Wine Q&A: Syrah, top to bottom
Syrah is one of the greatest grape varieties that produces wine.
Here are all your questions about the grape answered.
Where does Syrah grow?
Syrah’s home is in the Northern Rhone of France, where it may have been grown since Roman times. The greatest Syrah made today is still produced there. There is plenty of Syrah grown just south of there, in the Southern Rhone, and elsewhere in southern France, although there it is usually a blending grape that does not play a starring role.
In the last couple of centuries, Syrah has migrated to outside of France. It is widely grown in Australia, where it is called Shiraz and is considered the country’s signature grape. It is also grown in other New World wine regions, including California, Washington State, South Africa and Chile. Within Europe, you find small pockets of Syrah production in Tuscany, Portugal, Spain, Switzerland and Austria. It is now the seventh most planted grape world wide.
What does Syrah taste like?
It’s signature flavors are smokey bacon, black pepper, blueberry, blackberry and olives. Some examples come from cool climates, like Cote Rotie, and produce lighter, more floral, more brightly fruited wines. Some examples of Shiraz from Australia are very rich and ripe, even chocolatey. There is a full spectrum of wines that fall in between. If there is one signature flavor of the grape, though, it is that smokey bacon. If you detect that in a blind tasting, you’re drinking Syrah.
The grape is prone to reduction — the production of sulfite compounds as a result of non-exposure to oxygen — and therefore the grape can have funkier flavors (like bandaids) that may or may not dissipate with decanting or cellaring. Most producers use techniques that expose the wine to oxygen in order to decrease or avoid reduction, like aging in barrels, and racking the wine from barrel to barrel.
What is the best Syrah?
That is a matter of taste of course, but the most expensive bottle of Syrah we have ever sold — five digits — is a bottle of 1961 Hermitage La Chapelle from Jaboulet. Maybe that one is the best? I don’t know for sure because I’ve never tasted it myself and probably never will. There are not many bottles left.
But I do like Hermitage! Hermitage is a hill that produces marvelously elegant, but powerful, Syrah. The best known producers are Chave and Jaboulet. Their wines are among the best in the world made from any grape. If I had to pick one source for Syrah, it would be Hermitage.
Fortunately, the world is not so limited. I love drinking wine from other villages of the Northern Rhone — mostly Cote Rotie, Cornas and the villages of St Joseph (watch this blog for a guide to the Northern Rhone’s different villages). I love drinking top examples of Syrah from the Sonoma Coast of California. I have had marvelous old bottles of Penfolds Grange and Hill of Grace from Australia. Syrah is one of those grapes that is able to excel in a lot of different places, and we should all take advantage.
What is the best food to eat with Syrah?
Syrah, in general, is a heavier red wine that you would drink with roast meats, stews, braises and the like. I guess the best thing to drink it with would be venison or a game bird, but that’s a pretty rare treat. The most common pairing would simply be a steak or roasted lamb. I also drink it frequently with hamburgers or smoked ribs.
But don’t forget that Syrah comes in many different shapes and sizes. Syrah has light, quaffable versions — like the Syrah of Herve Souhaut in the Ardeche — big jammy versions, like many from Australia, and tannic, structured versions (young Cornas, for example). All of these call for different foods. Here is how you can think about this:
Should I decant Syrah?
Often, yes. As mentioned above, Syrah is a reductive grape, meaning that when it is starved of oxygen it is prone to producing off notes like bandaids. Reduction tends to lessen or go away entirely with oxygen, so if you open a bottle and you notice reduction — that is, the wine is “reduced” — you can try decanting the wine for an hour or so.
However, lots of Syrah is made with lots of exposure to oxygen in the process in order to avoid reduction. Even if the Syrah is not reduced, however, you should still consider decanting the wine. Syrah often makes a wine of structure and power that you should treat like Bordeaux or Barolo, which we often decant, especially when young. And when old, just like any old red wine, you might want to decant the wine to remove sediment. Syrah made in a fresh, lighter style, however, does not normally meed to be decanted, unless it is showing reductive notes.
What kinds of Syrah should I put in my cellar?
Syrah is a great cellaring grape. Hermitage and Cote Rotie age as well as the finest Bordeaux and Burgundies. I have not tasted much aged California Syrah but I have no doubt that fine examples from the Sonoma Coast will age beautifully and believe me I am experimenting. Old examples of classic Australian wines — Penfolds Grange especially — are terrific.
The interesting thing about Syrah is that I have had good luck aging even lesser examples. I wrote a blog post about a 2004 St. Joseph from Faury, a $30 wine. In fact, I love cellaring Northern Rhone’s in the $30-$50 range for just three or four years. These are prime candidates for a Reasonable Cellar. Please see the end of this FAQ for an example of an ideal Syrah cellar!
Why is it called “Shiraz” in Australia and what’s with this story about a Persian connection?
The story is that the grape originally came from Persia (Iran), where the ancient Persian capital was called Shiraz. The grape would have migrated to France through Phoenician traders, who established a colony at Marseilles. The grape then somehow spread inland to reach the Northern Rhone.
It’s a nice story, but it’s not right. There is no genetic support for a Persian origin of the grape, and in fact in 1999 it was determined to be a child of two indigenous French varieties, Dureza and Mondeuse Blanche. Also, there is no trace of Syrah production in or around Marseilles, which would seem to be a necessary intervening step in the story.
So why do Australians say Shiraz? We don’t really know, but it’s probably just the result of mis-spellings and ordinary language drift in the pre-internet day.
What is this about a Syrah connection to Bordeaux?
