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Deconstructing Wine: Syrah

Or, “The Problem of Syrah.”

Or, “Syrah: Where the Wild Things Are.”

Or, “Syrah: To Love or To Hate?”

Or, “Join the Syrah-volution!”

(Strike that last one.)

I love Syrah. For being a robust, bold red wine, it presents an enormous amount of complexity and depth. For wine lovers who want intensity and punchiness, Syrah is your wine. For others who want aromatics and layers, Syrah will give that to you too.

But Syrah is also frustrating and baffling, if only because it has never caught on the way it should have. The Australian “critter wine” producers might be able to say otherwise, but we’re leaving them out of the discussion for now. Why is it that the world has had such a blasé attitude towards this regal, historic, age worthy grape? If you’re a Cab lover, why shouldn’t you also love Syrah for its power and structure? If you’re a Pinot lover, why don’t the graceful, brooding aromatics of Syrah also call to you?

Maybe the problem is that Syrah is too much of everything. Perhaps we can’t put it into a neat little box like we can with so many other grapes—perhaps we just simply don’t know what to do with it. Syrah is wild. And like so many grapes, it reflects the land it comes from. You can make it fruity and domesticated, but there will always be an underlying sauvage to it—smoke, charcoal, leather, tar, earth, violets, raw meat, camphor, bacon fat, and cracked pepper are just a few of the stereotypical notes found in the majority of Syrahs from around the world. With tasting notes like these, there’s no wonder people haven’t jumped on the bandwagon as quickly as they have for friendlier grapes like Cab and Pinot (although these grapes most certainly have their wild side, too).

Many Syrahs are cerebral and require attention. They’re a lot to handle simply on their own, although they absolutely shine next to grilled foods. Wine drinkers are just as apt to drink a glass of wine on its own as they are with their meal, which is much different than how wine was used in the past. Is this why Syrah isn’t a natural choice for an everyday sipper? “One has to discover Syrah,” a wine friend said recently.

But perhaps the magic of Syrah lies in the very fact that you have to actively discover it for yourself. You won’t see it interspersed amongst the Cabernet and Zinfandel shelves. It’s big, bold and robust, but it’s rarely flashy. It’s a great “supporting role” grape that plays well with others—more often than not, even a small dollop of Syrah in any blend is noticeable. And yet, it has no problem being the star of its own show.

The three players in this Deconstruction are true representations of the various regions Syrah calls “home,” which, frankly, are many. Syrah thrives in cool climates like Sonoma, Santa Barbara and Chile, but also in hot regions including France’s Rhone Valley and Australia. It’s adaptable and malleable, but will always retain its distinctive smoky and meaty characteristics in some measure.

Guigal Crozes-Hermitage 2013Guigal Crozes-Hermitage Rouge | Crozes-Hermitage, Northern Rhone, France

SIGHT: The lightest of the bunch, this French Syrah has a deep cherry red color with a core of a violet-hued ruby. A swirl of the glass will leave behind very few tears and not much staining, meaning that we’re in for a moderately alcoholic wine.

SMELL: This Syrah takes a while to open up, so slice yourself up some cured ham and aged Gouda while you wait for it to unwind. It will show more non-fruit aromas than fruit at first, which is a perfect description of many French Syrahs. Graphite, bacon fat, smoked meat, cedar, menthol, white pepper and a slightly “stemmy” (green) characteristic all come through in various measures.

TASTE: With barely-ripe fruit notes of cherry and currant, this wine is dry! It has a medium body, medium-high acidity, medium-high tannins, and medium alcohol, clocking in at around 13.5%. I’m reminded of a taste of the blackened bits on a rack of ribs straight off the grill with this wine.

Crozes-Hermitage is a series of flat vineyards surrounding the kingly Hill of Hermitage in the Northern Rhone Valley. You’ll have to shell out hundreds of dollars for a Syrah coming from Hermitage proper, which is why Crozes-Hermitage is so important for those of us seeking out the character of French Syrah without having to dig into our retirement funds! Rocky, stony, graphite-laden soils mix with clay and sand, resulting in medium-weighted, slightly austere-tasting wines. Syrah coming from Hermitage and the surrounding areas are known to be some of the longest-lived reds in the world.

Alexandria Nicole Destiny Ridge Jet Black 2014

Alexandria Nicole “Jet Black” Syrah | Horse Heaven Hills, Washington, USA

SIGHT: The “Jet Black” is true to its name, taking on a darker, inkier shade than the Guigal. You’ll notice significant staining coating the glass, giving us a good clue on what to expect later on.

SMELL: No need to wait around for this Syrah to open up! Blueberry pie, black raspberry, blackcurrant and blackberry syrup aromas intertwine with notes of tar, violet, black licorice, tobacco, and a toasted oak note.

TASTE: Ripe, luscious flavors of blue and black fruits coat the tongue and, dare I say it, there might be some blueberry PopTart notes dancing around in there as well. (Just a suggestion.) A hint of black pepper floats around in the background. This wine has a medium-full body, medium-high tannins, medium acidity, and medium-high alcohol.

Horse Heaven Hills is a little place in Washington State’s Columbia Valley that has proven itself a fantastic New World home for Syrah. Eastern Washington’s “high desert” climate has the dry heat and long growing season that Syrah needs in order to get fully ripe. There’s an obvious fruit presence which separates itself from the Guigal, but this is a great example of an “intermediate style” Syrah—one that has both fruit and non-fruit characteristics.

Shinas Estate The Guilty Shiraz 2014

Shinas Estate “The Guilty” Shiraz | South Australia

SIGHT: If you can imagine even a darker shade of purplish black than “Jet Black,” Shinas Estate’s “The Guilty” Shiraz has it. Inky dark with no rim variation to speak of, it coats the inside of your glass with a transparent violet. *Side note: The only 2 countries that use the name “Shiraz” are Australia and South Africa, but it’s genetically the same grape as Syrah.

SMELL: Overripe, stewed blue and black fruits jump out of the glass, followed by cinnamon and clove. This jammy Shiraz has very little of the smoke and leather that we saw in the first two wines.

TASTE: The smells of this wine carry over directly to the palate. Juicy blackberries and blueberries burst on your tongue, with the slightest hint of ripe fruity sweetness. Look for a hint of tar floating in the background, adding complexity. This wine is medium-full across the board except for the level of acidity, which dips to a medium/medium-minus category.

This is a well-made, textbook example of a warm climate New World Shiraz. We can see a distinct winemaking difference between the Shinas and the Guigal: The Guigal is made in a straightforward, no-nonsense manner and reflects the plot of land it came from. It’s earthy, herbal and floral, and doesn’t have a ton of fruit to it. It’s simply what nature produced in that given year! The Shinas, on the other hand, is a direct result of what the winemaker wanted the wine to be like. Long hangtime, extended maceration, cold soaking, and wood aging were just a few of the techniques that were probably used in this punchy wine. This is one example where Shiraz isn’t the cool kid hanging out in the corner—he’s in the middle of the crowd, and the absolute life of the party.

Syrah lovers keep waiting for this bipolar grape to have its big breakthrough. Every year we hope and say, “This is the year of Syrah!” But maybe Syrah doesn’t need a particular grand moment to shine. It’s always been there, revered and respected, but it needs to be discovered on its own terms. Here’s to spreading the gospel of Syrah!