The Anticipation of Syrah
For nearly 20 years we’ve been seeing articles about Syrah becoming the next big thing in the wine world, but the stars never seem to quite align. One of our favorites was from Wine Spectator, predicting in January of 2004 that, “Syrah is shaping up as bigger than Pinot Noir, even bigger than the ubiquitous Cabernet Sauvignon or the popular Merlot.” Eight months later Sideways was released and Pinot Noir sales exploded, leaving little room for Syrah. This put Syrah in a tough spot, as in anticipation of increased popularity a lot of acreage was planted to Syrah leading to a glut of Syrah (a 2010 article in the NYT by Eric Asimov led off with “There’s a joke going around West Coast wine circles: What’s the difference between a case of syrah and a case of pneumonia? You can get rid of the pneumonia.”), yet every few years it seems the prediction of Syrah being the next big thing comes back.
The reason is quite simple, people in the wine business love Syrah (us included). It is a remarkably versatile grape that showcases terroir and is both good with food and enjoyable on its own. While Syrah will likely never reach the popularity that was once predicted, that is good news for consumers, as there is more great Syrah available than ever before, but at prices much lower than the more popular varieties.
Typical scents and flavors include blackberries, plums, black cherries, flowers, spice, earth, chocolate, licorice, blueberry, cassis, pepper, and truffles.
Most Popular Regions
The Northern Rhone Valley in France is the ancestral home for Syrah, and still, in our minds at least, the place to find the best examples. Unlike the blends produced in the much larger Southern Rhone Valley, the Northern Rhone only uses Syrah for reds, with styles that range from extremely tannic and full-bodied wines from Cornas (the southernmost region in the Northern Rhone) to the more elegant finely structured wines of Cote-Rotie (the northernmost region). Overall the Syrahs produced in the Northern Rhone only rarely exceed 14% alcohol, with sub 13% common the further north you go. The wines show black and red fruits, with dried flowers, spice, earth, cured meat and pepper.
Shiraz, as Syrah is known in Australia, is easily Australia’s most widely planted grape. While there is a lot of diversity in styles, most Shirazes you find in the US tend towards a very ripe, extracted, powerful style, with loads of dark fruit, with the best examples coming from very old vines in Barossa Valley and McLaren Vale in South Australia.
Syrah has long had a home in Paso Robles, but over the past ten-fifteen years, we’ve seen an increase in wines grown in cool climate regions that are also acclaimed for their Pinot Noirs. The diversity of terroir in California allows Syrah lovers the best of both worlds, with plentiful examples of full-bodied, high octane styles as well as the more traditional Northern Rhone styles. While it is nice to have so many options, it can make buying a wine more challenging so we highly recommend reading tasting notes (when available) and checking alcohol levels before making a purchase.
Washington (and the northern parts of Oregon) offer an ideal mix of old world restraint and new world power, resulting in wines that blend power with elegance. The best wines have loads of dark fruits balanced with meaty, savory components giving the wines great complexity and depth. While great Syrah can be found throughout the Columbia Valley, Walla Walla, Wahluke Slope, Red Mountain, Yakima, Royal Slope and Horse Heaven Hills are particularly good areas.