The Dark Side of Wines: Syrah or Shiraz

SYRAH


ORIGINS

Syrah is a crossing of more obscure varieties, the red grape Dureza (from the Ardèche region in the Rhone Valley of Southern France) and the white grape Mondeuse Blanche (cultivated in the Savoie, or Savoy, region of Eastern France). It’s birthplace is the famed Hermitage AOC in the northern Rhone, where an almost masculine personality has been associated with the wines produced there. While the origins of the name are still a bit mystified, one possibility is that it hails from the ancient city of “Syracuse” in Sicily where the Greeks ruled in 400 BC – however this has long been disputed with no evidence to back it up.

Syrah is also known as Shiraz in Australia, as the grape was brought to the island by way of South Africa’s Cape of Good Hope in the 17th C. Syrah was also brought to the U.S. in the 1900’s but didn’t find its footing until the 1980’s when rogue Rhone producers began to experiment in California and Washington where you can find spellbinding examples that range the cambit of light-body and low tannin fruity styles in Central California (ex: Piedrasassi Winery) to the more full-body, spicy, & age-worthy styles coming out of Washington (ex: Betz Family Winery).

PRO TIP: Do not confuse this grape with Petite Sirah (also called Durif in Rhone, France), which is a completely different grape and actually comes from the crossing of Syrah and Peloursin back in the 1880’s. More tannic and robust than Syrah, there’s nothing “petite” about it!


CLIMATE

Syrah is a thick skinned grape, so it requires a warmer climate in order to ripen fully. It has dark, almost black-tinged colorings from the thick skin, as well as high tannins which can make well crafted examples age for centuries. If unripened fully, the resulting wine can highlight its signature potent pepper spice character in an almost aggressive manner, which in 2007 was discovered to be a particular aromatic compound called “rotundone” by Australian researchers. 

The best examples are found on hillsides where the varietal can gain maximum sunlight exposure for a longer ripening period, yet retain its acidity with moderating temperatures from bodies of water, winds, diurnal shifts, etc.


STYLE(S)

Single varietal bottlings or Syrah and/or blends predominantly featuring this grape tend to be fuller-bodied, offering dark fruits with medium or high tannins and medium acidity. Typical notes include dark fruit (blackberry, blueberry), smokey and spicy notes (smoked meat, leather, game, black or white pepper, coffee), herbaceousness (olive, rosemary), and sometimes sweet spices (liquorice, dark chocolate). It is common for many Syrahs to have some maturation time with oak to help balance the pungent spicy notes and thick-tannin structure, so additional flavors of vanilla, coconut, & allspice are usually found from this treatment. 

In the two most famous regions where the varietal thrives, unique expressions can be found to help distinguish in a blind tasting:

  • RHONE, FRANCE: black pepper is the trademark flavor of rich, age-worthy Syrahs from Northern Rhone, where single parcel bottlings can mature over several years into complex notes of leather, animal, earth, and spice. Some of the best examples can be found in the extremely expensive area of Hermitage, or the surrounding appellations that are more budget friendly such as Cote Rotie, Crozes-Hermitage, Cote du Rhone, Cornas, St. Joseph.
  • SOUTH AUSTRALIA: the signature note of Australian Syrah is dark chocolate, with warmer vineyard sites that allow more fruit to develop in the grape. Some of the best examples in Australia are found in the hot climates of Hunter Valley, McLaren Vale, and Barossa Valley.

Throughout the world, this grape has become an integral character of the wine world, finding homes in varying moderate climates such as the south of France (Minervois, Languedoc), northern Spain (Priorat, Montsant, Navarra, even Rioja), Italy (Tuscany), South Africa (Paarl, Stellenbosch), New Zealand (Hawke’s Bay), California (Santa Ynez Valley, Santa Barbara, Paso Robles, Napa), Washington State (Yakima, Walla Walla, Red Mountain), Argentina (Mendoza), and Chile (cultivated fame by Errazuriz).


RHONE, FRANCE

Domaine Jean-Louis Chave Ermitage – renown for an estate that humbly dates back to 1841! Depending on the vintage, their “Cuvee Cathelin” can sell for $7k upwards!

AUSTRALIA

Home to some of the oldest Shiraz plantings in the world, Henschke vineyards and Penfolds have found some of the most sought after Shiraz bottlings from Australia.

USA

Sine Qua Non Estate from the Sta Rita Hills in Santa Barbara, Central California – a variety of single varietal bottlings and Syrah-based blends that are so concentrated and well-made there’s only so much to go around, and can fetch prices $600+.


PAIRINGS

  • Lamb – the leathery, sometimes gamey note that can arise in the earthier, French styles of Syrah pair beautifully with the gamey meat of Lamb, even with just a simple salt & pepper seasoning the two inevitably compliment each other in almost every way imaginable (lamb chops, leg of lamb, veal chop).
  • Bold Foods – because Syrah can have such a dominate flavor profile, its best to pair with bolder foods such as BBQ meat, grilled vegetables, mushrooms, potatoes au gratin.
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