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Syrah: A grape you can have your way

From jammy Australian “fruit bombs” to austere, earthy Rhônes, wines made from syrah (aka shiraz) are growing in styles and popularity.

It’s hard not to like syrah.

Perhaps that’s because winemakers in so many corners of the world have found ways to make it their own, even to the extent of giving it an alternative name. In much of California and Washington and Argentina, they call it by its original name. In France's northern Rhône valley, they tend not to mention grape varieties at all, preferring to talk about appellations such as the rarified Côte-Rotie and Cornas. In Australia (and certain marketing-savvy corners of the United States) they call it shiraz. It’s all still the same grape.

Granted, syrah has plenty of distance yet to cover, but it’s making major strides against the two big boys of red wine, cabernet sauvignon and merlot. Between April 2004 and 2005, U.S. shoppers bought over 2 million cases of syrah and shiraz, 24 percent more than in the previous 12 months, according to ACNielsen Scantrack data.

Syrah’s appeal rests in its versatility. This fact stood out ever so clearly at last month’s Hospice du Rhône, a gathering in Paso Robles, Calif., of winemakers from around the world who are true believers in syrah and all the grapes that made the Rhône famous.

When considered side by side, earthy French syrah stands out in stark contrast to jammy Aussie shiraz and the many shades of U.S. syrah, which ranges the gamut from France’s more austere flavors to approximations of Southern Hemisphere fruit bombs.

While a grape like merlot almost always tends to channel similar notes, syrah, like chardonnay, is a bit of a chameleon — expressing itself across a huge range of locales and winemaking styles.

“One of the nice things about syrah is that it does well in a variety of climates,” says Bob Lindquist of Qupé Cellars, a syrah-focused winery north in Los Olivos, Calif., north of Santa Barbara. Even within California, Lindquist notes, syrah can be found from hot climates like Paso Robles and the San Joaquin Valley to cooler climates like the foothills of the Sierra Nevada.

The areas outside Santa Barbara where Lindquist gets grapes are better known for more delicate pinot noir, which helps explain why his wines tend to be more restrained than those made by some of his California counterparts. 

Paso Robles syrahs tend to express a heftier style, with enormous fruit — and alcohol levels to match. Rare is the Paso Robles syrah under 14.5 percent; 15 and even 16 percent are not uncommon. These are big wines — often with price tags to match, starting at $30 and going north — though winemaker Matt Trevisan, whose Linne Calodo wines fetch at least that much on the shelf, acknowledges that Paso Robles may eventually adopt a more modest style.

“If you want to drink these wines every night, you need to find a middle place,” he says.

Other winemakers have fled the state’s hotter sites for cooler areas more reminiscent of France.  Bill Easton picks fruit from the Sierra Nevada foothills west of Sacramento for his Terre Rouge syrahs — planting his flag in a more temperate corner of the state still largely unheralded for wine.

“Unfortunately, the trend in the wine industry is toward this bigger-is-better kind of thing,” Easton says. “You get more of those jammy notes and less of the terroir and the earth and the smoke from warmer sites.”

Perhaps you’re more accustomed to drinking $6 Yellow Tail, a popular shiraz from Down Under. Fear not.  The joy of syrah (and shiraz) is that its easily moldable nature means there’s almost certainly one on the market custom-tailored to please your palate.  If the Aussies have been making you happy, there’s no reason to start buying St. Joseph, though if you’re already a syrah/shiraz fan, you have the luxury of being able to choose among a spectrum of styles from around the world. 

Dive in where you feel most comfortable, and spread your taste slowly from there. 

While syrah used to be easy to break down into simple divisions — notably a French style that highlighted the grape’s salty, mineral, almost animal qualities, and an Aussie style that often was like a big jar of berry jam — its global nuances have become more difficult to parse.

If you’re partial to the Australian taste, rest assured that many U.S. vintners have acknowledged Aussie successes — right down to the quirky, colorful labels — and . 

And excellent examples of Australian shiraz can be found in a restrained, complex style closer to the French approach. You can find it in some bottlings from the cooler Clare Valley, for instance.

At the same time, areas of the Languedoc in southern France are starting to make syrah that tastes more like shiraz (and often call it that too). California and Washington state are making syrah in a full range of styles along every point of the spectrum between French restraint and Aussie indulgence.

The rules are even being revised in the northern Rhône, where some of the region’s most famous winemakers are planting syrah on heretofore unheralded patches of land that share the same climate and schist soils as Côte-Rotie. Three of them — Yves Cuilleron, Pierre Gaillard and François Villard — are bottling top-notch syrah (and viognier) under a new label, Les Vins de Viennes, that invokes American pragmatism but retains a very French style of winemaking.

“I could … make wine to American tastes, but that’s not the wine I want to make,” says Villard.

Perhaps syrah’s greatest asset is that it’s everything a wine like cabernet sauvignon is not.  If cab is all-new oak barrels that help spice up the wine, syrah is about old, neutral barrels and approachability (though the best syrah usually needs time to round out its powerful tannins and build up layers of taste). If cab is meant to be austere and refined, an aristocrat’s wine — and historically, that’s what cab’s homeland of Bordeaux is all about — syrah is a wine for the people.

That populist sentiment may be the best explanation why syrah has rallied in recent years. So dive in where you feel most comfortable, and don’t be afraid of its many personalities. It’s a grape with a thousand ways to please you.

TASTING NOTESSome fun and unusual ways to explore syrah (or was that shiraz?). All these wines pay at least a nod to the French style, each in its own way.

Los Cardos 2003 Mendoza syrah (Vineyard Brands, $8)The tastes of France, channeled through South America. Argentinian wine firm Viña Doña Paula makes this affordable bottling. It has lots of those Rhône flavors up front, if not all the weight or follow-through. But it’s hard to argue with the price.

Terre Rouge 2002 Côtes de l’Ouest California syrah ($15)More proof of syrah’s adaptiveness. Winemaker Bill Easton creates this wine largely from fruit in the Sueño Vineyard, grown near the Amador County line east of Sacramento. The region, currently lumped into the Lodi appellation, is still emerging, and Easton labels it simply “California” wine. Sweet cherry, with tart white pepper and a gorgeous, lively core.

Jaboulet 2001 Crozes-Hermitage Domaine de Thalabert (Frederick Wildman & Sons, $25)Crozes never gets as much credit as its famous sibling, Hermitage, but it offers the same style for a fraction of the price.  This is salty and bright, with plum and blue fruit up front and a supple finish.  Jaboulet is a master of this part of France, and this is an excellent example of an often underrated Rhône appellation.

Dos Cabezas 2003 La Montaña syrah-merlot ($27)This tiny winery is in Cochise County, Ariz., which alone makes it worth a try. But the wine is hardly a novelty. Salty syrah bounces off mellow merlot, with plum, red cherry and sweet vanilla caught in a great balance. If this is any indication, you may want to keep an eye on Arizona wine.

Kilikanoon 2002 Parable shiraz (Weygandt-Metzler, $30)Beautifully pungent and a bit gamy. The fruit plays the backbeat here, with a salty mineral note that leaps forward, and a brush of tannins at the end. It’s Aussie, but there’s so much French soul hidden in here.

Edmunds St. John 2001 Wylie-Fenaughty syrah ($31)The Berkeley, Calif., microwinery excels at channeling French style into California fruit. This ’01 syrah is well-balanced — round, briny and beautifully gamy, with dark, brambly fruit and an herbal note at the end. The fruit is from El Dorado County in northern California, more proof of the potential of as-yet-untapped regions of the Golden State.