Syrah, often called Shiraz in the Southern Hemisphere, is one of the world’s most historic noble grapes. Recent testing shows that Syrah, originated in France’s Rhone Valley, where it has continued to create some of the world’s best wines since Roman times. The name Shiraz, is thought to be linked to a city in present-day Iran, an area where some of the world’s first viticulture was practiced. Although Syrah and Shiraz are exactly the same grape, these labeling differences are often an indicator of a differing wine style as well. Whereas French examples are often medium-bodied, with bright, fresh fruits and intense herbal and savory tones, Australian versions are almost always full-bodied, with jammy black fruit character dominating accented by notes of chocolate and molasses. There are certainly exceptions to this rule, and compelling bottlings in a range of styles also come from locales such as South Africa, California, and Washington State.
Perhaps this wide range of styles is one reason that Syrah has not gained great favor in the marketplace the way some other grapes have in recent years. While California saw a huge surge in plantings of Syrah over the last twenty years, the wines have been a tough sell. Perhaps wine drinkers associate it with the cheap stuff coming out of large tracts of land in Australia, the so-called “critter wines,” (namely Yellow Tail). In the restaurant dining room, Syrahs from the Rhone Valley too can definitely be a “hand sell,” not something the guest is looking for when they come in, but definitely something that makes them happy if I am able to talk them into it. Whether it is grown in a warm climate and crafted into a rich, decadent, fruit-forward powerhouse, or grown in a much cooler environment leading to a medium-bodied frame fill with intensely savory aromas, Syrah is one of the most attractive grapes out there. Its aromas are fragrant, even heady. Its texture is suave, with smooth, silky tannins. Here are a few examples that are helping bring Syrah’s sexy back.
Brash Higgins Shiraz “SHZ”, McClaren Vale, Australia 2014
$37 (Australian) @ Brashhiggins.com, imported locally by Grandes Place Selections
Brad Hickey was one of New York’s top sommeliers before heading to South Australia to gain some experience working harvest. He fell in love with a local winemaker, and has since become a rising star in Australian wine. The fruit for this wine comes from the Omensetter Vineyard that he and his wife Nicole own together. This shows deep plummy fruit and is very spice-driven with paprika and turmeric accents. His nickname is definitely spot-on.
Rene Rostaing “Les Lezardes”, Collines Rhodaniennes, Rhone, France 2013
$36.98 @ vintagewinemerchants.com
While the exact origens of Syrah remain unclear, its undisputed first home was in the Northern Rhone Valley of France. Grown on steep, granite slopes, the grape reaches unparalled levels of intensity. Intense fruit, intense florals, intense earth. For years I have loved the wines of Rene Rostaing for their effortless balance. Not too fruity, not too earthy, not too rustic, not too polished. Although he is based in the prestigious (and expensive) Cote Rotie growing area, the vines for this bottling sit just outside the boundary. Here, you get great terroir and tremendous winemaking prowess, but at a much more approachable price.
Ambyth Syrah, Paso Robles, CA 2012
$45 @ www.ambythestate.com
Phillip Hart has become one of the leading producers of Biodynamic, uber-natural wines in California. This is about as close to old-fashioned, rustic, slightly stinky (in a good way) French winegrowing as you can get in California. It also shows the classic notes of French syrah...red plum, smoked meat, and cracked green peppercorns.
Cruse Syrah “Charles Heintz”, Sonoma Coast, Ca 2014
$32 @ crusewineco.com
The 2014 vintage is sold out, so make sure to contact Michael Cruse via the website to get in line for the next release from this famed vineyard. While the Sonoma Coast parcel has long been appreciated for the Chardonnay and Pinot Noir fruit grown, the Syrah coming from this cool climate maintains optimal freshness and vibrant floral aromas. This is an exciting, passionate producer to watch grow in California.