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Wine of the Day

Syrah (Shiraz)

Though many believe this dark grape to have originated in Persia, it first made a name for itself in the barrels of France’s Northern Rhone and is probably actually native to France, being a cross of the fairly obscure Dureza and Mondeuse Blanche. There, it is the dominant varietal in the red wines of every AC and today is one of the world’s most popular wine grapes with roughly 350,000 acres planted. More than half of that is in France.

It also plays a significant role in Southern Rhone blends with Grenache and others. It is increasingly used in Languedoc-Roussillon too. Outside of France, it’s largest presence is in Australia and California. However, it is making headway in South Africa, Spain, Washington (Red Mountain in particular) and southern Oregon.

Syrah produces very darkly colored wines that are often completely opaque and leave color on the sides of a glass after swirling. These full-bodied wines are usually high in alcohol and can also have strong tannins. Dark fruit flavors, such as blackberry, black current and plum, are common along with black and/or white pepper, dark spice, dried herb and anise. The wines are usually oaked but, even without that, a light woody flavor can sometimes be found.

The aromas lean more toward the earthy and spicy. Musk, game, and leather notes are common. The barrel influence can sometimes be strong, especially with American oak. This will lend not just oaky flavors, but also coconut, vanilla, chocolate, espresso, smoke, and tar.

Many Syrah-based wines age extremely well in bottle and take on significant complexity. When consumed young, some of the heavily oaked wines initially smell and taste more of barrel than wine. A substantial amount of decanting can help the fruit and other subtler flavors emerge in this case.

In Australia, it is widely grown, but some of the most sought after Shiraz (as it is called there) comes from the Barossa Valley, McClaren Vale and Coonawarra. There are also good wines produced from Hunter Valley and Margaret River fruit. The most iconic, and expensive, Shiraz are Penfolds Grange and Henschke Hill of Grace ($750 in it’s latest release). Both tremendous wines with the ability to age many decades, the wines are of different styles but both offer amazing complexity, length and hallmark Syrah characteristics.

At the opposite end of the spectrum are some of the very inexpensive Shiraz based on grapes over-plump from massive irrigation and over-ripe from too much heat. These wines, many featuring animals on their labels, can be very sweet and simple with few distinct Syrah characteristics in evidence. Fortunately, there are many excellent Shiraz and Shiraz blends at a variety of price points in between these two extremes.

In California, the wines are usually called Syrah. But, sometimes they are now called Shiraz in deference to the marketing success of the Australian wines in the United States. Widely grown in California, the character of the wine varies substantially based on terroir, climate and winemaker intent. Much Syrah is bottled as a standalone varietal. However, it is sometimes blended with other grapes, such as Grenache, Mourvedre and even Viognier, in Rhone-style blends or in a distinctly New World style with Cabernet Sauvignon.

In the warmer areas of Northern California, the wine is bigger in body, higher in alcohol and full of heady dark fruit, licorice and game. In the cooler areas, the pepper, spice, more restrained berries and aromas of violet can shine through. Areas where Syrah does especially well include the Central Coast, Napa Valley, Mendocino County, Lake County and the Carneros portion of Sonoma County. However, there are also good examples from areas farther east such as Lodi and the Sierra Foothills.

The Syrah Napa Valley IX Estate from Colgin is routinely a top-rated wine that exemplifies what most Northern California producers strive for. It’s also pretty expensive. Dumol produces excellent Syrah from Russian River fruit. Also try the Skylark Rodgers Creek Vineyard Sonoma County Syrah. However, these are just examples. There are many really good Syrah being produced in Northern California at a very wide range of price points and styles. Some people feel that the area may ultimately be known more for Syrah than Cabernet Sauvignon, but that is still a long way off.