, has attracted more than its fair share of French interns, including one from Domaine de la Romanée-Conti. McCallum recounted how a very young Fabien Reboul of Ch de Valflaunès in Pic St-Loup went back to France, inspired by Dry River to try Syrah back home.

The wines may be impressive (see our 250 tasting notes on NZ Syrahs here), in a style heavy in rotundone, but Syrah represents just one per cent of all vines in New Zealand. According to Gibb, there are just 10 ha of Syrah in Wairarapa, whose most important wine district is Martinborough. The 2018 total plantings of Syrah in NZ were 435 ha (1,075 acres), less than half the total plantings of Merlot. The comparable figure for Pinot Noir was 5,653 ha (13,970 acres). 

Published in full, with approval.