If you’ve ever traveled to the Northern Rhone in southeastern France, you have likely seen the flinty earth, the virtually barren soil and tiny, hardy vineyards. And you probably consumed Syrah wines almost exclusively. (Southern Rhone wines are primarily blends of Syrah, Mourvedre, and Grenache.) If you’ve tasted a Hermitage or Cote-Roite, you’ve definitely enjoyed the mysterious yet hardy flavors of Syrah.
The Syrah grapes are…different. These wines offer spice, a little heat, lots of berry and earth. But based on a number of factors, Syrah wines vary quite a bit in complexity, structure, and nose, not to mention, of course, taste. Some Aussie Shirazes will knock you out, while others—from say, the Sonoma’s Russian River or the Northern Rhone—will first ask for a little dance before they seduce you.
And before we move further: Shiraz is Syrah, and Syrah is Shiraz. Make no mistake; it is the same grape and the same wine. Possibly named for the Persian (Iranian) city of Shiraz, where legend has it this grape emanated, today Shiraz is the one of the largest wine exports from Australia and, to a lesser extent, South Africa.
Any decent Syrah (or Shiraz) will present white pepper, bold gaminess, and typical berry notes like raspberry, boysenberry, and blackberry. You will also notice the unique earth that birthed the vines. This could mean the Northern Rhone, inland Santa Barbara County, Northern Sonoma County, or the Barossa Valley in Australia. Then the winemakers take over and truly make these grapes sing. As of late, I’ve been particularly enamored by the warm, bold Syrahs coming out of Washington State.
For instance, L‘Ecole No. 41 makes a delightful Seven Hills Vineyard Estate Syrah. Serving a bottle of this will certainly get you noticed. The wine is marvelously voluptuous, combining superb earthy power and complexity, rich terroir and winemaking excellence. Alexandria Nicole Block 17 Syrah from the Horse Heaven Hills area is a fascinating wine, co-fermented, in true Rhone style, with seven percent Roussanne and four percent Viogner. This Syrah is an olfactory delight and inspirational to the tongue.
Californian vintners produce many Syrahs of note, in a number of price ranges. A new wine called PharaohMoans represents a co-venture between John Schwartz of Amuse Bouche Winery in Napa and Bryan Ogden, the chef at Bradley Ogden restaurant (the renowned chef Bradley Ogden is Bryan’s father) in Vegas. This powerful, heady wine comes from prime vineyards in the Paso Robles region, and will certainly turn some heads. Another fine Paso Syrah is Tobin James Blue Moon Syrah.
Winemakers plying their craft in Santa Ynez and the surrounding microclimates of Santa Barbara County are making a number of excellent Syrahs. The Barbieri lends itself more to the Rhone style, with far less fruit than your average Aussie or Cal Syrah, while adding floral, graceful notes. On the other hand, seek out La Sirena Syrah. Famed Napa winemaker Heidi Barrett produces this bold yet elegant wine. A few other Santa Barbara region Syrahs of note include: Qupe Bien Nacido Hillside Estate, Red Car's Trolley Series Syrahs, and Piedrasassi ‘04 Syrah.
As for Shiraz, well, ever since Yellow Tail hit the market nothing has been the same. Many of the cheap Shirazes are pretty decent, but they tend to obscure the truly great Aussie products. However, look for a great Torbreck Run Rig, Two Hands Angel’s Share, and the big fat, juicy Barossa Valley Estate "E&E Black Pepper." These big Australian wines can be amazing, despite their obvious power. Syrahs are decidedly different and worth considering any time, any place. With food or without, you will find yourself pleasantly surprised.