The legend of Syrah begins in Persia, with a grape growing near the city of Shiraz. The first version of the legend has the grape brought to France over 2000 years ago, perhaps by the Phoenicians or the Roman legions. The second version has the grape being brought to the Rhone Valley buy a returning knight of the crusades, Chevalier Guy de Sterimberg who planted the grapes on the hillside he made his home as a hermit. Indeed, the hill is now called Hermitage, and Syrah grows on its slopes. Over the years, the French language transmuted the word Shiraz into Syrah, reflecting the phonetic spelling in French. The second half of the legend has an immigrant to Australia bringing vine cuttings with him, and planting the grape down under. In Australia, the "original" spelling of Shiraz has been restored, but being Australians, they pronounce it as she-razz. Unfortunately for all of the legends of Persia, Phoenicians, Knights of the Crusades, Hermits, etc. modern science has determined that Syrah/Shiraz is a crossing of two old French varieties, Dureza and Mondeuse Blanc, that probably originated in the northern Rhone Valley. Whether you choose the charming legend or the cold, hard DNA analysis, Syrah/Shiraz is undoubtedly one of the world's greatest wine grapes! It is increasingly popular, with worldwide vineyard area increasing from less than 25,000 acres in the early 1980s to over 350,000 acres today.
From Grape to Bottle - Syrah/Shiraz in the Vineyard and Winery
In the vineyard, Syrah is thought of as an easy grape to grow. It grows well in a variety of soils, whether granitic Rhone Valley, limestone and clay Australian, or volcanic American, as long as the soil has good drainage. It is a late budding and flowering variety, keeping it safe from spring frosts. Syrah is not susceptible to many diseases the vine, and only mold presents a problem during the growing season. It is a mid to early ripening variety, and so long as the climate is reasonably warm, a reliable crop may be expected. It is a productive vine, and care must be taken not to fall into the temptation of over cropping, or the resulting flavors become dull and it can pick up unpleasant rubbery and chemical aromas.
In the winery, Syrah is a fairly simple wine for the winemaker. The fruit is crushed, and the juice and solids are put together in the fermentation vessel. During fermentation the mass of pulp and skins rises to the top of the fermenting wine, forming a cap, which is either punched down into the juice, or the juice is pumped over the top, so that extraction of the color and flavor from the skins continues. Syrah in general does better with longer, cooler fermentations, which preserve the intense fruit character of the grape. When the yeast has consumed all of the sugar, and fermentation stops, the pulp and skins are left in the must for a period of from a few days up to a few weeks, depending on how much extraction of flavors is desired. The wine is then run off the solids, and the solids pressed to extract the remaining wine. Syrah is usually then aged in oak barrels, which help to soften the fairly intense tannin of the grape, and to mellow the fruit, helping secondary aromas and flavors to develop.
In the Glass - The Flavors of Syrah/Shiraz
Syrah has deep color, which can range from a violet to purple to black. It is almost always quite full bodied, and carries an alcoholic warmth. As a young wine, its aromas and flavors are intense, and center on two foci, fruit and spice. In warmer climates, a strong fruit character of blackberry and cassis tends to predominate, while in cooler climates an intense black pepper character can be found. While Syrah is doubtlessly a very tannic grape, its tannins, particularly in warmer climates, tend to be soft and very ripe, lacking the harshness found in young Cabernet. Often overlaying these primary aromas are vanilla and oak flavors from barrel aging. As with other great red grapes, with age, an entire new series of flavors emerge. The fruit and spice characters meld together, and aromas of fall leaves, cedar, sandalwood, dried fruit and smoked meats can develop. An aged Syrah can often give the distinct aroma of cured ham or bacon in the nose.
