Why Syrah is My Favorite Variety

Why Syrah is My Favorite Variety

by Fred Swan - Guest Blogger


Another question I often get from both students and consumers is," What's your favorite variety?" That’s easier to answer than questions about what my favorite wine and wine region are. Those send my brain spinning with so many potential answers, I go silent and “Tilt” glows red on my forehead. Despite a world of options, and occasional flirtations with other grapes, I love Syrah.

One reason is visceral—simply a matter of personal taste. Well-made Syrah, almost regardless of style or region, resonates with me. It hits my nose and palate in a way that makes me happy and keeps me interested. 

I also like that Syrah is an underdog, wine you have to seek out. I wind up drinking more Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Chardonnay, because they are ubiquitous, inescapable. But, I often think wistfully of Syrah while I do.

Here are five more reasons Syrah is my favorite. 

  1. Syrah is versatile, making excellent wine in a broad range of styles. 
  2. Syrah changes dramatically with climate.
  3. Syrah often provides great complexity. 
  4. Syrah almost always shows some savory characteristics along with the fruit.
  5. Syrah ages magnificently

The Many Wine Styles of Syrah

The best-known Syrah styles are dry, red, varietal wines. Their character varies substantially with climate and winemaker intent. There are dozens of excellent producing regions, including Cote-Rotie, Hermitage, Crozes-Hermitage, St. Joseph, Cornas, Barossa Valley, Eden Valley, Clare Valley, Yarra Valley, Sonoma Coast, Petaluma Gap, Napa Valley, Mendocino Ridge, Paso Robles, Edna Valley, Santa Maria Valley, Ballard Canyon, The Rocks District of Milton-Freewater, Columbia Valley, Rogue Valley, Gimblett Gravels, Stellenbosch, and Swartland.

SyrahThe vineyards of Cote Rotie are on terraces carved by the Romans into the steep, granite slopes.

The amount of new oak barrels used dry, red Syrah runs from 100% to none at all, further differentiating the wines. [Oak usage is one key difference between Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon varietals. The latter is almost always made with some amount of new oak.]

Because Syrah plays nice with others, it factors in many blends. In the Northern Rhone growing regions, it never appears with other red grapes, but often co-ferments with Viognier, Marsanne, and/or Roussanne. In the Southern Rhone, Syrah generally plays an important, but secondary role, supplementing Grenache in red blends from places such as Chateauneuf-du-Pape and GIgondas. This same blending profile, in which Mourvedre typically plays a tertiary part, is common almost everywhere in warm New World regions where Syrah is grown. In other parts of the world, especially Australia, Syrah is often combined with Cabernet Sauvignon.

100% Syrah rosé can be compelling, if relatively uncommon. Sometimes it’s picked ripe for the Saignée method, yielding a full, fruity wine with intense color. When harvested while still crisp and bright for direct-press rosé, the color and alcohol are light and flavors include a lot of herbal and floral notes. 

Sparkling Shiraz is one of my favorite wines and a style I think is too often overlooked. [Shiraz and Syrah are synonym’s, with the former used extensively in Australia and South Africa.] When made using the traditional sparkling method, the wines are boldly fruity but also distinctly savory. The alcohol is moderate, typically about 13.5%. The best versions have no more than a food-friendly kiss of sweetness and drink like a dry, but festive, table wine. Some new oak influence is common. These wines, like the best still Syrah, can age well for 15+ years.

Syrah-based dessert wine is uncommon. However, some New World producers offer Late Harvest Syrah that is off-dry. More common are fortified wines from Syrah in the style of Port. 

Syrah’s Climatic Personalities and Complex Flavor Profiles

Syrah ripens more readily than Cabernet Sauvignon, so Syrah can do well in cooler climates and soils. In places such as the Northern Rhone, very cool and foggy parts of the Sonoma Coast, and Mendocino Ridge, the wines are medium-bodied with moderate alcohol, good acidity, and a plethora of non-fruit flavors, including mineral, herbal, floral, vegetal, meaty, and spicy notes. The wines may show the signature of whole-cluster fermentation, but rarely new oak. The fruit is bright or savory.

Syrah also tolerates warmth fairly well and can thrive in regions where Pinot Noir would make gooey, low-acid plonk. In regions such as Paso Robles and Barossa Valley, Syrah can be full-bodied and loaded with dark, jammy fruit framed by velvety tannins. Despite the ripeness, fruity notes can be balanced by highlights of bacon fat, licorice, or black olive. Syrah in warm regions can work well with, but doesn’t require, new oak.

The Rocks District of Milton-Freewater AVA comes by it's name honestly. The "soil" is a deep layer of well-draining rock deposited by torrents of water at the end of the last ice age.

