rich mauro the people's palate

Featured Image courtesy of Niner Wine Estates

Syrah is one of the world’s great red wine grapes but for some reason it has languished in the shadow of cabernet sauvignon, merlot and more recently Pinot Noir. I hope that changes soon; the grape deserves the attention.

At its best, wines made from syrah provide great concentration, complexity and elegance, with an array of aromas and flavors, including berries, cherries, plum, currants, black or white pepper, anise, meat, leather, herbs, chocolate and coffee, and an ability to develop for 10, even 20 years. Even a lower priced syrah will deliver forward fruit and a smooth texture that is just right for everyday drinking.

Syrah also is a good food wine. It matches well with any dish that calls for a full flavored red wine, especially if it’s grilled, roasted, smoked or barbecued. It also stands up well to spicy foods.

Syrah developed its noble reputation as the primary red grape of France‘s northern Rhone Valley, especially the great Hermitage but also Côte-Rôtie, Cornas, Gigondas, St. Joseph, and Crozes-Hermitage. Syrah also can be an important component of the wines of the southern Rhone, including Chateauneuf-du-Pape and Cotes-du-Rhone, as well as many other wines of southern France.

In Hermitage especially the special nature of syrah originates with geography and climate. Steep, terraced vineyards stretch up and down granite hillsides rising above the Rhone River. Over millennia the river has carried alluvial deposits from the Alps laced with calcareous (limestone) and dotted with flint and stones. Cooler Continental influences from the north merge with warmer Mediterranean influences up from the south. The resulting strong winds – known as Mistral – are an ever-present challenge to the vines.

Hermitage, which actually is just a few hilltops, is a tiny appellation – just 320 acres, not much more than many Bordeaux estates. This famous hill got its name from a legend about a knight returning from the Crusades who decided to live out his life in solitude in the chapel on the top of the hill. After his passing, the chapel continued as a home for hermits.

Many believe syrah achieves its noblest expression here, where all the red wines are 100% syrah. M. Chapoutier’s is one of the top producers, along with great names like Chave, Jaboulet and Delas. The Chapoutier family’s history in the Rhône stretches back two centuries. Today they make some of the region’s most prestigious wines and are one of the world’s most highly regarded producers. The 2007 “Monier de la Sizeranne” ($125) is in many ways typical of great Hermitage: deep color, intense aromatics (red and black fruits – raspberry, blackcurrant, blackberry – hints of violets, black pepper and licorice). There also are suggestions of the signature meaty character that should become more pronounced with age. But it is so balanced it actually could be described as elegant. Strong but soft tannins and a lingering finish suggest a long life.

Although France is the benchmark for syrah, Australia deserves a lot of the credit for increasing the grape’s popularity. Australia has over the last 150 years or so developed a special relationship with syrah. Australian Shiraz has become one of the largest selling wines in the U.S. in recent years, popularizing the use of that name on the label. The Aussies produce a lot of good, inexpensive wine but also some of the world’s best wines from the grape.

And not that it necessarily needs it but what better validation of Australia’s success with the grape than for Michel Chapoutier to commit his family to a partnership with the wine importer Anthony Terlato to produce wine here. Their 2007 Domaine Terlato & Chapoutier “lieu dit Malakoff” ($30) single vineyard wine shows its mountain-grown origins in the Pyrenees of Central Victoria. Aromas of black fruits, with touches of chocolate and pepper preview a juicy intensity and solid but silky structure.

The Barossa Valley, just north of Adelaide in South Australia has emerged as arguably the country’s premier Shiraz producer. If you like big, unabashed wines, the 2010 Two Hands “Gnarly Dudes” ($40) is for you. Within little more than a decade, Two Hands has become one of Australia’s most highly praised producers. While they source grapes from various vineyards throughout South Australia, the grapes for Gnarly Dudes come from a number of Barossa parcels, notable for their gnarly old vines. Cocoa, anise and a floral note accent this wine’s dark berries, all delivered with vibrant acidity, with a finish balanced by firm but fine tannins.

I also have identified two good Aussie choices that will take half the bite out of your pocketbook.

The 2010 The Lucky Country McLaren Vale ($19) is from the coastal area south of Adelaide that was first planted in 1838 and still boasts many old vines. The wine is typical Mc Laren Vale with vibrant dark fruits, in this case especially blackberry, hints of mocha, herbal, soil characteristics, and a touch of meat and spice.

