Not too long ago, Syrah couldn’t be considered a contender on the world’s stage of grape varieties. At the time, it was basically the Northern Rhone and Australia which managed to produce such opposing examples of Syrah, that you’d be hard pressed to make the connection. Although Syrah of the Rhone had achieved notoriety through the likes of Hermitage, with its haunting depths and long life in the cellar, these wines were snatched up quickly by a relatively small and devoted following. However, in a short period of time, Syrah has found its way around the world.
Much of this has to do with the Rhone Rangers, originally a small group of American winemakers who took their love of Rhone varieties to the vineyards of the west coast. It took many years to convince consumers of the possibilities Syrah presented in Californian soils and climate, yet their loyal following grew, as did plantings of Rhone Varieties in Washington State, Oregon and even Virginia. Syrah gained the most interest, showing the world that there was a happy medium between the dark, earthy and herbal Rhone versus the rich, almost confectionary Shiraz of Australia. With this, consumers began to look more to Syrah’s origins. Suddenly the Northern Rhone was in the spotlight, yet with nowhere near the production to fill demand.
Today, Syrah is a major contender with expressions spanning from dark earth and structured to the proverbial iron fist in a velvet glove. Many are perfectly suited for early appeal, while others are built for decades of enjoyment. Excellent examples can be found from the United States, France, Australia, Italy, Spain, South Africa and even Israel. You only need know the style you prefer, and my hope is to help you onto that path with a few of my recent favorites listed below.
The Northern Rhone
I suppose the best place to start is at the beginning. Syrah is thought to have originated in the Northern Rhone; grown primarily on two steep hillsides along a short swath of the Rhone river valley. Yet today, you can find excellent examples from throughout the south of France. However, it’s in the Northern Rhone and the designations of Cote Rotie, Hermitage, Crozes Hermitage, St. Joseph and Cornas, where you’ll find a classic expression of Syrah. Hermitage is considered the heights to which this region is capable of. Syrah here speaks of the land, with savory notes, earth and minerals up front, yet with time in the glass, you’ll find mulberry and blackberry fruit. These wines are structured and often hard to understand in their youth—yet well worth the wait, as you can see from a recent taste I had of the 1988 E. Guigal Côte-Rôtie. What’s more, at the table, I can think of nothing better to pair Lamb. The two simply seem to be made for each other.
2011 Michel & Stéphane Ogier Côte-Rôtie – The nose was highly expressive, showing herb-tinged blackberry fruit and road tar with licorice and hints of black pepper. On the palate, it was silky, painting broad strokes of ripe black fruit across the senses. Seamless comes to mind, and focused as well, with a “drink me” personality. Hints of tannin, black pepper and medicinal herbs lingered through the finish. (92 points) (Morrell)
1988 E. Guigal Côte-Rôtie Brune et Blonde – What a stunning performance from the ’88 Guigal Brune et Blonde, as the nose opened with soil and undergrowth, yet quickly gained momentum as plum and herbs were joined by raw meat, animal musk and chalky minerals. On the palate, it was unbelievably rich for its age, yet refined, showing dried berry, citrus rind, savory broth, cracked pepper and dried spice. The medium-length finish was silky-soft. Very nice! (94 points) (Morrell)
California: Central Coast, Sonoma
In my opinion, Syrah in California is capable of producing a perfect synergy between the wines of the Northern Rhone and Australia; and when they do, it’s magical. You can find two distinctly different versions of Syrah here, such as the intensely ripe, high octane style of Jonata or the dark, rich, earthy stylings of Donelan. Many people will argue which is the better wine, yet it’s all a question of taste. For me, it’s the latter of the two, as I seek balance and ageability. Both are rooted firmly in the earth, yet with intense fruit and serious depth. For the beginner, I believe California is the best place to start with Syrah, and you can adjust your fruit-to-earth preferences from there.
2010 Donelan Syrah Cuvée Christine – The nose showed dark fruit, while presenting an attractive woodland persona, as a bouquet of blueberry skin, blackberry, savory herbs, ginger cookie, and hints of pepper lifted from the glass. It flowed effortlessly across the palate in a velvety wave of rich, dark fruit, contrasted by a spine of tingling acidity. Wild berries, lavender, and black pepper came together toward the close and lingered long through the finish. It was remarkably fresh throughout with soothing textures on the palate backed by a balanced structure. A joy to drink. (93 points) (Morrell)
2010 Jonata Winery La Sangre de Jonata – The La Sangre de Jonata was ripe and intense on the nose with crushed blackberry fruit, sweet spice, ginger cookie, violets and rich dark soil. It entered the palate with a wave of velvety textures, coating the senses in blackberry fruit and currant, along with dark chocolate and herbs. An unapologetic whiff of heat was perceptible on the finish, yet with all of the dark fruit concentration, bitters and spice that share its space, I can see the attraction. (92 points) (Morrell)
Is there any grape variety that doesn’t grow well in Tuscany? It took some time for tastings to prove Syrah in Tuscany to me, yet now it’s taken full hold of the region. Originally, these vines were planted to be ultimately blended with Chianti, which is still done to this day. It was only a matter of time before producers realized Syrah’s potential as a varietal wine. What Italy brings to the table is a more acid-driven version of Syrah, with that alluring Tuscan spice and dustiness, which seems to find its way to most wines of the region. Luigi d’Alessandro has done remarkable things with Syrah in the town of Cortona, which seems to get better with each vintage. The only issue here seems to be price, as I’ve yet to find an enjoyable, entry-level bottle under $30.
2008 Tenimenti Luigi d’Alessandro (Manzano) Cortona Syrah Cortona Migliara – The nose was intense with mixed berries and spice, dark chocolate and earthy herbal notes. On the palate, it was aggressive with its concentrated red and black fruits, pepper and teeming acidity that kept it fresh and lively. The finish was long and palate-coating, showing a glimpse of this wine’s structure as the fruit slowly melted away. (94 Points)
The history of Syrah, known as “Shiraz” in Australia, goes back to the mid-1800s. In the United States, the popularity of Shiraz suffered in recent years due to large amounts of overly-ripe and unbalanced wines flooding the market. However, this is a shame, because Australia is capable of producing outstanding examples of Shiraz—some ready to be enjoyed upon release and others with a truly regal structure married to intense fruit. The Two Hands below is a perfect example of the latter. In Australia, you’ll find a thicker, richer, (sometimes) sweeter version of Syrah. Notes of dark chocolate and confectionary spice are often found due to the heat of the region, yet the best of them can also obtain a perfect balance. You can’t go wrong with my suggestion below.
2012 Two Hands Shiraz Bella’s Garden – The aromas reached up from the glass, showing ripe black fruits along with cherry, dusty clove, cinnamon and a hint of cracked pepper. It was poised on the palate, yet with an unbridled intensity lurking beneath a sheen of ripe black fruits, dark chocolate and spice. Dark fruits saturated the senses throughout the finish along with fine grain tannin which promises years of development. (93 points) (Morrell)
If you made it this far, then I hope you’ve also decided to seek out a great Syrah. It’s an amazing grape which often does not receive the recognition it deserves. It can also produce world-class wines, which age for decades in your cellar. I am officially a believer, and I hope I’ve done my part to put you on the path as well.