QUE SYRAH, SYRAH

Enjoy the unique notes of this full-bodied red wine, made from a dark-skinned variety of grapes.

By Matthew Debord

Today, Syrah is a popular style of red wine, especially Australia’s version, called Shiraz. But that wasn’t always the case. For many years it was an offbeat, connoisseur’s choice. To find the good stuff, you needed sources in France, where Syrah is one of the key grape varieties cultivated in the Rhône region.

As Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Chardonnay — the big three of French wine varietals — gained traction in California in the 1970s and 1980s, a small group of renegade winemakers developed an interest in Syrah. Their case was bolstered by the powerful wine critic Robert Parker Jr., a serious Rhône fan who put that region back on the international wine map and inspired a quest for great Syrah in the U.S.A.

What followed was a mixed blessing. California vintners had scored an unexpected win with Pinot Noir, a prickly grape that went into France’s astounding Burgundies but that also had a reputation for being very, very difficult. Reliably excellent Pinots from California changed that predicament (even if they weren’t as complex as their Gallic counterparts), but they also suggested that the Golden State could do no wrong.

Through Australia’s popularization of Shiraz, a rich-and-juicy style of this wine became the consumer norm. But in California, while Syrahs were on the whole riper than in France, they could also vary widely in character depending on where they were produced.

Cabernet and Merlot can exhibit offbeat flavors, and Pinot Noir relies on them. But Syrah can taste downright weird. It’s not unusual to encounter rich, dark fruit alongside wonderful tannic and acidic structure, but with undercurrents of funky soil, leather, herbs, minerals and other rustic aspects.

There’s a reason these at-times rather rustic reds appealed to those who were in the know.

Nowadays, after the Syrah boomlet, the wines have settled into a pleasant middle age in California. They’ll never challenge lordly Cabernet, but they have their devoted fans. These folks understand that California Syrahs are great wines to drink with autumnal fare — stuff like lamb stews, grilled game birds and cuts of beef that aren’t the butcher’s most expensive.

A Syrah that’s worth tracking down is the reasonably priced and consistently excellent Bonny Doon Bien Nacido Vineyard, “X-Block,” with the 2014 vintage being the most current (and sadly the last from this winemaker, a Syrah pioneer). At $50, it’s a steal.

A personal favorite that’s about half the price of the Bonny Doon legend is Qupe’s $24 example. It isn’t as complicated, but it’s a good introduction to the California style. I used to buy it all the time as a wine to bring to dinner parties when I lived in Los Angeles.

Slightly cheaper and easier to find nationwide is the J. Lohr South Ridge Syrah, at about $15. This is a nice bottle to uncork if grilled sausages are on the menu.

I don’t recommend going much below that level, price-wise. Because California Syrah isn’t as popular as Cabernet and Merlot, your best bet for quality is to spend up rather than down. Fortunately, the producers selling in the $30-$50 range are so committed that it’s a happy hunting ground for enthusiasts. In fact, you might find yourself looking at those expensive Cabs and deciding that upmarket Syrahs are a much better bet.

Plus, while you can drink Syrahs right away, they tend to like a bit of age. Not a lot of age, mind you, but a few years in bottle. This time allows the fruit to mellow and blend with the more intricate elements, and it also takes off some of the rustic edge.

I find that laying down bottles yields the best results if the Syrah in question has fairly ample fruit to begin with. Syrahs that are on the lighter side, as they can be from California sub-regions that have cooler climates, don’t have enough fruity oomph to stand up to the funky undercurrents. So when the fruit declines, green, herbal notes and tar-like aspects can become too prominent, and the oak that the wine was barrel-aged in can also get out of hand.

The best thing about Syrah really is its overall lack of popularity. Cabernet gets all the serious attention in California, so you can pick up a bottle of the aforementioned Bonny Doon Bien Nacido for a price that would barely get you an entry-level prestige Napa Cab. Heck, a case of Bien Nacido will set you back just $600; the same money buys you just three bottles of the top Robert Mondavi Cabernet. You can also stock up on a great Syrah going back to the 2011 vintage.

I mean, honestly, I think I might buy a few bottles myself! It’s hard to keep secrets like this, and you never know when California Syrah will mount another comeback.



 

MATTHEW DeBORD, a native of Huntington, is a former associate editor at Wine Spectator magazine and the author of several books on wine. He currently resides in New York City and is the senior editor for the Transportation & Lifestyle section of Business Insider —­ a business, celebrity and technology news website.

 

return to articles menu