Or try another Barossa Shiraz, like the 2009 Peter Lehman ($17). This well regarded winery has been producing for 31 years using mostly fruit purchased from dozens of growers with long-term relationships. The result here is an immediately approachable wine of plum, meat and chocolate aromas followed by a juicy, fresh palate.

Australia’s southern hemisphere neighbor South Africa has emerged in recent years as a fine wine producer well worth attention. And Shiraz definitely is one of the country’s top red wines. The 2006 Rust en Vrede Stellenbosch ($28) would be a great place to start sampling what the country has to offer. The Rust en Vrede estate dates to 1694! And Stellenbosch is the country’s premier winegrowing region. This wine is quite intense, loaded with black fruits, and accented with notes of chocolate, cinnamon, meat and smoke. Round tannins increase its appeal.

Which brings us to California. It seems over the last twenty years or so, Syrah has alternated between being “The Next Big Thing” to being an “also ran.” I say it deserves to be the next big thing. I certainly have had good to excellent Syrah from just about every California growing region.

Terlato shows up again with an impressive Dry Creek Valley Syrah, the 2007 Terlato Block 9 ($48). Block 9 is a section of the Terlato Dry Creek Valley estate vineyard near the confluence of the Dry Creek and Russian Rivers where gravelly soils are particularly hospitable to syrah. They also seem to make for a particularly spicy, full-bodied wine with deep black fruits that linger in the finish.

One development of particular interest that emerged from my tastings is that the grape is doing particularly well in California’s Central Coast.

Paso Robles in particular has emerged as a prime source of syrah and other Rhone varietals. While many of the region’s best wines are blends, there are many fine varietal Syrah wines. For a good introduction, try the 2009 J. Lohr South Ridge Estate ($15). The South Ridge Estate, which sits on a south-facing hillside, hosts sandy and gravelly soils that combine to form conditions conducive to intense fruit. Spiced with touches of petite sirah and zinfandel, this wine shows nice blueberry and chocolate, with good acidity.

Another fine example of Paso Robles Syrah is the 2007 Niner Bootjack Ranch ($20). Niner Wine Estates began in 1999 when entrepreneur Dick Niner recognized Paso’s potential and purchased what is now called Bootjack Ranch. This wine shows black and red fruits, minerals and a smoky character. There are both floral and meaty notes, with good acidity and a finish lifted by noticeable tannins.

Even more impressive is what Zaca Mesa is doing with syrah (not to mention several other Rhône varietals) in Santa Barbara. Located in the heart of what most people know as prime pinot noir country, Zaca Mesa’s wines have introduced whole new possibilities for the region. Located in the Santa Ynez Valley, Zaca Mesa is dedicated to estate grown and bottled wines. All the wines are made from grapes grown on 244 acres of vineyards. Zaca Mesa was the first to plant syrah in Santa Barbara in 1978 and now farms 90 acres of the grape. These three Syrah definitely will grab your attention.

2008 Santa Ynez Valley
($25). This wine is the most typical of Zaca Mesa’s style. It bursts with red and black berries, smoke, mocha and spice. The smooth texture is enlivened by ripe tannins in the finish.

2007 Mesa Reserve ($44). This reserve is crafted from the best barrels of Zaca Mesa’s “Mesa B” block. It is incredibly concentrated with tons of fruit. All the dark berries and smoked meat one would expect, accented with suggestions of mocha, smoke and spice. It will continue to evolve for several years.

2006 Black Bear Block Estate Bottled Santa Ynez Valley
($60). The Black Bear Block is a single 3½-acre block planted with cuttings from (wouldn’t you know it) Chapoutier. This wine is serious stuff. Dense and rich, powerful yet elegant, it bursts with berries, cherries, and currants, all black. Mocha, pepper, oak, meat, and smoke all join the chorus. It finishes with elegant tannins and a touch of chocolate. And will drink well for at least a decade.

Hopefully, if consumers like you try wines like these, Syrah/Shiraz will soon regain its rightful place among the royalty of wines.

About Rich

I first became interested in wine while I worked in numerous liquor stores during college in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. In the years following college, I researched, tasted, traveled to vineyards in California and Europe, participated in countless tastings. I began writing about wine in 1995 with a column in Out Front Colorado. For me, wine is more than a drink. It is food. It is a connection to the earth. It is culture. There is just something amazing, even magical, about the transformation of grapes into wine. It is also remarkable how drinking wine with food enhances the taste and enjoyment of both. Appreciation of wine has become an integral part of my approach to life, which emphasizes balance, respect for nature, physical and emotional health, and an appreciation of our nature as social beings. In 2006, I was awarded a fellowship to the Symposium for Professional Wine Writers.