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Three Views of Syrah
By Gerald D. Boyd
May 19, 2009
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In the mid to late 19th century, the great red wines of the Northern Rhône, all made from Syrah, were considered among the finest wines of the time.   Noted gourmands of the time heaped praise on Rhône reds, including the estimable Professor George Saintsbury, an Englishman with a known taste for Bordeaux and Burgundy, who jotted this about Syrah in his copious cellar notes:  'One of the three or four most remarkable juices of the grape, not merely that I ever possessed, but that I ever tasted…It was the manliest French wine I ever drank.'  

Saintsbury's memorable and generous words were prophetic, although a little gendered and hence politically incorrect for today's sensibilities.  His lasting tribute to Syrah rings true, though, as the world's wine drinkers seek out Syrah-based wines (including the muscular Northern Rhône Syrahs that impressed Saintsbury) from wine regions around the world. 

Today, Syrah continues its reign as the king of red grapes in the Rhône Valley, but it also assumes a starring role in a range of regions around the globe.  Wine consumers have a choice today with Syrahs, which are available in a range of styles, from a wide variety of sources and at various price points.  Among the choices are those from California, Washington and Australia, three of the most popular Syrahs in the U.S. market.  But how do they differ and what do they have in common?  What follows are three views of Syrah from winemakers in California and Washington, coupled with views from Australian winemakers working in those two states.


California

Syrah was first planted in California in the 1880s, although the modern age of California Syrah did not start until the mid-1970s.  In those days there was a lot of confusion about the relationship of Petite Sirah to Syrah.  Eventually, DNA testing showed them to be different grapes sharing the same ancestry.  Records show that Syrah made its first California appearance in Mendocino County in 1919, but it wasn't until 1974 that Joseph Phelps Vineyards released the first commercial Syrah, setting the pace for a movement that quickly picked up speed. 

In the late 1960s, big California red wines were often blends of Petite Sirah, Carignane and Alicante Bouchet among other rustic reds.  According to historian Charles Sullivan, as late as 1985, there were only about 100 acres of Syrah planted in California.  By 2007, state agriculture statistics put Syrah plantings at 18,749 acres, an increase of 4% from the 17,637 acres the previous year.  Washington had a mere 3,000 acres of Syrah planted as of 2007, putting the Rhône variety in third place in the Evergreen State behind Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.  But Syrah sales are on the rise and predicted to pass Zinfandel and Merlot. 

So what is it about Syrah that has so many folks (like me) drooling?  For lovers of red wine, Syrah offers the best of both worlds: Supple fruit is accessible but both dense and sumptuous, like Pinot Noir; while having the structure, tannins and potential of a Cabernet Sauvignon.  No question, there's something in Syrah for every wine drinker.  

But generalizing about comparative styles of Syrah can be a problem when considering grape-growing regions as large and diverse as California and eastern Washington.  Here's Bob Lindquist's take on the differences between California and Washington Syrah:  'I can't generalize too much on California versus Washington Syrahs as there is Syrah grown in every climate zone in California.  My general impression of Washington Syrahs is that they are bigger, riper and more tannic and grown in warmer sites.'  Lindquist, owner-winemaker for Qupé in Santa Barbara County, models his Syrahs on the Northern Rhône style of elegance, spice and refreshing acidity.

The climactic factor, a part of the nebulous term terroir, is an important consideration for Lindquist in the production of his range of South Coast Syrahs.  'The most important factor in the style and quality of our Syrah is the cool climate in which we grow it,' he says.  Lindquist has been making Syrah in Santa Barbara County since 1982, using grapes from a range of different vineyards, all with slightly different soils and cool climates, such as the Bien Nacido Vineyard in the Santa Maria Valley.  'Bien Nacido is a cool, dry region with excellent late season growing weather, providing our Syrah with importantly extended hang time,' says Lindquist.

