Grape of the Week: Syrah/Shiraz


Syrah, UC Davis

Since we made a virtual visit to the Rhône last week, with Viognier, we may as well stay in the neighborhood and check out the most important red grape in the region, Syrah, AKA Shiraz.

What to expect
How about a little intensity?  Expect deep, rich, concentrated flavors – nearly black in color – with spice and tannin to spare! The best will still show beautifully 20 years down the road.

Where Pinot Noir is the seductive “gateway” red, Syrah is for the convicted red-wine lover. The exception is the high production/low-end fruity, somewhat sweet versions that come from Australia. But just as White Zin isn’t representative of the best of California’s Zinfandel, these big-box store bargains don’t tell the whole story for Australia. They also produce some magnificent examples! Penfold’s Grange, for instance.

Of course, Shiraz is the name they use for Syrah in Australia. And, don’t let them hear you say “Shih-RAHZ!” They’re quite definite that it’s pronounced “Shih-RAZZ.”

Every variety morphs, a bit, with its environment, but Syrah seems to be more chameleon-like than most. The classic examples from the northern Rhône, in southern France, often show black fruit with earth and minerality plus tar, smoke, peppery spice and even a sort of animal, meaty character. Mixed in with these rather macho descriptors it’s not unusual to notice violet or lavender. Thank heavens it tastes much better than it sounds!

From Australia, you’ll notice much greater fruitiness – ripe blackberry, black plums, licorice, spice and a fair amount of muscle when it’s grown in the warm regions, like the Barossa Valley. Perhaps just a hint of earth, tar and smoke. Like Zinfandel, it can show a wild berry character, but usually to a lesser degree.

Syrah can be very long lived and can be brutally tannic when it’s young so it’s a great candidate for decanting. It’s really interesting to taste it as soon as you pull the cork, and then go back to it periodically after you’ve decanted it.

Southern France. At one time there was a theory that Syrah came to France from Shiraz, Persia around 600 BC, which may account for the Aussie name. Others thought the Romans brought it up from Syracuse, Sicily to the Rhône in the 3rd century AD. In any case, it’s safe to say that it’s quite ancient and it’s generally accepted that southern France is its original home.

TRIVIA! Syrah is the child of two relatively obscure varieties: Dureza and Mondeuse Blanche (a white variety!).

As you know, Syrah, takes very well to blending. In Australia they blend Shiraz with other Rhône varieties, such as Grenache and Mourvedre, but it’s also blended with Bordeaux varieties like Merlot and Cab. In the northern Rhône, the minimum varietal requirement for the reds ranges from 80-100% Syrah (and when blending is permitted, the approved varieties are white!). In the southern Rhône, Syrah is a voice in a chorus of several different varieties.

MORE TRIVIA! A number of new-world wineries have taken a page from Côte Rôtie in the northern Rhône and ferment the inky, black Syrah with a small amount of the floral Viognier (co-fermentation)! When fermented together, the Viognier brings the fruit forward and adds a nice perfume. Oddly enough, even though Viognier is white, rather than washing the color out, as you might expect, it’s believed it helps to fix the dark pigment (co-pigmentation) and add a bit of heft. Better life through chemistry!

Good Eats
A substantial wine calls for substantial foods so grilled meats and sausages are a great match. Slow cooked dishes, too, like short ribs or lamb stew. True to its origin, it’s wonderful with Provencal cuisine – liberal use of wild mushrooms, garlic, olives, lots of herbs and olive oil. The animal/meaty examples are fun to pair with venison and game birds. Dry, aged cheeses like Aged Asiago or Mimolette pair beautifully.

YET MORE TRIVIA One way growers and wine makers gage the maturity of Syrah grapes, aside from the usual sugar, acid, pH and flavor is they expect some of them to look slightly dimpled if they’re really ripe.

Send me your wine question   I’ll get back to you in a jiffy!

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