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Syrah for Every Taste and Budget

Fine Cooking Issue 57
Photo: Scott Phillips
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After years of being overshadowed by Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, Syrah is finally gaining the popularity it deserves. And rightly so: Few other wines offer as much value and versatility, and such a broad range of styles—from vibrant rosés to light, fruity reds to concentrated, complex reds that age beautifully.  

Classic Syrah has flavors and aromas that include blackberry and black raspberry, with pronounced floral, plummy, peppery, and earthy notes. It tends to be fairly tannic. With age, the best Syrahs take on remarkable complexity, losing the bright primary fruit of youth and gaining notes of exotic spices, fruit compote, and layers of earthiness that can be positively stunning.

From France, easy-drinking to powerful

A survey of the world’s best Syrah has to start in France’s northern Rhône Valley. The two tiny appellations of Côte-Rôtie and Hermitage produce what many consider to be the epitome of Syrah. These wines generally command a high price, as well they should: Farming the steep, sun-baked, rocky vineyards there is backbreaking work, and yields are small. St.-Joseph, Crozes-Hermitage, and Cornas are other great Syrahs from the northern Rhône that are worth seeking out.  

Syrah is a vital component in southern Rhône blends, too, adding bouquet and structure to the finished wines; look for Vacqueyras, Châteauneuf-du-Pape, and Lirac. And beyond the southern Rhône, there’s lots of Syrah planted in southwestern France, often blended with Grenache with delicious results; Coteaux du Tricastin and Côtes du Lubéron are names to look for. Wines classified as Vin de Pays offer luscious fruit in an easy-drinking style; they’re excellent values.

In Australia, it’s Shiraz

Australia is the next stop on the Syrah tour. Shiraz, as it’s known there (the most popular theory of Syrah’s origins traces it to the ancient Middle Eastern city of Shiraz), is the most widely planted grape in Australia. The hardy varietal has been transformed in the hands of Australia’s talented winemakers, who have mastered the art of blending Shiraz with other grapes from different areas of the country to achieve a wide range of styles. Traditionally, Australian Shiraz is known for extremely forward fruit and lavish oak. But increasingly the wines are starting to display the elegant, aromatic qualities of venerated top-notch French Syrahs. These days, Australian Shiraz comes in the widest possible range of styles, from deliciously fruity rosés to inky tannic monsters from century-old vineyards. There’s one for everyone’s taste and budget.

At U.S. vineyards and beyond, Syrah is catching on

California has been relatively late to jump on the Syrah bandwagon but is making up for lost time. The next few years will see a bevy of inexpensive, well-made Syrahs on the market from the Napa Valley, Sonoma, and Santa Barbara County.  

Syrah is Washington State’s current wine phenomenon, with a range of styles and general overall quality that’s impressive and ever improving. More and more Syrah is being grown in South Africa and Chile, so expect an increasing number of good values from there in the next few years.

Try Syrah with grilled fish, burgers, and sharp cheeses

With such a wide range of styles, Syrah is one of the most versatile of all red wines. Pair Syrah rosé with cheeses and other light picnic fare, or serve it as an apéritif with savory appetizers. Price is a major arbiter of style with Syrah. Have the light, less expensive, easy-to-drink reds with simple dishes such as ribs, burgers, chicken or pork with a spice rub, or even full-flavored grilled swordfish or tuna. More substantial Syrahs—generally older, pricier ones—do well paired with pastas with meat sauces and with meats like lamb, duck, beef, and venison, a personal favorite. (Just be sure there’s no fruit in the dish; any sweetness will throw the wine out of whack.)  

As with most other reds, serve Syrah at 65°F—if it’s too warm, the wine’s fruit will be overwhelmed by alcohol and tannin. It’s fine to chill the lighter reds slightly. Decant and pour bigger, more tannic wines 30 minutes or longer before serving. Glassware isn’t a critical issue with the rosés and lighter reds, but a fine aged Syrah needs a good crystal glass with an egg-shaped bowl that holds at least 15 ounces—otherwise, most of the grape’s wonderful aromatics will be lost.

Classic Syrahs to love

France
• Domaine de l’Ameillaud Vin de Pays d’Oc
• Mas Grand Plagniol Rosé, Costières de Nîmes
• Guigal Crozes-Hermitage
• Domaine le Sang des Cailloux Vacqueyras, Cuvée Azalaïs
• Guigal Côte-Rôtie
• Chapoutier Hermitage “La Sizeranne”

California

• Delicato Shiraz
• Midi Syrah, Dry Creek Valley
• Jekel Vineyards Syrah, Monterey
• Ojai Vineyards Syrah, Bien Nacido Vineyard, Santa Barbara County
• Terre Rouge Syrah “Ascent,” Sierra Foothills

Australia

• Penfolds Rawson’s Retreat Shiraz, South Australia
• 2001 Rosemount Estate Shiraz
• 2001 Wolf Blass Red Label Shiraz-Cabernet, South Australia
• 2000 Wolf Blass Presidents Selection Shiraz, South Australia
• d’Arenberg The Dead Arm Shiraz, McLaren Vale

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