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Grape expectations: To the land of the long white cloud

After a quiet November and December, the 'winey season' came back with a bang this week. First off was the National Off-Licence Association Awards, presented annually for retailing excellence. The judging process is lengthy and comprehensive, starting last July and finishing with a blind tasting before the ceremony.

Dublin wine merchants did well, scooping six of the 11 awards. Gibney's of Malahide were feted as National Off-Licence of the Year, while neighbours Jus de Vine, Portmarnock, took the Dublin award. Foodie superstore Donnybrook Fair claimed the title of Food Retailer Off-Licence of the Year, while the Specialist Awards for Wine, Beer and Spirits went to The Vintry, Rathgar; McHugh's, Malahide Road and Deveney's, Dundrum.

Then came the New Zealand Wine Fair at The Radisson Golden Lane. Strange accents abounded and one winemaker was heard declaring he had "spent the summer ixtending my dick". Sounds painful. As you might expect, Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir were the major exhibits.

I can still remember the shockwave that occurred when Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc hit the Irish market back in the late '80s. Racy, instantly invigorating, I remember likening the sensation to "standing up close to the Powerscourt waterfall in full spate". Since then, Cloudy Bay became a cult, later a fashion icon and up went the price. Luckily, other fine and lower-priced Sauvignons followed. Ones I particularly commend are Astrolabe, Siefried, Seresin and the ever-reliable Hunter's, all widely available here.

And so to what was billed as 'The One to Watch'. Syrah, they tell us, will be the next sensation from the Land of the Long White Cloud. A tasting of a dozen or so convinced me this could be true. The wines will be more European, more Rhone-like than their Aussie counterparts. Two wines stood out: one, of course, was Craggy Range Gimblett Gravels 2008. I'd stand over any wine made by the uber-talented Steve Smith. The other was, for me, 'wine of the day'. Man O'War Dreadnought Syrah 2008 (O'Brien's, €29.99) hails from Waiheke Island. The Dreadnought is a 'big' wine, in the nicest sense. Enveloping without overpowering; with none of that 'prickly heat' you can get from wines of 14 degrees ABV and above.

The bouquet was of intense blueberries with a trace of spice -- aniseed maybe. On the palate the blueberries were subsumed by ripe, dark plums offset by gamey flavours with, at the back end, a whiff of fragrant pepper, so often a trademark of wines like Cote Rotie. I'd be pretty sure this is 100pc Syrah, too; no hint of Viognier. Good Northern Rhone wines cost buttons compared to their Bordeaux and Burgundy counterparts years ago. Now they've got expensive. I'm going to play a hunch and lay a few Dreadnoughts down.

More on New Zealand next week