Rosenblum Cellars, known both for Zinfandel and Syrah, makes four cool-climate Syrahs from Santa Barbara County, Sonoma Valley, Santa Rosa Plain, Yountville, and four warm-climate Syrahs from Lodi, Solano County, Yolo County and Lake County.  Former owner Kent Rosenblum (who recently sold the winery) believes there are terroir differences in the vineyards he sources, but attributes much of the difference in each area to the introduction of the new French 'Entav' clone.  'This new clone allows the winemaker a real choice as to how the flavors in the wine reflect the yearly growing conditions,' he says.


Washington

So is Washington Syrah a different animal from Syrahs made in California or Australia?  Consider these words about Washington Syrah, sourced mainly from Yakima and Walla Walla in eastern Washington, from Bob Betz, owner-winemaker of Betz Family Wines in Washington state:  'Against the background that Syrah is a chameleon of a variety, Washington has its own expression…It can develop a deep sense of ripeness, a real fruit purity, with structural lift, but I've never found it as jammy as Australian, as structured as French.' 

Betz believes that Washington Syrah has a more accurate varietal purity than what you find in California Syrah.  'Washington Syrah seems to me to be truer to the varietal expression of meat, smoke, wildness, and crushed dried herbs, with a structural component.  California Syrah develops a richer, fatter mouthfeel, but may sacrifice some of the variety's natural expression.'  The bottom line for Betz, though, is a focus on pleasure. 'We make wine to be drunk and enjoyed,' he says.


The Australian View
 
Outside of France, Australian winemakers are recognized for their understanding of Syrah as a great red wine.  So what do they think of making 'Shiraz' in California?  Australian Mick Schroeter, vice president/winemaker, Geyser Peak Winery in Sonoma County provides this assessment of California Syrah and Australian Shiraz:  'Site, and especially soils, seem to have a more powerful effect rather than region.  Many of the best Syrahs are coming from the cooler or more moderate regions while the better Aussie Shiraz comes from the warmer regions like the Barossa.  California Syrahs generally have stronger pepper and spice notes with some earthy and meaty aromas.'

Schroeter, who was at Penfolds in the Barossa Valley of South Australia before coming to Northern California, thinks that California Syrahs are more Rhône-like, but adds that 'they don't quite have the forward juiciness and softer textures of their Aussie counterparts.'  But because of high vine vigor problems in California, Schroeter says that red winemaking in Australia is probably easier than in California.  'With the generally deeper, more fertile soils and an abundance of good quality water in California, it has been a greater challenge to balance the higher crop potential to the vigor.' 

Wendy Stuckey, formerly with Wolf Blass in South Australia, came to Washington state in late 2007 to take up the duties as white winemaker for Ch. Ste. Michelle, while retaining her love of red wine.  She finds that Washington Syrahs are very diverse in style, but lack a component she likes very much in Shiraz from certain parts of Australia.  'My first overall impression with Washington Syrah is of the amazing depth of color, intensity of fruit and higher levels of tannin.  Acid and tannin levels appear to be higher in Washington than in some parts of Australia.'  And Stuckey agrees with Schroeter about the absence of pepper in Washington Syrah.  'I haven't yet found any Syrah in Washington showing the black pepper and elegance that you find in some Victorian and Western Australia Shiraz.  That style is a favorite of mine.'

Although Stuckey has only begun to understand Washington Syrah, she does have some thoughts on those she has tasted thus far. 'The good ones are rich, ripe and full bodied.  They are deeper in color, have high fruit intensity of blackberry and spice, along with tannin levels that make you want to go back for more.'  Stuckey thinks that Washington Syrah has elements of both Rhône and Australia, citing the Wahluke Slope in eastern Washington as one promising area.  'Wines from the Wahluke Slope like Indian Wells Syrah have the intense berry characteristics that you find in the Barossa (South Australia).'

From all indications thus far, the future of California and Washington Syrah looks bright and the range of styles and availability will continue to expand.  'Our sales of Syrah couldn't be better,' says Betz.  In considering the future of Syrah, Bob Lindquist says, 'It's been my belief that great grapes grown in the right spot always rise to the top…and Syrah is one of the world's greatest red grapes.  To quote my friend and business associate, Jim Fiolek, 'Syrah delivers what Merlot promised.'