Syrah is not one of the traditional grapes of Bordeaux, and yet the grape still has a Bordeaux connection. Basically, in the 1700s and 1800s Syrah from Hermitage would be added to Bordeaux, especially from weaker vintages that could use a little help with strength and durability. Lafitte 1795 was topped up with Syrah, for example, and apparently it was pretty good! In fact, a couple of Chateaux are trying to revive this tradition, such as Chateau Palmer which has issued some special release bottles with 12-15% Syrah, and a project called Evidence that is a 50/50 blend of Cabernet/Syrah made by a partnership between Chateau Lagune and Jaboulet.
Outside of Bordeaux, the practice of blending Syrah with Cabernet has actually become de rigueur, including in nearby Provence. There, you can find perennial over-achieving value Mas de Gourgonnier, which makes a wine with 35% Syrah and 22% Cabernet. For a pure 50/50 blend, you have the culty Trevallon, which is a pretty great wine!
Australia is another area where Cabernet/Shiraz blends are common, and in fact Grange was often made with a splash of Cabernet back in the day.
What other grapes would you typically blend Syrah with?
In the Northern Rhone, some AOCs permit a little blending with white wine varieties. This is quite common in Cote Rotie, where up to 10% Viognier is added to the Syrah. In St. Joseph, up to 10% of Marsanne and Rousanne can be added, but it’s not as common. The idea here is that Syrah is such a powerful and sturdy grape that these additions can help balance things out. This style of blend has some imitators in California and Australia.
Otherwise, Syrah is treated as a component of a wider blend. This is especially true in the Southern Rhone, where it is blended with Grenache, as the leading partner, Mourvedre, and some other grapes like Counoise, and to a lesser extent elsewhere in Southern France, like the Languedoc, where you might find it paired with Carignan. You see something similar in Australia, where the “GSM” is a blend of Grenache, Syrah and Mourvedre. Syrah, much more so than, say, Pinot Noir or Nebbiolo, is a useful grape both on its own and in blends.
What’s with Syrah in Tuscany and elsewhere in Italy?
Tuscany has a bit of a reputation for trying their hand at international grapes. “Super Tuscans” — higher-end wines developed in the 1960s and 1970s that fell outside the DOC system — were often made with Bordeaux grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. In a few cases, they also experimented with Syrah, and found there to be quite a nice affinity between the grape and Tuscan soils, in particular its dense clay. Some argued that there is a long Italian tradition of growing Syrah, and that the grape may even come from Sicily, where it was named for the city of Syracuse (this theory is does not have much support). One area of Tuscany, Cortona, even has its own DOC for the grape. And you’ll notice that I recommend one example of Tuscan Syrah below — Fontodi’s — in the ideal Syrah cellar.
What is Petite Sirah? Is that Syrah’s little baby?
Yes and no. It is not the same grape, and it is spelled differently. It is the Californian (and Israeli) name for a Rhone grape that is called, in France, Durif. However, there is at least some genetic evidence supporting the theory that Syrah is a genetic parent of Petite Sirah, so sure, you can call it Syrah’s little baby.
Can you make sparkling wine from Syrah?
Yes. In fact, it is very much a thing in Australia, especially in Tasmania. Because we are down under, it is more frequently called “Sparkling Shiraz”. It can veer a little too close to Coca Cola, but some examples are very good. Try Best’s Great Western Sparkling Shiraz if you can find it, especially with BBQ.
What is Serine?
That depends on who you talk to! Some people say it's just the local word for Syrah in parts of the Northern Rhone; others say it's not Syrah at all. The mostly widely held view is that it is a heritage biotype of Syrah with smaller berries than standard Syrah. Levet and Texier make wines that are 100% from Serine.
What is Syrah Decline?
Syrah Decline (you’ll also hear it referred to as Syrah Disorder) is a disease that affects Syrah vines across the world. It causes the graft (the joint where the Syrah vine is connected to the American rootstock) to swell, and the result is the reddening of leaves way too early in the season, reducing the vine’s productivity. It’s causes are unknown, but it is believed to be a virus. It is quite widespread, and some people believe that virtually all younger plantings of Syrah are affected.
If I could cellar, say, three cases of Syrah every vintage, here is how I might break it down:
One “Reasonable Cellar” case of Northern Rhone at $30-$50 price point
— 3 bottles St. Joseph V. V. from Faury
— 3 bottles St. Joseph from Monnier Pereol
— 3 bottles Crozes Hermitages from Graillot
— 3 bottles Crozes Hermitages “Thalabert” from Jaboulet
One case of higher-end Northern Rhones
— 2 bottles Levet Cote Rotie
— 2 bottles Barge Cote Rotie
— 2 bottles Chave Hermitage (if you can get it; otherwise Chapoutier or Jaboulet)
— 2 bottles high end Cote Rotie (take your pick: how about Clusel Grands Places?)
— 2 bottles Cornas Geynale from Vincent Paris
— 2 bottles Cornas Chaillot from Balthazar
One case of non-Northern Rhone’s
— 2 bottles Fontodi Syrah (a great example of Tuscan Syrah)
— 2 bottles of Pax Mahle Syrah (Sonoma Coast)
— 2 bottles Peay Syrah (Sonoma Coast)
— 2 bottles of “classic” Australian (sure, Penfolds Grange if you can afford it!)
— 2 bottles of “New” Australia (I like Clonakilla)
— 2 bottles of an experiment! Change it up every year. How about Tschida Felsen II — all natural Syrah from Austria? Other years try South Africa, Washington State or Spain.
Of course, this leaves out so much stuff I love that I think I need a fourth case…and it doesn’t include any of the young fresh Syrahs that I love to drink without any cellaring (Herve Souhaut!).