Syrah is a versatile grape that is grown in every major wine region in the world. Depending on the climate and winemaking techniques, Syrah offers a range of expressions, appealing to a wide variety of palates. If you like Cabernet Sauvignon or Pinot Noir, Syrah is a wine for you. It is also the sole red variety present in some of the world’s rarest and highest quality wines, the Rhône Valley’s Hermitage and Côte Rôtie. So why are you not drinking Syrah?
“Syrah has always reminded me of the kind of guy who wears cowboy boots with a tuxedo. Manly yet elegant.” ~ Karen McNeil, The Wine Bible, 2nd edition, 70.
At this year’s TexSom I attended a session called Varietal Focus: Syrah. The presenters were Master of Wine Charles Curtis, and Master Sommeliers Laura DePasquale and Greg Harrington. It was an educational session where I learned some interesting facts that has fostered my understanding of why certain expressions of Syrah are among my favorite wines and furthered my confusion as to why more wine consumers do not drink Syrah. Case in point: Last fall my husband and I were dining at one of Dallas’ popular non-chain steak houses. After surveying their extensive wine list and discussing it with the sommelier we decided on a Rhône Valley Syrah, which is not unusual for us. With great excitement the somm explained how she hand selected the wine for the menu and that it is one of her favorites for flavor and value. She then exclaimed, “No one ever orders Syrah!” The wine was truly delicious and paired great with our steaks.
Syrah is believed to have originated in the Rhône Valley, northern Rhône to be precise. It is the offspring of Dureza, a dark-skinned grape from the Ardèche region in France and a white-skinned grape called Mondeause Blanch from the Savoie region in France. Both of these regions are located near northern Rhône. Dureza is a child of Pinot Noir, making Syrah a grand-child! Voila! The genealogy of Syrah came as a revelation to me as well as offered some insight as to why I really enjoy Syrah. When Syrah is grown in cooler climates, such as northern Rhône, it shares a lot of characteristics to Pinot Noir. Brilliant!
The age of Syrah is unknown. In 77 AD Pliny the Elder mentions a grape called Tegna (believed to be modern day Syrah) in an area called Vienne (today this area is Côte-Rôtie) in Book 14, chapter 4 of Natural History. There was a time long ago when Bordeaux sought out northern Rhône’s Syrah to add to their wines for increased flavor and depth to lesser vintages. It was said the wine had been “hermitagéd.”
Syrah is grown all over the world. France still has the largest amount of Syrah vineyards with 68,000+ hectares, followed by Australia where Shiraz is the most widely planted grape at 44,000 ha. South America (Argentina 13,000 ha and Chile 3,300 ha) and Italy have about 16,000 ha each. The US (CA has 7,800 ha and WA has 1,200 ha) and South Africa (9,900 ha) are close to equal in plantings. Italy, Portugal, Switzerland, Croatia, Romania, Hungry, Malta, Cyprus, and Turkey round out the plantings with slightly over 1,000 ha per country.
Let’s take a moment to talk pepper. I adore pepper, I add it to almost everything I eat. I often claim to have a “pepper addiction.” Did you know only 1 in 5 noses can even detect pepper? This leads to another reason why Syrah is one of my favorite wines, and possibly not yours. Rotundone is a particular type of chemical compound that is prevalent in a variety of grapes, the highest levels being Syrah. Rotundone is the key aroma compound in black peppercorns, but also found in rosemary, oregano, thyme, basil, marjoram, and geraniums. This is why the single most defining characteristic of Syrah (and Shiraz) is pepper, white and black; not like the vegetable, but the spice. Furthermore, cool climate Syrah, and well-aged Syrah tend to express high levels of pepper than warm climate, young Syrah. However, Australian Shiraz tends to be rich with pepper. Other characteristics of Syrah include blackberry, chocolate, spice, and two of my favorites, cured meats, and bacon fat. Depending on the climate and winemaking styles Syrah can be savory or fruit forward, juicy.
“Most important question when making Syrah: Are you going to make it like Cabernet or Pinot Noir?” ~ Greg Harrington, Master Sommelier, Founder & Winemaker Gramercy Cellars
We tasted 10 wines in the seminar to provide a global sample of the many styles of Syrah. Here are some brief thoughts I had on each wine.
2014 Wind Gap Sonoma Coast Syrah California USA ($40): fresh violets, fresh picked summer berries, black olives, spice, black pepper; fresh and clean, complex, balanced, grippy tannins, high acidity. Click here to locate.
2014 Donelan Family Wines Cuvee Christine Syrah North Coast USA ($49): I’ve been a big Donelan fan for a few years, ripe berries, dried violets and herbs, black pepper, smokey ash, trailing cured meats, earthy, complex palate, balanced, long finish. Click here to locate.
2014 Gramercy Cellars Forgotten Hills Vineyard Syrah Walla Walla Valley USA ($55): slightly stewed fruit, loads of cured meats, spice, dried herbs, bold pepper; medium+ body, elegant, balanced, complex, bold wine. Click here to locate.
2014 Jamesheed Seville Shiraz Yarra Valley Australia ($40): natural wine, lighter in aromas and weight, fresh picked berries, violets, fresh herbs, kiss of pepper, touch of smoke, medium- on palate, balanced, mixed response in the session. Click here to locate.
2010 Yarra Yering Vineyards Underhill Shiraz Yarra Valley Australia ($76): classic Shiraz, stewed fruits, roses, spice, smoked bacon, pepper; opulent and bold, balanced, long juicy finish. Click here to locate.
2015 Duncan Savage The Girl Next Door Syrah Western Cape South Africa: fresh berries, violets, sweet spice, bacon fat, herbs, less pepper more tomato leaf; lighter and fruitier on palate, full-body, balanced, elegant.
2014 De Martino Legado Reserva Syrah Choapa Valley Chile ($15): stewed black and red fruit, dried herbs, bacon fat, smoke, green leaf, barnyard; flabby on the palate, lacked complexity, balanced. Click here to locate.
2014 Domaine Marc Sorrel Crozes-Hermitage Rhône France ($25): fresh picked berries, violets, mushrooms, thyme, bacon, pepper; elegant and expressive, earthy with nice fruit, great structure, characteristically Crozes-Hermitage, the best value region in northern Rhône. Click here to locate.
2013 Jean-Luc Colombo Cornas Les Terres Brulees Rhône France ($52): non-traditional producer; cooked black and red fruit, minerality, black pepper, spice, smoke; bold on the palate, ripe with loads of dried savory herbs, balanced, long finish. Click here to locate.
2015 Pierre Gaillard Ampuis Côte Rôtie Rhône France ($48): cooked berries, fresh picked violets, pepper, spice notes, smoke, savory; round and grippy on palate, young with great structure. Click here to locate.
These wines represent a drop in the bucket of Syrah. I enjoy Syrah from California’s central coast regions of Paso Robles and Santa Barbara County. Of course in southern Rhône you will find Syrah blended with Grenache and Mourvèdre. If you enjoy Pinot Noir and are looking for Syrahs closer to that style seek out cooler climate wines; if you are a Cab lover and want a big, bold Syrah to pair with your steak try a warmer climate Syrah. Experiment, visit your favorite local wine retailer or online site and investigate Syrah. I think you will be glad to add this wine to your repertoire, where it will quickly become a “go-to” favorite. Please keep in touch and share your Syrah journey with me. Cheers!