On the Table - Syrah/Shiraz and Food
With its richness, power, and intensity, Syrah is not a wine for delicate foods. It is, rather, a great choice for intensely flavored dishes and rich meats. Along with Cabernet, it is the natural pair with beef and lamb, especially preparations with strong sauces, or grilled over wood or charcoal. It also pairs well with rich stews, cassoulet, and sausages, especially those with a strong spice component. Where Syrah's intensity and richness really shine, however, is with game meats. Elk, venison, and wild boar all have rich, earthy flavors that pair well with the flavors of Syrah. The biggest, most intense Syrahs have jokingly been called the perfect match for the mythical dish "Wild Boar Tartare". Syrah is not a traditional partner for cheeses, but it does work well with hearty English Cheddar, a wide range of sheep's milk cheeses, alpine cheeses, and lighter blue cheeses.
The Geography of Syrah/Shiraz - Where It Grows, and Grows Well
With 170,000 acres of Syrah vineyards, France has almost half of the world's acreage, most of it planted in the last 20 years in the Languedoc and Provence. The home for Syrah, however, is in the Rhone Valley, where the grape has been dominant for centuries. Syrah is the most important grape in the Rhone Valley, particularly in the northern part of the valley. The two appellations of Hermitage and Cote Rotie are the archetypal sources of great Syrah. On these two hillsides the fame of Syrah is based. Hermitage is generally the denser, more mineral laced wine with more tannin. Cote Rotie tends to be showier, often showing the bacon/smoked meat character. The other appellations of the northern Rhone, Cornas, Saint Joseph, and Crozes-Hermitage are also sources of fine Syrah. Of these, Saint Joseph and Crozes-Hermitage are the lighter wines, while top level Cornas can approach the level of the big two.
In the southern Rhone Valley, while Syrah is still of great importance, it is in its role as a part of a blend with Grenache, Cinsault, and Mourvedre. It is rare for any wine from the southern Rhone to be exclusively Syrah, and in most cases, Grenache and Mourvedre are larger components than Syrah. The Syrah component, however, is very important to the final product, and should not be overlooked. The wines of Chateauneuf du Pape, Gigondas, Vacqueyras, Lirac, the Cotes du Rhone, Cotes du Ventoux, and Cotes du Luberon all rely on contributions from the Syrah grape. The rosé wines of Tavel and the Cotes du Rhone also depend on Syrah in their makeup.
All across the south of France, in Provence and Languedoc, Syrah is increasingly being grown. Although it is sometimes bottled as a single varietal, but more often in a blend with its Rhone partners of Grenache, Cinsault and Mourvedre under a variety of appellation names. Corbieres, Minervois, Faugeres, Coteaux du Languedoc, and Cotes du Roussillon are all regions within the Languedoc where Syrah may be in the blend, although not in every wine produced in these regions. In Provence, Syrah may or may not be found in wines from Aix, Les Baux, Coteaux Varois, or the Cotes de Provence.
The Rest of Europe
Italy has some small acreage of Syrah, primarily in Tuscany where it is used in the production of some of the so called Super Tuscan wines. Sometimes it is bottled as 100% Syrah like Fontodi's Case Via or d'Alessandro's il Bosco, or in a blend with other varieties like Antinori's Guado al Tasso. Syrah is now joining its Rhone cousins Grenache, Mourvedre, and Carignan in the Spanish vineyard. Often blended with its cousins, but increasingly bottled as a single varietal, it may be found from scattered locations all over Spain-La Mancha, Jumilla, Tarragona, Duero, Montsant, Priorat. Elsewhere in Europe there is very little Syrah grown.
