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Syrah: It's What’s for Dinner
By Marlene Rossman
Editor-in-Chief of Wine Country International Magazine

It’s six p.m. and I am home at last. It’s time to think about dinner, my favorite meal. Come to think of it, all meals are my favorite! But dinner is special because that’s the time to go into my wine cellar and pick another of my awesome bottles. Tonight, I will be making an Asian beefstir-fry. What shall I pour with dinner?

I walk into my wine room and glance at my lovely Bordeaux and Cabernet Sauvignon collection--starting to gather dust. I stroke my beautiful bottles of Oregon Pinot Noir and French Burgundy. Passing by the Cabs and Pinots, I reach for a bottle of one of the luscious California Syrahs that I have been hoarding. Wait, maybe I should take that bottle of the jammy Aussie Shiraz, or maybe that that nice, earthy bottle of Washington State Syrah…hmmm. Whichever one I pick, it will be accessible, ripe and yummy with stir-fried beef medallions with shitake mushrooms.

It appears that there is somewhat of a shift occurring among some wine drinkers and collectors, present company included. It has a lot to do with our lifestyles and the amazing proliferation of international food choices. The new guard is not eating huge steaks or roast beef every night. People are eating lighter, spicier foods such as Asian-fusion and Pacific Rim styles. Steaks are more likely to be tuna and swordfish, or alternative meats like bison or venison, than the traditional well-marbled beef. This change in food fashions call for a change in wines. Red Bordeaux or California Cabernets are great with prime rib, but don't pair nearly as well with Indian Chicken Tikka or bison chili. This wonderful fare cries out for an easily approachable, spicy and exciting wine…and Syrah fits that bill perfectly.

Apparently I am not alone. According to AC Nielsen, although Syrah/Shiraz market share accounts for only about 4.5 percent of total retail wine sales, the grape has been responsible for an average of 13 percent of total retail wine sales growth, year-on-year, September 2004-September 2005.

Syrah can be a powerful, full-bodied wine, with almost opaque black color and aromas ranging from lavender and violets to berries, chocolate, espresso, black pepper, tar and smoked game. Syrah’s flavors can include blueberries, blackberries, plums and raspberries, lavender, herbes de Provence and jasmine. In some places, notably Paso Robles and Australia,winemakers are blending the white grape Viognier into Syrah for its floral aromas and softening effects.

California and Washington State are growing this country's best Syrah, with California in first place. Nielsen reports sales of California Syrah nationally totaled $55 million over the last year. That's almost 700,000 cases of wine! Washington State produced about 100,000 cases of Syrah worth over $10 million. Sales of Washington Syrah are up 41 percent from a year ago and California Syrah sales were up 19 percent.

Much of the New World's Syrah is accessible upon release, which means that it can be drunk relatively young. In addition to not having to wait until your grandchildren finish college to drink it, Syrah is also relatively reasonably priced. While you may not be able to get a great northern Rhone Hermitage on the cheap, you can get awesome Syrah, from a variety of appellations, domestic and international, for about $20-$35.

Syrah, often considered a "noble" wine grape, is said to reach the height of it's expression in the Northern Rhone, in the ultra-pricey, limited edition Hermitage, but also in less expensive Cote-Rotie, Cornas, St.-Joseph, Crozes-Hermitage and more.

Syrah, according to legend, was brought back to the Rhone from ancient Persia by a French crusader, Gaspard de Sterimberg, who is said to have put down his sword and shield, planted a vineyard atop a beautiful mountain above a sweeping curve of the Rhone, and declared the place his "Hermitage."

Syrah is also an important blending grape in the Southern Rhone, Languedoc and Provence; and it's a hot variety in California, where it leads the market category that Syrah lovers call "Rhone Rangers."

But Syrah is also quickly gaining recognition in Spain, Italy, South Africa, Chile, Washington State and just about every other world wine-growing region. And it's the leading grape of Australia, where it's called Shiraz. The grape took its name from the Persian city of Shiraz, where the Crusader is said to have found it; and the French modified the name to "Syrah." But when cuttings were shipped to the new colony of Australia in the early 1800s, the grape took back the Persian name. Syrah in France, Shiraz in Australia, but it's the same grape, even if local custom and vinification practices might make it seem like two different wines. South Africans, by and large, have adopted the Australian name. A small number of California producers also call it "Shiraz," perhaps to signal that their wine is made in a fruit-forward Australian style, or to jump on the popularity of Aussie Shiraz.

