I’m sure that Doris Day’s mother wasn’t responding to the sometimes subtle, sometimes
overbearing flavor nuances of that grape varietal we know today as Syrah. Syrah is probably one
of the most successful varietals right now. From the luscious and age worthy Cote Roties,
Hermitage and Cornas in Northern Rhone and the blended Chateauneuf du Pape, Gigondas and
Vacqueyras of the Southern Rhone in France to the concentrated Aussie Grange Hermitage,
Amon Ra and Greenock Creek to the Napa Valley’s Darioush, T-Vine and La Sirena down to the
Central Coast’s Ojai, Saxum and Pax, Syrah (or Shiraz) has left an indelible mark in wine culture.
Where Does Syrah Come From?
Supposedly, Syrah is sired by two unknown – literally unknown grape varietals – Dureza and
Mondeuse Blanche from France. It originally was thought that it originated from the Shiraz
region of Iran – hence one of its many names. However newer DNA technology has shown that
its birthplace is probably in France from those two lesser known varietals – one red and one
white. In Hawaiian nomenclature, that would make it hapa. Whatever its genealogy, Syrah or
Shiraz does make a very versatile red wine that can pair with dishes as rich and robust as grilled
steak down to grilled salmon or tuna and anything in between.
The prototypical French Syrah comes from the Northern Rhone, especially with their La-La-La
wines of the Cote Rotie. Namely, these are the La Mouline, La Landonne and La Turque (there
are other La- wines though they are just as inaccessible and expensive). These wines are blended
with a white grape – Viognier – up to 10% which actually enhances the rich, mouth filling
qualities of a fine Syrah (kind of like adding a horsepower booster to a turbo Porsche). Once
again, you have to take my word on the qualities of a La-La wine since I’ve never tasted one.
They routinely run in the $200 to $300 price range.
Slightly farther south, you’ll find the wines of Hermitage and Croze-Hermitage which are Syrah
based wines that once again, may be blended with up to 15% of two white grape varietals –
Marsanne and Rousanne. Like blending Viognier in Cote Rotie, these white grapes add an
element of complementary richness to the black fruit in Syrah.
In the farthest southern vineyards of the Northern Rhone, you’ll find the vineyards of Cornas.
This small, relatively “quiet” region produces some of the most rustic Syrah wines – not Syrah
based since they are 100% Syrah – which you could ever dream of! Essences of leather, tar, earth,
olives, grilled meats and rich black fruit – all in one bottle! These are some of my favorite
renditions of Syrah, not just because of that terroir found in every bottle but I can also find
AND afford these classic wines.
In the Southern Rhone, you’ll find the blended wines of Chateauneuf du Pape (where the
Avignon Popes resided in the 1300s), Gigondas and Vacqueyras. In the Southern Rhone, Syrah
simply plays a supporting role to Grenache along with its buddies, Mourvedre and Cinsault.
None-the-less, Syrah does play a vital role in balancing Grenache’s red, cherry fruit with darker,
richer black fruit. I will say that an aged Chateauneuf du Pape with 8 to 12 years of bottle time
is one of the culinary wonders of the world… paired with grilled or braised beef.
If Australia has one grape varietal that defines the continent or region, it’s Shiraz. The land
Down Under has adopted the older nomenclature of Shiraz – maybe to distinguish it from Old
and New world Syrah.
The wines of Penfolds Grange Hermitage (now simply known as Penfolds Grange) are Syrah
based wines with a touch of Cabernet Sauvignon. They are some of the MOST concentrated
wines I’ve ever tried. And like some of France’s better renditions of Syrah, don’t even think of
opening a bottle until it has at least 10 years of bottle age.
Dave Powell of Torbreck Vintners produces some of the most concentrated Syrah Down Under.
From his flagship RunRig to his Viognier blended Descendant to his interpretation of the
Southern Rhone in his Juveniles and The Steading, Torbreck wines exhibit that concentrated
Syrah palate without being too heavy.
Other notable Syrah based wines from those southern exposures include Amon Ra (usually
limited to 0.5 to 1 ton per acre of fruit), Greenock Creek (Robert Parker gave 100 points to this
winery), Marquis Philips (sad to say that this American/Aussie union dissolved 2 years ago),
Henschke (some of their vines date back to the 1850’s!) and d’Arenberg (Laughing Magpie
makes an affordable alternative to Cote Rotie).
There literally are tons (jugs) of good California Syrah out there. It all depends on what your
preference is – do you want full blown, take-no-prisoners, concentrated to the hilt, almost need
to spread on bread type of Syrah or do you prefer a subdued, demure ripe red fruit that doesn’t
need advertising Syrah? Or perhaps something in between that may remind you of that last trip
to Southern France?
If you seek the former, California abounds in these luscious, fruit driven monsters. Since Syrah
thrives in hotter climates, California heeds their calling and the vines oblige with full throttle
wines that run roughshod over barbecue and any full flavored animal protein. If you seek a
refined red, that gracefully mimics the quality of a fine Chanel perfume. SORRY, Syrah is not for
you. Seek out a fine Russian River or Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir. However, if you seek that rich
black fruit with essence of earth, leather and grilled meat, look to the Central Coast of
California. Some of the most terroir driven wines in the States are being produced in your own
backyard. Pax, Saxum, Stolpman and Ojai are producing some of the best California Syrah I’ve
tried – and this just touches the surface. The cool ocean breezes that filter inland along with
limestone based soils in the Central Coast appellation produce Syrah that is just scratching that
Rhone-quality surface in California.
What to Eat With Syrah?
It’s pretty simple. Bold flavored wines demand bold flavored food. Barbecue is the first cuisine
that comes to mind. If you’ve decided on New World Syrah, the barbecue can be grilled salmon
or tuna all the way up to your boldest lamb and beef dishes. Because Central Coast Syrah are full
flavored but not heavy, I find that they even work with Chinese, Thai and Vietnamese dishes
that feature pork or beef. Just choose a Syrah with lower alcohol if you favor chili pepper spiced
dishes since higher alcohol magnifies the chili pepper burn.
If you prefer Old World Syrah, look to braised and simmered poultry, pork or beef dishes.
Because many Old World Syrah are a treasure trove of flavor nuances – leather, tar, licorice,
olive, earth along with dark black fruit - fresh thyme, rosemary, marjoram or other fresh herbs
in your dish enhance the flavor qualities of the wine and vice versa.
The Gochiso’s Short List of Syrah
Less than $25 Less than $50 Sky’s the limit
Ojai Santa Barbara Cornas La Sirena
Rock Rabbit Peay Marquis Philips Integrity
d’Arenberg Laughing Magpie Bonaccorsi Amon Ra
Stolpman Estate Saxum Sine Qua Non
Que Syrah, Shiraz