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Friday, 25 September 2009

Villa Maria Syrah Viognier Hawkes Bay 2005

When I saw Cambridge Wine Merchants offering this Villa Maria 2005 Syrah-Viognier blend down from £11.99 to £6.99 (or £6 a bottle for a case or more), I decided it was at least worth a try. Now, I am somewhat cynical about "discounted wines", because certain supermarkets have a tendency to over-inflate prices for a short time or in just a few outlets, only to mark them back down with a great flourish to a more sensible level at which they were intended to be sold anyway.

I won't name names, but wander around a few supermarket wine aisles and you will see plenty of wines supposedly reduced, but when you look behind the great big red "reduced" tag on the shelf, you will often see that, in that branch, it was always on sale that that price and the reduction is not really genuine.

However, the independent wine merchants (of which Cambridge is blessed with plenty) do not get up to this sort of jiggery-pokery, so a discount there is usually a real discount and therefore needs to be taken seriously.

And so to the wine - it's a 2005 from Hawkes Bay, which Oz Clarke describes in his pocket wine book as "one of New Zealand's most prestigious wine regions ... high number of sunshine hours, moderately predictable weather ... Syrah has good potential". He also gives Villa Maria two out of three stars, meaning "an excellent wine or producer in its category - one especially worth seeking out".

The spiritual home of the late-ripening Syrah grape is in the small appellations of Hermitage and Cote Rotie in the Northern Rhone where it is produced in somewhat rarified quantities - for this reason alone, it has not become as popular and widespread as, say, Merlot and Cabernet, as it has simply not been a mainstream variety. However, take-up of the grape in Australia (as Shiraz) and California have led to other countries also trying out Syrah.

Typical Syrah characteristics are smokey plum, damson and loganberry with an almost sinfully sweet, creamy aftertaste and hints of chocolate and occasionally violets. When aged in oak, as this example is, it gains even more vanilla sweetness. With its big, vibrant personality and rich fruitiness, Syrah is a good match for roast red meat and hearty casseroles.

There is no indication of the blend proportions on the bottle and as Viognier is something of a poor-man's unoaked Chardonnay (pleasant enough with subtle aromas of peach and apricot, but lacking the complexity and depth of a good chardie), it's hard to say what it is adding here, other than perhaps accentuating the overall fruitiness and adding some softness to the texture. However, as its spiritual home is, like Syrah, the Northern Rhone, perhaps there is some logic to adding a dash in.

I decanted the wine a couple of hours before drinking - this is a serious wine and at only four years old, still capable of improving in bottle for several more years - and found that the wine continued to improve further even during the course of the meal.

On the nose, there was plenty of smokey fruit and vanilla from the barrel aging, with damsons, sweet brambly fruit and a hint of chocolate on the palate with an extremely smooth texture and a lovely lingering finish. By the end of the meal, as the oakiness faded, even more of the sweet, fruitiness of the wine was noticeable.

My experience of NZ wines is that they are generally very well made in a clean and modern but serious style - there's no rustic charm here. This wine is no exception to that and is definitely something you could serve to guests - try matching with roast lamb with a rosemary and redcurrant jus.

Cambridge Wine Merchants in Cambridge, UK have limited stocks of this wine and it is apparently proving popular, so get down there quickly if you want it at its current reduced price.