In Australia, under its alternative name Shiraz, there are vast and widespread plantings of Syrah. In the 1980s Australia was digging up old Shiraz vineyards and replanting them to Chardonnay and Cabernet. With the "discovery" of Shiraz in the mid to late 1990s, that trend has reversed. In 1995 there were about 140,000 acres of all types of grapes in Australia. Today, there are over 90,000 acres of Shiraz alone. The center both in quantity and quality of Shiraz in Australia is the state of South Australia. The famous winegrowing regions of South Australia owe their fame in large part to the quality of Shiraz coming from the Clare Valley, McLaren Vale, Padthaway, Coonawarra, Eden Valley, and most especially, the Barossa Valley. These South Australian vineyards as the source for the fruit for the great Aussie Shiraz names of Penfold's Grange, Elderton, Two Hands, Henschke, Henry's Drive, Jim Barry, Shirvington, d'Arenberg, Marquis Philips, and more. South Australia produces over half of the red wine made in Australia, and an even greater percentage of the top quality wine, so it is natural that it should take the lead in world class Shiraz. However, quality Shiraz is found in almost all of the winegrowing states. Victoria ranks second in production of significant Shiraz, with most of the finer examples coming from vineyards in the Bendigo, Goulburn Valley, Geelong, Heathcote, and Grampians districts. In New South Wales, the Hunter Valley is the source for the best Shiraz. In Western Australia Shiraz has taken a secondary role to Cabernet, but there are still fine Shiraz to be found there, as well. Tasmania is not a significant producer of Shiraz. As well as the many great monovarietal bottlings of Shiraz found in Australia, there is a wealth of Shiraz blends to be explored. Shiraz may be found blended with almost any combination of Cabernet, Merlot, Grenache, or Mourvedre.
Ten years there were only about 1,500 acres of Syrah in California, mostly the result of the 1980s "Rhone Ranger" movement. With the rise in popularity keyed by Australian Shiraz, Californians began a planting frenzy, and now there are over 16,000 acres under Syrah vines. A significant portion of this has been planted in the Central Valley, and will not likely be making much in the way of memorable wine. On the other hand, in many of the coastal counties from Santa Barbara north to Mendocino, these new plantings are bearing fruit and displaying the capacity of Syrah in California. While it is too early in the history of Syrah in California to identify clear regional differences, it is clear which areas are producing sizable quantities of world class wine. The central coast of California is the home to many of the original "Rhone Rangers" who first began planting Rhone Valley varieties. The most acreage planted is in San Luis Obispo County. Here, producers like Alban, Copains, Justin, l'Aventure, and Clos Mimi have made both straight Syrah bottlings, as well as blends with other Rhone varieties and Cabernet, that have been very well received. In Santa Barbara County, Ojai, Beckmen, Qupe, Andrew Murray, and Fess Parker are among the wineries producing delicious, beautifully defined Syrah. North of San Francisco, Syrah is found in Napa, Sonoma, and Mendocino Counties, with Sonoma taking the lead in acreage. Arrowood, Martinelli, Edmunds St. John, Ridge, and more have shown the great qualities of Sonoma Syrah. In Napa, where Cabernet reigns, there has been less Syrah grown, but the wines of Araujo, Neyers, and Jade Mountain are testimony to the ability of Napa fruit to produce stunning Syrah. The use of Shiraz as a name is legal, and is increasing, primarily in the less than ten dollar range, using Central Valley fruit. Most of the better quality Syrah is labeled as Syrah, although there are some producers of serious wine who use the Shiraz name.
Washington has developed a rapidly growing reputation for world class Syrah. The characteristic of Washington Syrah is a bit more acidity and restrained style than Australia or California, more in the style of the Rhone Valley. Owen Roe, Cayuse, Copains, Chateau Ste. Michelle, Columbia Crest, and a bevy of new small wineries are proving that Syrah may well be the star of Washington. A few Syrahs of quality have come from Oregon, made with fruit from vineyards either on the south side of the Columbia River, opposite Washington state, or from the Rogue Valley in the southwestern part of the state. Oregon's best known growing region, the Willamette Valley, is dominated by Pinot Noir, and has not been the source of Syrah.
South Africa is now the fourth largest Syrah producer, and while SA Syrah is still relatively scarce, those that have been available show good flavor and character. Recent years have seen a flurry of Syrah planting in Chile and especially Argentina, both of which would seem to be good climates for the grape. Not many wines have yet been seen from here, but the few Chilean Syrahs that have made it into the marketplace show promise. New Zealand would seem to be too cool.