In the Northern Rhone, the classic Syrah flavors may include baked tar, bacon grease, game, damp earth, burnt toffee and other aromas and flavors that Americans often find too strong. However, in California, Australia and other regions, Syrah is often made in the much-disputed "international style," which is sweet, low in acid and easy to drink. Not that there's anything wrong with that! A few critics claim that in order to appeal to and capture a wider market, some producers have dumbed down their Syrahs, or "Merlotized" them. But winemakers are ignoring these critics, and finding a receptive market.

Winemakers say the grape’s potential is unlimited because it grows successfully in so many different soils and climates and lends itself to so many styles, courtesy of its ability to blend with a variety of grapes.

If you’re looking for wines that resemble those of Côte-Rôtie, Cornas or Hermitage, with rich, dense flavors of exotic spice, beef, pepper, herb and sage, you can find them in the cooler appellations of California. Areas such as Santa Barbara, Sonoma Coast, Edna Valley, Napa and also Washington State produce a bit more austere-style wines.

In warmer areas, including parts of Paso Robles and Lodi, the wines can be richer and more opulent, a style some winemakers describe as being inspired by the ultra-ripe Shiraz from Australia. Syrah can also make an appealing, fruity and easy-to-drink style wine and it can be a prodigious producer, which allows many wineries to produce good Syrah in large volumes.

In Australia today, the acreage planted to Syrah is well over 30,000 hectares and growing. Barossa Valley in southern Australia is famous for the world-class Penfolds Grange, a wine made mainly from Shiraz, often blended with a little Cabernet Sauvignon. Eden Valley, Coonawara, and the Hunter Valley are also famous for their succulent Shiraz. California, particularly in Sonoma County, Santa Barbara, Napa and the Central Valley, has been very successful with Syrah. Washington State is also home to many hectares of Syrah, with the best of the grapes coming from the Red Mountain.

Chile has also success with Syrah and will produce better wines in the future as the vines become older. South Africa has come on line with Syrah, which is much better than their Pinotage and markets a style that is somewhere between European and Australian styles.

The hot new thing in Syrah is Washington. Washington State Syrah ripens well in eastern Washington's long, hot growing season, and the vines thrive in its gravelly soils, which are a little like the Northern Rhône. Washington Syrah strikes a good balance between Rhone Syrah and the "fruit bombs" of California Syrah. Although Syrah is still an upstart in the Golden State, its acreage is quickly multiplying. While Napa Cabernet Sauvignon, California's premier red wine, doesn't have to worry about being usurped, Syrah is making serious inroads to rival Cab's popularity. Most of Napa's top Syrah is made in fairly small quantities, typically between 1,000 and 2,000 cases (with the higher-rated wines usually around 600 or so cases). But prices are also much lower than those for most Cabernets. Moreover, there are dozens of exciting Syrahs to buy, which offers great opportunity. Syrah doesn't quite yet have the sexy mystique of Cab--but check back with me in a couple of years!Editor's Pick:

My Top Eleven Favorite Syrahs

  • Bergevin Lane Vineyards Syrah 2003 Columbia Valley Washington, $25
  • Calix Cellars Syrah Parmalee Hill 2002 Sonoma County, California $33
  • Chumeia Syrah 2002 Paso Robles, California $20
  • Garfield Estates Syrah, 2003 Grand Valley, Colorado $20
  • Hunter Hill Syrah 2002 Arroyo Seco Santa Cruz Mountains, California $40
  • Léal Vineyards Syrah 2002 San Benito County, California $24
  • Andrew Rich Syrah Reserve 2002 Columbia Valley, Washington $38
  • Smith Wooton Syrah Tanner Brothers Vineyard 2003 Calaveras County California $28
  • VJB Cellars Syrah 2002 Alexander Valley, California $35Value Wines
  • RH Philips EXP Syrah 2002 Dunnigan Hills, California $10
  • Wynns Coonawara Estate Shiraz 2004 South Australia $12