“Keep Syrah Weird”…so the dictum goes as a likely play on the “Keep Portland Weird” bumper sticker. Syrah is, however, the Portland of grapes.
As opposed to popular belief, Syrah’s provenance is not from the ancient Persian town of Shiraz, the fifth most populous city in today’s Iran (sorry, my Persian friends). Ampelography (the field of botany that studies the classification and identification of grapevines), through DNA studies, have traced the grape’s origins to the northern Rhone, the spiritual home of this grape. By the way, Petite Sirah, although related (cross between Syrah and Peloursin), it is not a “petite” version of Syrah but rather a different grape altogether.
Syrah is a dark skinned grape which typically produces wines that are full bodied, packed with dark fruit, and yet with somewhat subdued tannins. Its capacity to have an acid backbone is rather dependent on the climate where it grows. Since the best concentrated and balanced flavors come from vines that grow on hills, it’s been said that “Syrah likes a view”. The “weirdness” of Syrah is perhaps better described as its ability to render these fruit flavors while yet providing other aromas such as black olives, smoke, raw meat (to me certain bottles smell like Paulina Meat Market…ever been there?), iodine, blood, tobacco, rosemary, and cracked black pepper. Incidentally, rotundone, the chemical that gives off the black pepper aroma, cannot be smelled by as much as 20% of the population.
When grown in regions with cooler climate, like the northern Rhone, Syrah will express more of the savory and acidic characters that make up world class wines such as those from Hermitage and Cote Rotie. Hermitage’s etymology, from the word “hermit”, has to do with the legend of the Knight Gaspard de Stérimberg. After he returned home wounded in 1224 from one of the crusades, the queen allowed him to set up in this area where he lived as a “hermit”. Cote Rotie (“roasted slope” in French), first planted under the rule of Caligula (ooh, salaciousness) is divided between Cote Blonde and Cote Brune. Legend has it that these slopes were named after the blonde and brown hair colored daughters of a local lord. The girls, like today's soils, had two very different personalities. Cote Brune, with its iron rich soils, tends to be more tannic while the Cote Blonde are more balanced and meant to be enjoyed while younger.
Australia, where the grape is known as Shiraz (the mnemonic I use to remember this is that in Australia they call women “Sheilas” and that sounds like “Shiraz”), the wines tend to be more powerful in that they are quite fruit forward, alcoholic, and tannic. While this was the overriding style of the 90’s, more conscious efforts have been made as of lately in order to adapt to palates that demand more restrained wines. Aussie Shiraz often gives what I personally consider to be glorious notes of eucalyptus. This delicious “taint” seems to be a function of the often seen proximity between vineyards and eucalyptus forests.
Peripatetic Syrah also shows very well in California where it finds great balance in Sonoma and the Central Coast; particularly in cooler climate areas (i.e. hills or proximity to the Pacific Ocean) where it can even appear lighter colored and with heightened acid. Again, the cooler climate helps the grape express its savory/cracked black pepper notes. Syrah has also made a name for itself in Washington State where producers such as Cayuse can demand over $200 a bottle. Finally, don’t forget the great values (value = delicious wine at a reasonable price) to be had in the Syrah from Chile and Argentina.
For me Syrah/Shiraz is one of those wines that I can readily enjoy with or without food. But who are we kidding? Like most wines it transforms itself when accompanied by the right food. Try it with a steak au poivre (Duh! The pepperiness, right?), lamb chops, or even with savory dishes that have herbs such rosemary and thyme.
So call on your favorite Sheila, or Bloke, grab a bottle of delicious weirdness and have a feast!
Lorenzo, the wine guy
Friends, food, and wine...I'm happy there.