A Guide to California Syrah

by JJ Buckley Fine Wines

Bunch of syrah grapes on a vine in the sun

Though Syrah originated in the Rhône Valley of France and has become the most-grown varietal in Australia (where it is called "Shiraz"), its US-grown counterpart shouldn't be overlooked by wine enthusiasts. American Syrah wines are produced in California and Washington state, but California Syrah wine in particular has been enjoying a surge in popularity in recent years—and for good reason. This full-bodied dark red wine comes with a diverse flavor profile, has a strong initial taste, and pairs well with a wide variety of bold-flavored foods.

Syrah grapes have thick skin and, as a result, create one of the darkest, most full-bodied red wines. Syrah usually looks deep purple and has medium-to-high tannins with medium acidity levels. Syrah generally produces an initial strong dark berry flavor, such as blackberry, blueberry, black currant, or black cherry. Additionally, Syrahs are known for having meaty notes, which some compare to beef or bacon. Syrahs often finish with a light spicy or peppery aftertaste.

After decades of growing the Syrah varietal and experiencing some ups and downs, California winemakers have made an international name for themselves in the world of Syrah. California Syrah has a unique history and features flavor profile elements that often mirror those found in Rhône Valley Syrah.

History of California Syrah

Although there is record of Syrah growing in the US as long ago as the 19th century, the varietal didn't become a popular choice for American vintners until the 1970s. At that time, a group of California winemakers who have been playfully called the "Rhone Rangers" began experimenting with grapes popular in the Rhône Valley of France. In addition to Syrah, the Rhône Valley grapes that made their way to the US included Grenache, Mourvedre, and Cinsault. The "Rhone Ranger" trend slowly gained popularity in the 1980s. Then, California Syrah exploded in popularity in the 1990s.

A pest called Phylloxera vastatrix is likely at least partially responsible for paving the way for California Syrah. In the 1990s, this insect devastated many California vineyards, completely destroying acres of grapevines. In a sense, winemakers were given a blank slate in the wake of the Phylloxera vastatrix-caused damage. Many took the opportunity to jump onto the Syrah trend. The numbers show a large increase in Syrah-growing in just one decade. In 1988, California was home to 139 acres of Syrah. By 1998, Syrah grapes covered nearly 7,200 acres in California. By 2000, Syrah was growing on 12,699 California acres.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, California Syrah developed somewhat of a negative reputation. When grown in hot climates, Syrah can taste sweeter and have stronger berry notes. With so many California winemakers producing Syrah, the market became saturated with jammy, high-alcohol Syrah wines. Since then, California Syrahs have changed. Most are not extremely sweet or jam-like. Many are grown in cool-climate areas, which results in a very different wine. As a result, the reputation of California Syrah is once again on the up-and-up. In 2019, Wine Enthusiast wrote that California produces "some of the most sought-after" Syrah available.

California Syrah should not be confused with Petite Sirah, which is also called "Durif" in other parts of the world. It came about in France when the Syrah and Peloursin varietals were cross-bred. Petite Sirah is different from Syrah, though also a Rhône varietal widely grown in California. Petite Sirah is not always regarded as highly as Syrah, which has earned its place alongside Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, and Merlot.

Flavors of California Syrah

Regardless of where a Syrah originates, it's known to have a diverse flavor profile. How long a Syrah has aged greatly impacts its flavor, as does the climate of where it was grown. Lower-cost Syrah is often designed to be opened quickly and might not benefit much from aging. The highest-quality Syrah will benefit from being aged, sometimes for several years. Younger Syrah is likely to be simpler, with strong flavors of dark berry, smoked meats, and spice or pepper. With time, a Syrah becomes more complex, developing a spicy aroma and delivering a broader range of flavors including floral and herbal notes.

In some ways, the California vineyards mirror the Rhône Valley, and the California Syrahs mirror the Rhône Valley Syrahs. The cooler California coastal areas are akin to the cooler Northern Rhône, while the warmer inland areas share a similar climate with the Southern Rhône. Syrah from cooler regions tends to have more pronounced pepper and spice scents and flavors, while Syrah from warmer areas tastes more berry-filled and earthy.

What to Pair with California Syrah

Syrah pairs well with bold foods, making it a favorite of restaurateurs. Syrah is commonly paired with beef, ribs, slow-roasted pork, and smoked or barbecued meats with strong flavors. Similarly, Syrah tends to work well with stronger, smellier cheeses, such as Gouda or blue cheese. Vegetarians can pair Syrah with grilled veggies or something rich like eggplant.

Spices and sauces can also be used to complement the flavors found in Syrah. For example, plum sauce in Asian dishes will bring out the fruitiness of the Syrah. Seasoning food with black pepper or a variety of herbs will draw out the spiciness and herbaceousness of Syrah. Although all Syrah pairs well with flavor-forward foods, cool-climate Syrah pairs better with more delicate foods, while warm-climate Syrah is better suited to the boldest of food flavors.

Let JJ Buckley Find Your Next Syrah

At JJ Buckley, we offer a wide variety of excellent wines to meet all of your needs. Please browse our offerings to find your next Syrah. In addition to California Syrah, we also carry a variety of Syrahs from around the world, including Rhône Syrah and Australian Shiraz.

If you want more information about selecting the perfect California Syrah for you, try our wine consultation service. We will answer any wine-related questions you have and give personalized recommendations about which wines would make the perfect addition to your current wine collection—or pair well with what you're serving at an upcoming social event.