Though Syrah is a world famous grape, it’s actually a cross of two obscure varieties from the Northern Rhone – but hey, Cher’s parents aren’t exactly household names either, and look how that turned out. Syrah has by any measure exceeded all expectations and become a global superstar, made around the world in varying styles, all to rave reviews. In fact, it’s so widespread it goes by two different names – Syrah in its homeland and most of the “Old” world wine regions, and Shiraz in Australia (where the name was probably bastardized by the broad Aussie accent) and other “New” world regions, including the U.S.
THE GRAPE=THE WINE
Syrah is typically dark and tannic with a range of fab notes, including smoky, peppery, chocolate, violets, blackcurrants and blackberry flavors. Like the grape itself, the wine can be elegant and lean, or dense and jammy.
Fruit Flavors: Black and blue fruits from tart to jammy.
Other Aromas and Flavors: Syrah is famous for a range of flavors – spices, including cloves and black pepper; black olives, licorice, herbs, smoke, mint or eucalyptus, sweet notes from oak including vanilla and chocolate, even cured meat and bacon. (Yep, everything is better with bacon.)
Structure: Medium acidity and tannin, although can range from soft to high in both cases.
Aging: Most commonly 5-9 years but some of the best (usually from Northern Rhone, France) for 10-25 years.
GEOGRAPHY & PROFILES
Old World vs New World: Generally speaking the Old World examples of Syrah tend to be earthier while the New World ones are fruitier and lower in acidity, but there are some specific types worth trying.
Rhone, France: Considered world-class from Cornas, Cote Rotie, Hermitage, Syrah also plays a role in blends from Cote-du-Rhone, Corbieres, Chateauneuf-du-Pape and Gingondas.
Cote Rotie: Elegant and aromatic with floral notes, black raspberry, currant, white pepper, charcoal. Fine-grained tannins. Often mixed with a small percentage of white Viognier for lift and aromatics.
Saint Joseph: Spicy black olive and black pepper. More rustic tannins than Cote Rotie.
Hermitage: Powerful and complex. Dark berries, earth aromas and coffee notes. Lots of new French Oak.
Croze-Hermitage: Typically, lighter in concentration and body and higher in acid. Red fruits and raspberry with dried herbs.
Cornas: Big and tannic with black pepper, smoke and olive notes.
Languedoc, France: Round, full-bodied, loads of fruit and garrigue, those lovely Mediterranean herbs.
South Africa: Syrah is an up-and-coming grape in South Africa. Even its coolest regions are warmer than the Rhone, so expect a more full-bodied, ripe wine. However the best examples show pepper, olive and blackberry notes you would normally associate with the Rhone. Look out for the 2015 vintage: it is thought to be one of the best ever.
California: Historically, Golden State Syrah has largely been big, jammy and dense. However, in recent years winemakers have realized that if they plant in cooler climates – such as Santa Barbara or the west side of the Sonoma Coast – California Syrah can show up with peppery spice and finesse all its own.
Paso Robles: Big, bold, loads of fruit. High tannin and alcohol.
Santa Barbara: Dark fruits especially blue and black berries, medium-plus acid, hints o’ spice.
Washington: Washington State makes world class Syrah that is uniquely savory and highly aromatic. It often has umami, saline and/or meaty aromas. The region’s warm temps lead to low acidity.
Australia: When down under it is always Shiraz and perhaps it deserves a name of its own, as Shiraz is practically the national wine of Australia. Australia has a reputation for creating blockbuster Shiraz high in alcohol (15%+), super-ripe and jammy. While some wines are certainly that – surprise! – it is not universally true.
Tasmania, Yarra Valley, Geelong, Mornington Peninsula are making elegant Shiraz with medium body, elegance and spice. Sometimes it is even called Syrah.
Barossa: High alcohol, low acid, rich and chocolate and plum. Usually obvious signs of oak aging; American oak often used.
Big wine calls for—you guessed it – robust foods. Try grilled steaks; Moroccan spices and cumin work well. Heavy on the grilled veg, like thick slices of eggplant and onion. Don’t neglect your pepper grinder. This is the time to invoke your blueberry compote, if you’ve been longing to.