Syrah (sear-AH)

Syrah has always reminded me of the kind of guy who wears cowboy boots with a tuxedo. Manly yet elegant. In fact, at the turn of the twentieth century, the British scholar and wine writer George Saintsbury described the famous Rhône wine Hermitage (made exclusively from syrah) as the “manliest wine” he’d ever drunk. In France (where plantings are on the dramatic increase), syrah’s potent and exuberant aromas and flavors lean toward leather, smoke, roasted meats, bacon, game, coffee, spices, iron, black olive, and especially white and black pepper. The best wines have a kinetic mouthfeel with flavors that detonate on the palate like tiny grenades. The most dramatic syrahs in the world come from the northern Rhône Valley. There, in exclusive, small wine districts, such as Hermitage, Côte-Rôtie, and Cornas, the only red grape allowed is syrah. In the southern Rhône Valley, syrah is usually part of the blends that make up Châteauneuf-du-Pape and Gigondas. It is also planted throughout the Languedoc-Roussillon. In Australia and California, syrah takes on a less gamey, more fruit, syrupy character, but remarkably often possesses the same potent pepper spice character (in 2007, Australian researchers isolated this as the aromatic compound rotundone). In the seventeenth century, French Huguenots brought syrah from France to South Africa’s Cape of Good Hope. From South Africa, it was brought to Australia, although as of the 1830s, Australian explorers were also bringing syrah to the Australian continent directly from France. Australia, of course, calls syrah “shiraz.” For its part, South Africa uses both syrah and shiraz, depending on the preference of the winery. Most scholars think the name shiraz is a corruption of one of the colloquial French names for the grape. (Frustratingly, many wine articles continue to reproduce the erroneous legends that syrah/shiraz somehow came from the Iranian city of Shiraz, the Greek island of Syra, or the city of Syracuse in Sicily. All false.). Today, of course, shiraz is Australia’s most famous red wine. Indeed, in appellations such as the Barossa Valley, McLaren Vale, and a half dozen others, shiraz can be a spellbinding, spicy blockbuster of a wine. Syrah was bought to California three times, first in 1936, and then again in the early 1970s. But syrah and other Rhône grapes only began to grip the imaginations of maverick winemakers in California in the 1980s, and a decade later, the same thing happened in Washington State. Today, syrah is well established in both places, though no single appellation has emerged as the appellation of excellence. From a consumer standpoint, it’s important to know that syrah producers in the United States can call their wine syrah or shiraz, (depending on whether or not the marketing department wants to channel its inner Aussie). Syrah is the progeny of two fairly obscure French grapes—dureza (cultivated in the Ardeche) and mondeuse blanche (cultivated in the Savoie). For its part, dureza appears to be the grandchild of pinot noir, which would make pinot noir the great-grandfather of syrah.

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