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Terroir of Aloha: Syrah Finds Its Hawai’ian Home

Terroir of Aloha: Syrah Finds Its Hawai’ian Home

There are two wineries hidden away where one would least expect: up steep slopes on a remote south Pacific chain of islands. Nourished by the sacred volcanic soils of Kīlauea and Haleakalā, Hawai’ian viniculture and winemaking flourish with the noble grape Syrah as it delicately expresses some of the most unique terroir on Earth. Yet, there is more at play as the Syrah provides this pleasure with its simultaneous reflection of the land’s rhythm, history, and people; intangibles that really do make a difference. In this magical place something special is happening. Creation is a foot.

I did not know that Syrah was produced in the state until recently while researching for a family vacation to the Big Island of Hawai’i and Maui. As it turns out, Syrah has found a thriving home on both islands in the vineyards of Volcano Winery and MauiWine. Here vintners are meticulously fostering the relationship between land and vine with an adventurous spirit, incorporating the Hawai’ian proverb, “Listen carefully. Observe with eyes, work with the hands.” The result is bold Syrah which is an extension of those element’s natural energy and land’s sense of place.

My journey to experience Syrah began on the Big Island, an appropriate starting point as I sought the opportunity to learn more about Hawai’i cross-culturally, especially the relationship of its people to the land. Spending a day with a local guide, I went on a hike through Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park, home of Kīlauea where Madame Pele, Goddess of fire and volcanoes, resides. As we carefully walked across the once fiery landscape, he spoke of Pele and her ability to control lava flow; a reminder that nothing is permanent yet awed at plants that have somehow created a way to grow in the most inhospitable crevices of porous lava rock. With this as my prelude, I arrived at Volcano Winery feeling a humble connection to the land around me.

At 4,000 feet above sea level, the vineyard is noticeably cooler than other parts of Kīlauea despite its location not far from the volcano’s caldera. We had covered only a short distance but entered an entirely new climate zone. This is typical on the Big Island where eleven of the world’s thirteen zones can be experienced – often in close proximity. And as I would learn, the hyperlocal climate found in Volcano Winery’s vineyard is key to its Syrah’s success.

Self-taught industry veteran Alex Wood has been at Volcano Winery for two decades, becoming head winemaker in 2010. Wood shared with me about the location’s unique climate and how terroir is ultimately expressed. “The winery is located at a transition zone between wet and dry; a half mile to the east or the west and we would not be able to grow balanced, quality fruit,” he explained. “This special pocket we are in is reflected in the wine. Also, we plant directly into lava which results in a basalt-based, very well drained substrate.” Indeed, with lush canopies, the rows of vines sit atop numerous hidden lava tubes, some exposed along its borders. Hardened years ago, they form the crevices which now provide for life growing above while helping naturally facilitate drainage.

In considering Syrah for the vineyard, Wood carefully researched its prospects in order to ensure that it would work in harmony with the land. “Before planting, I talked with a lot of people in the industry about varietals that would be a good fit for our site and Syrah was suggested,” he said. “Normally you would not see Syrah grown in a cool climate site, but the rationale was that because it is a bold grape, there is a certain amount of headroom and that we could see pretty good expression.” 

Wood found a small protected hollow of less than an acre where he ultimately chose to plant; a place where the terroir is unique to that space alone. “It is a special place on the property, quite a bit warmer than other areas,” he told me. “I only wish the area we grow Syrah was larger.” However, despite this limitation, the first bottling of Syrah was released in 2016 and met with praise. I was fortunate for my visit coincided with the cork being pulled on the last remaining bottle; giving me the opportunity to experience the still-living landscape of the previous harvest.

With a day well spent I tried the wine, warmly greeted by aromas of mint and fig. The two continued as flavors, complimented by a tangy acidity, polished tannins, basalt, plum and dried cherries; a wonderfully unique reflection of the actively changing, dynamic land upon which I now stood. Although no more remains, there will certainly be future harvests where new lessons about the Syrah’s evolution can be learned and appreciated. As Wood noted, “The biggest lesson is that every season is different and that every year has its own personality and feel which ultimately is expressed in the wine.” 

Just across the Alenuihaha Channel on Maui, Haleakalā, the elder of young Kīlauea, is at rest; dormant now for centuries. With such a long passage of time since it’s last eruption, the land has established a mature rhythm where roots draw from older soils; a mix of ash, crushed lava rock, and organic matter from generations of decay and rebirth. With a rich agricultural tradition steeped in celebration, at 1,500 feet above sea level, MauiWine’s 32-acre Ulupalakua Vineyards can be found; about 7 acres of which are planted with Syrah. 

Having been raised at Ulupalakua, Joseph Hegele, head of marketing and branding at MauiWine, has worked in the vineyard for most of his life, everything from pulling wires to harvests. He shared with me about the initial challenges faced when Syrah was planted in 2002 and how the varietal learned to successfully adapt. “The challenge when we first planted was getting a dependable fruit set year to year, but grape vines are extremely adaptive to their environments and our vines have learned and continue to learn how to grow here,” Hegele noted. “For instance, we don’t have what you would call a traditional dormancy and winter weather, but we’ve watched our vines learn to shut down during the off season and not begin to fruit again despite favorable weather conditions.”

What is remarkable about Syrah’s early success at Ulupalakua is that it became both the standard and point of learning for the entire vineyard. Hegele recalled, “It became a benchmark, we used what we learned and every bit of information it gave us to make decisions for the development of the rest of the vineyard. Every choice we made was weighed against the success of the Syrah, what other varietals might work, trellising choices, canopy management techniques, realistic yields, timing, all of it.”

I tasted the 2017 Syrah in the winery’s gardens where energy of past celebrations still dances and Ulupalakua’s beauty inspires a spirit of aloha. From my glass emerged aromas of bing cherry, ripened plumb, and eucalyptus; the red stone fruit continuing on as well-balanced flavors accompanied by a pleasantly tart acidity, soft tannins, and hints of black pepper and minerals. An uninfluenced, true expression of Ulupalakua, capturing both its history and vintners’ desire to progress it even further. As Hegele added, “We are proud of our approach to always trying new things and experimenting, not simply doing things that others say we should do that might have worked elsewhere. It’s a maverick mentality, and it makes what we do here fascinating.”

With its success on both Maui and the Big Island, Syrah is helping to make Hawai’ian winemaking much more visible. Indeed, Ulupalakua is in the final stage of becoming formally recognized as the state’s first American Viticultural Area (AVA); a designation which will not only make it the southernmost AVA in the United States, but will bring additional well-deserved recognition to the entire industry. For the grape that originated in southeastern France’s Rhône region, migrated globally with entrepreneurial vintners over centuries, and is now firmly rooted in the most unexpected of places, Syrah has found its Hawai’ian home.