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hastings-wine-country-resI've just spent an enjoyable sojourn in Hastings, Hawke's Bay attending the New Zealand Syrah Symposium where I had been invited to talk about Northern Rhône wines and present a tasting of some personal favourites. This well-organised gathering of wine geeks was preceded by a Cabernet Merlot Conference all of which added up to a great deal of wine tasting and a potential overload of information. Some of the lectures on the likes of 'Leaf Plucking and Canopy Management' or 'Colour Dynamics and Co-Ferments' were not for those suffering from Attention Deficit Disorder but there was a wealth of more readily digestible material to enjoy.

Happily the British wine press were out in force with the likes of Neal Martin (the Wine Advocate), Matthew Jukes (Daily Mail & MoneyWeek), Oz Clarke (of TV fame) and Jamie Goode (www.wineanorak.com) all making contributions from the floor. Tim Atkin (of the Observer and www.thewinegang.com) rounded off a long day with an excellent trans-global tasting of 10 Syrahs, from as far afield as Israel and San Antonio, providing superb commentary and plenty of food for thought. Tim began his presentation by saying that 'no-one should talk in public for longer than they can make love' which gave him some concerns about his 2 hour time allocation!

Unsurprisingly, New World winemakers featured heavily and Dan Buckle of Mount Langi Ghiran in Victoria tutored delegates through a fine range of Australian Shiraz culminating in a vertical of 3 vintages of his own wine (2004, 2006, 2008) which amply illustrated that you can have concentration and finesse in equal measure. Local luminary Rod Easthope, of the celebrated Craggy Range estate, gave an insightful talk on his winemaking philosophy which centres on painstaking vineyard management and a minimalist intervention policy during vinification. Rod eschews the addition of enzymes, tannins, acids and natural supplements as he wants to 'make wine, not a beverage'.

Australian journalist and winemaking legend James Halliday gave a headline talk on Australian Shiraz, which accounts for 36% of their domestic market. James was clearly disgruntled by a fellow Aussie journalist who had overslept and caused his late arrival but he rapidly regained his composure and shared a fund of detailed information, on climate, geography and wine styles, with the audience.

Hawke’s Bay winemakers John Hoskins of Trinity Hill and Peter Cowley of Te Mata Estate sampling Syrah.

Hawke’s Bay winemakers John Hancock of Trinity Hill and Peter Cowley of Te Mata Estate sampling Syrah.

The most high octane delivery of the day was from American Master Sommelier Evan Goldstein who shone the spotlight on the U.S. on-trade market. Evan's break-neck speech highlighted the need to re-enthuse American tastes for Syrah and he beseeched producers to visit the States in person and champion their wares. The gist of his argument was that the market wouldn't evolve of its own accord but that American sommeliers were receptive to new tastes and ideas.

For my own part I was pretty intimidated addressing such august and well-informed company. Fortunately, my wine selections which included Alain Graillot's 2007 Crozes Hermitage, Pierre Clape's 2004 Cornas and Jean-Louis Chave's 2001 Hermitage were well received and my slick Powerpoint slides (artfully assembled by my colleague Hamish) pretty much offset my failings as an orator.

After a day discussing, tasting and mentally immersing ourselves in Syrah we retired to the bar of Hastings' wonderfully restored Opera House - where we slaked our thirst with - beer - of course!

With thanks to Peter Cowley and all at Te Mata Estate for their magnificent hospitality during my visit and Nicola Pentelow at Game Plan Events for her impeccable organisational skills.