Syrah is the sixth most widely planted wine grape in the world, yet it struggles for recognition in this country, despite the fact that Syrah is planted up and down the west coast of North America. The attraction behind Syrah's popularity for wine drinkers in France and Australia, is its big ripe berry flavors, often with a savory back note.
Although Syrah is grown along the Mediterranean in the south of France, the key spot is the Rhone Valley. Syrah is also a major red grape in Australia, where it (and the wine) is known as Shiraz. And Shiraz is preferred by many wineries in such far flung places as South America and South Africa.
So, it would seem that Syrah is not a Euro-centric grape, and a pair of long-held origin theories seem to support that position. Lore has it that the origin of Syrah places it in ancient Persia (present day Iran) near the city of Shiraz. Another account ties Syrah to Syracuse in Sicily. But in 1998, DNA analysis blew away both theories, placing Syrah in southeast France, likely Provence.
(A Personal Remembrance: Facing down scores of Shiraz. A number of years ago, I was invited as the international judge at the Sydney Wine Show, a week-long wine competition that required stamina and the understanding that at the end of the day, your mouth would feel like a war zone after a fierce battle.
I had previous experience judging at a number of U.S. wine competitions, mainly in California, so it wasn't like the Aussie organizers had pulled me in off the street. Most U.S. wine competitions are organized by panels that taste 10 or 12 wines at a time until that class, which could be a couple of hundred wines, is finished. The Aussies give you all of the wines in a class at one whack.
The panel I was assigned to was led by Brian Walsh, then lead winemaker at Yalumba in South Australia. Brian was patient and generous, helping me to quickly learn the Aussie judging system. With my instructions and a clipboard loaded with tasting sheets, I faced my tasting bench with curiosity. A shallow plastic tub lined with sawdust, to absorb all of the wine I would spit out, was resting on the floor beside the bench.
(Remembering a Champion Spitter! Aussies are proficient and accurate spitters. On a previous visit to Sydney, I had visited the late Len Evans, a transplanted Welshman who became an Australian wine legend, in his office. Among the many things that bolstered Len's standing as a consummate wine man, was his reputation as a prodigious spitter. He who could hurl wine across impressive distances with great accuracy. During a lull in the conversation, one of Len's associates urged him to demonstrate his spitting prowess. Len was fond of collecting de-commissioned church items and had a holy water font on the wall near his desk. As we watched, he took a small sip of wine, sloshed it around in his mouth, turned his head sideways and let loose with a tight envelope of wine that sailed toward the font, landing square in it, without a drop falling on the floor.)
Clearly, with that memory fresh in my mind, I had to up my game as a wine spitter.
The bench was a high narrow table, with a white painted top on which were two sets of grids running the length of the bench on each side. Each grid consisted of fifty squares in three parallel rows, with the space inside the squares large enough to accommodate the base of a wine glass.
This practical design allowed up to 100 glasses of wine to be placed in the center row of each grid. If a judge rejected a wine, the glass could be moved up or down one square. If the judge wasn't sure about the wine and wanted to come back to it for a second look, the glass was moved in the opposite direction.
Throughout the days of the competition, my panel tasted a range of white and red wines, but the class of 95 Shiraz from throughout Australia was my biggest challenge. Our panel had adjourned to decide medals for a previous class, then returned to our tasting benches. The sight of 95 glasses of red wine was indeed daunting.
The Australian philosophy is first look is usually the most accurate assessment, so there is rarely anything to be gained by re-tasting a wine more than once or twice. I began tasting, moving down one side of the bench, jotting my notes and moving the glasses, while kicking the spit tub with my foot. The exercise didn't take quite the coordination of riding a bike and chewing gum at the same time, but it was close.
Once all members of my panel had tasted all 95 Shiraz, we gathered at the panel table and discussed each wine, deciding by majority vote, to award a bronze, silver or gold medal, or drop the wine. All of the golds were then re-tasted by the chief judge, who that year was Brian Crozer, owner-winemaker of Petaluma Wines. Most often Crozer agreed with our decisions, but occasionally he would over-rule and down grade a wine to silver.
On the flight back to California, I thought about the tasting and decided that while I had never put my palate through such a rigorous exercise, the knowledge I had gained of Australian wines and the fellowship I encountered there were immeasurable.)
One enduring account of how Hermitage got its name comes from the word ermite, French for hermit. The story goes that a knight returning from the Crusades decided to build a hermitage on the steep bank overlooking the Rhone River. More puzzling than the origin theory is how the name ermite acquired an "h" to become Hermitage. A stone chapel sits on the hermit site today, owned by Paul Jaboulet Aine, and its emblematic Syrah, Hermitage la Chapelle. There are other Hermitage wines, including Chave and Chapoutier.
The key to the distinctive character of Hermitage lies in the thin sandy-clay soils over a base of granite. The best vineyards are west facing and absorb the maximum sun reflecting off the river below, giving the wines a rich, deep flavor with a roasted overtone. It is this complex structure and flavor that Syrah producers elsewhere in the world look for in their wines. Of course, growers, lucky enough to have the right terroir, can make a great Syrah, but no matter how close the conditions are, it will never be Hermitage.
One place where Syrah does well is Australia. Shiraz, as Syrah is known there, works well in the warmer parts of South Australia, like the Barossa Valley where Penfolds Grange and Henschke Hill of Grace are iconic Shiraz. The wines are big and robust with ripe berry flavors and sometimes a trace of mint. Cooler climate Shiraz from Victoria and Margaret River in Western Australia, and even Tasmania. Microclimate exploration and clonal experimentation are encouraging growers to find new places to plant Shiraz.
The history of Syrah in California goes back to the early 1970s, when, some say, the first Syrah was marketed by Joseph Phelps. More recently, California Syrahs, with their ripe plummy flavors, are coming from the warmer parts of Santa Barbara County, Mendocino County, Sierra Foothills and Sonoma Valley. Cool climate Syrahs can be found from coastal vineyards in Santa Barbara, Monterey and Sonoma counties. The stylistic distinction of cool climate Syrah is a sharper focus on acidity and less fleshy fruit flavors.
Washington Syrahs have attracted a lot of attention in recent years for their well defined fruit and lack of the jammy character that often marks Syrahs from warmer areas.
A frequently heard criticism of Syrah is that it is often big and fruity, but lacking the definition of either Pinot Noir or Cabernet Sauvignon. Warranted or not, a lot of the Syrah in the market today is pleasant red wine, but nothing to shout about. Perhaps that's why U.S. Syrah sales are weak.
If you like robust expressive red wines and have been avoiding Syrah, now is the time to give Syrah a try. Whatever your wine budget, there is a Syrah for you.
Please contact me at boydvino707@gmail with comments or questions and for my policy on submitting samples. Unsolicited samples will be returned to sender.
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