Aging Syrah

Not every Syrah ages well. Many of the ripest versions are best shortly after release and don’t hold up for more than seven years or so. But when Syrah is well-balanced with meaningful tannins, a strong core of fruit, and the right amount of acidity, it can gain complexity, sophistication, and grace for 30 years or more.

The capacity to age isn’t limited limited to one climate type. Top wines from the cool, Old World denominations of Cote-Rotie and Hermitage do extremely well. So do the best wines from geographies that are quite warm, such as the Barossa Valley. There are also fabulous, age-worthy wines from moderate climates such as Yarra Valley  and Santa Maria Valley.

Conclusion

I love Syrah for it’s blend of fruit and savoriness, it’s complexity, ability to age, and transparency to terroir. But there’s another great thing about Syrah. Because of its underdog status, it often offers great value. Of course there are iconic, rare and extremely high-scoring Syrah that retail for several hundred dollars per bottle. But there are many delicious, age-worthy examples available for less than $50.


Some Syrah of Different Styles to Try

2013 Penfolds Grange —Penfolds Grange is the most iconic Syrah of Australia and the most prominent example of Syrah blended with a bit of Cabernet Sauvignon. And it ages... the wine has a 40-year drinking window.

2016 Melville Syrah Estate — Superlative, cool-climate Syrah from Santa Barbara County, Melville is rich on the palate, but always fresh and never heavy. Melville doesn't use any new oak, so all the flavors are grown in the vineyard. It's a tremendous value and will age for at least a decade.

2015 Shafer Vineyards Relentless — Famous for their Hillside Select Cabernet Sauvignon, Shafer is just as good at Syrah. Relentless is a full-throttled, Napa Valley wine, but remains fabulously savory.

2015 Guigal Cote Rotie la Turque — One of Guigal's famous "La La" vineyard designates from the Northern Rhone's Cote Rotie, this absolutely stunning wine has to be tasted to be believed. This vintage got 100 points from virtually everyone who can both taste and type.

2015 Guigal Cote Rotie la Mouline — While you're at it... From a different vineyard and with different character, but just as good. 

2016 Paul Jaboulet Aine Hermitage la Chapelle — Moving south in the Northern Rhone, you'll find Hermitage on the Left Bank. Jaboulet la Chapelle is a standard for benchmark, yet accessible, wines from that revered hilltop.

2016 Auguste Clape Cornas Renaissance —Further south still lies savory, smoky Cornas.

2013 Tenimenti Luigi d'Alessandro Il Bosco Cortano Syrah — While Italy's Super Tuscan wines are primarily associated with blends of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Sangiovese, Syrah is increasingly in the mix, especially  in varietal wines.

2014 Lucia Vineyards Syrah Soberanes Vineyard — The Santa Lucia Highlands in California's Monterey County is best-known for Chardonnay and, especially, Pinot Noir. But, it's arguably even better for lip-smacking, cool-climate Syrah. The Soberanes Vineyard is one of the best vineyards there, co-owned by the Pisoni family. Lucia is their brand for non-Pisoni Vineyard fruit.

2013 Ramey Rodgers Creek Vineyard Syrah — One of my favorite California Syrah, David Ramey makes it beautifully from fruit of the very cool and windy Petaluma Gap AVA.

2016 Force Majeure Force Majeure Red Mountain Syrah — Washington State has become a force in powerful Rhone- and Bordeaux-variety wines from its very warm, dry growing regions east of the Cascade Mountains. The Red Mountain AVA, nested within the massive Columbia Valley AVA, is one of the most sought-after appellations and Force Majeure is at the forefront of quality.

2004 R Wines Chris Ringland 'FU' Shiraz — Stunning, decadent, yet impossibly well-balanced.


JJ Buckley guest blogger Fred Swan is a San Francisco-based wine writer, educator, and authority on California wines and wineries. His writing  appears in The Tasting Panel, SOMM Journal, GuildSomm.com, Daily.SevenFifty.com, PlanetGrape.com, and his own site, FredSwan.Wine (formerly NorCalWine). He teaches at the San Francisco Wine School. He's founder of Wine Writers' Educational Tours, an annual, educational conference for professional wine writers. He also leads private wine tours and conducts tastings and and seminars. Fred’s certifications include WSET Diploma, Certified Sommelier, California Wine Appellation Specialist, Certified Specialist of Wine, French Wine Scholar, Italian Wine Professional, Napa Valley Wine Educator, Northwest Wine Appellation Specialist, and Level 3 WSET Educator. He's twice been awarded a fellowship by the Symposium for Professional Wine Writers.