The Syrah grape, also known as Shiraz, is one of the world’s classic grape varietals and a personal favorite of mine. Why do I love Syrah — and why is it so damn delicious? First, and foremost, Syrah is an incredibly versatile grape; in terms of versatility in style, it covers a BROAD range. Whether you are drinking Hermitage Syrah or Barossa Valley Shiraz, there is so much to love. Second, in my experience Syrah is often a much more interesting pairing with big meaty-earthy dishes than Cabernet Sauvignon. Last but not least, in terms of acreage, Syrah circles top of the list of the world’s most planted grape varietals coming in at number seven out of ten thousand something. Why? Syrah can adapt to a variety of different growing conditions and do it well.
So where does Syrah come from? The origin of this delectable grape is still disputed. Most experts DO agree however that Syrah was bred around 20AD, as writings from Pliny the Elder specifically mention a grape called “Scyra” that is presumed to be the same varietal. Syrah is a crossing of two almost-extinct grape varietals — Dureza and Mondeuse Blanc. While some scientists still believe the grape’s ancestral home is the city of Shiraz in Iran, genetics testing tends to imply the grape springs from the Northern Rhone region of France. The supporting evidence to this statement? Syrah’s genetic parent, Dureza appears to be native to the Northern Rhone region. There are many other stories that exist to justify how the grape could have come from Persia(modern day Iran) but most seem unlikely and lacking concrete historical evidence.
History & Classic Production Regions
Whether it is ACTUALLY the historical home of Syrah grape or not, the Rhone region of France has undoubtedly put the grape on the international map. Syrah is often bottled as a single or dominant varietal in the Northern Rhone, while in the South it is traditionally blended with a higher percentage of Grenache.
Some of the most famous singular vineyards in Northern Rhone surround the hill of Hermitage. The vineyards were named for a famous knight, Gaspard de Stérimberg who took up residence and planted the first vineyards in 1224. Gaspard committed himself to the life of a Hermit after he grew tired of fighting in the Crusades. Syrah from the area of Hermitage is particularly long lived and is usually bottled as a single varietal although the regional laws allow a blending of up to 10% Marsanne and Rousanne. The wines of the Hermitage are austere in their youth with soft notes of tart red fruit, dominated by black pepper, meat and earth with J.L. Chave, Delas and Jaboulet as the region’s most notable producers.
Hermitage is arguably the most famous region of the Northern Rhone next to Cote-Rotie. The wines of Cote-Rotie or “The Roasted Slope” are traditionally blended with the aromatic Viognier grape. The light and lively floral tones of Viognier give lift to the heavy Syrah grape; creating a unique, complex, seductive and aromatic profile. The wines of Jamet, Guigal, Gangloff, Rene Rostaing and Yves Cuilleron are the some of the most celebrated in the region.
While Hermitage and Cote-Rotie take the spotlight and are the most cost prohibitive of the Northern Rhone Appellations, the wines from the neighboring towns of Cornas, St, Joseph, and Crozes-Hermitage are no less formidable. Wines of Cornas, tend to be dense and serious and are by law 100% Syrah. Similar to Hermitage; the appellations of St. Joseph and Crozes-Hermitage allow the addition of Marsanne and Roussanne.
Across the board the wines of Northern Rhone are savory, herbal, meaty, and earthy, with a finish of black pepper and spice. On the palate, acid, alcohol and an angular tannic structure strike a harmonious balance with acidity coming to the forefront. The piquant acidity of the grape can cut through the fat of even richest A5 Waygu beef and the earthy tones also pair well with game meats such as quail and deer.
Syrah flourishes in many other regions of the world with the wines of Australia and the USA being both the most commercially available and distinct. Interestingly enough Syrah, or Shiraz as the Aussies call it, was brought to Australia by James Busby in 1831 and has remained the most important grape in Australian viticulture. Unaffected by the detrimental root louse Phylloxera, Australia also boasts the world’s oldest, own-rooted Shiraz vines planted in 1843 in the Langmeil, “Freedom” Vineyards in Barossa Valley. Barossa Valley, Adelaide Hills, Eden Valley and McLarenvale in South Australia, along with Heathcoate, and Bendigo in Victoria make consistent and classic styles of rich and concentrated Shiraz. Internationally notable producers include Henschke in Eden Valley, d’Arenberg in McLarenvale, and Penfold’s. Smaller wineries such as Gargariste and Vanguardist appeal to new generation of quality conscious wine drinkers. Yarra Valley and Mornington Peninsula in Victoria are also turning out slightly cooler climate Shiraz that is of note; some wines are easy drinking and fruit forward with the best being reminiscent of a quality Cornas. Australia is not always associated with quality winemaking due to its reputation for mass production wines such as Yellow Tail but the last decade has brought a changing of the guard. With the increase of ease of international travel and more access to the global wine market Australia has seen an influx of younger well-traveled winemakers with a lighter hand and focus on quality.
Due to the overall climate, the wines of Australia tend to be more opulent, but no less intense than the wines of France. On the nose black fruits, cherry cordial, cassis, chocolate, eucalypt, black pepper and coconut show with the palate being structured with higher alcohol, elevated acid, and velvety tannin. Classic food pairings include Bar-b-Que, roast lamb, hearty oxtail stews, smoked Kangaroo — the deer of Australia and even blue cheese!
Syrah in the USA and Beyond
Syrah was brought to the USA in the 1970’s and flourished first on the Central Coast before quickly spreading to Northern California and Washington. The USA boasts Syrah in a variety of styles with the grape quickly becoming and international hit. A Syrah from Powerline Estate in Walla Walla Valley even landed at No. 2 on Wine Spectator’s 2017 Top 100. Noteable Syrah producers in California include, Eberle, Tablas Creek, Bonny Doon, Qupe, Pax/ Wind Gap, Saxom and Red Car. In Washington State producers worth a look are Cayuse, Memaloose and Gramercy Cellars.
Other countries such as South Africa, New Zealand, Argentina and Chile are making great strides with Syrah further providing evidence of the grapes rise to prominence on the global wine market. Reyneke in South Africa and Craggy Range’s Gimblet Gravels from New Zealand are excellent and unique examples.