Syrah has made a name for itself in the New World. Syrah, or Shiraz as the Aussies call it, has become the moniker of the fledgling, yet exponential Australian wine industry. Many parts of California share the southern Rhône's Mediterranean climate and have adopted syrah and other Rhône varietals with great success. Because of its similarity to the continental climate of the northern Rhône Valley, syrah has become the number one new varietal planted in Washington State. Examples of this blueberry, black peppered, gamy, spicy grape are showing up everywhere; the New World loves it. Even the Old World is adding a douse of it to their traditional blends.
When the Romans found the Rhône Valley two millennia ago, syrah was already being used to make exceptional wines. These syrah based wines were polished and ready to be measured against any of Italy's finest. Today, the only red varietal for most of the northern Rhône Valley is syrah. The southern Rhône Valley is permitted to grow nearly two dozen red and white varietals. The main red grapes in the south are grenache, syrah, and mourvèdre. This trilogy of grapes is a template used for many bottles of Rhône Valley Côtes du Rhône, as well as many New World Rhône blends.
The pioneers of the Rhône movement in California were nicknamed the "Rhône Rangers." Experimenting with Rhône varietals in the late 1970s, winemakers such as Ted Cline, Randal Grahm of Bonny Doon, and Joseph Phelps were instrumental in getting syrah on the shelves of the American market. Syrah from California is produced in three different styles. When referred to as syrah, the wine may be styled as a northern Rhône red, reflecting terrior (the essence of the earth), game, and white and black pepper with notable tannin and acid levels. It can also be an example of syrah and syrah blends from the southern Rhône, offering very ripe, focused fruit flavors and spice. Call it Shiraz and it is almost guaranteed that the wine will smack of berry jam with a soft texture.
Many believe that syrah originated in the Persian city called Shiraz. Others believe that it is indigenous to the Rhône Valley. Syrah is Shiraz, but is not petit sirah. It has spent a few thousand years in France, but today it is creating an icon in the Southern Hemisphere. Australia exports more Shiraz and Shiraz blends than any other red wine and Australia exports massive amounts of red wine. Australia is the number two importer into the United States behind Italy.
While Australia offers us inexpensive, jammy bottles of this red, Washington state serves up French styled syrah with depth and character at an everyday price too. Washington state syrahs are smoky and alluring, throwing off hints of white pepper, dried flowers, spice, and ripe blueberries. Washington state syrahs are reminiscent of northern Rhône Valley appellations, such as Hermitage, Saint-Joseph, and Cornas.
The balance between acidity and tannin, spice and fruit makes syrah a very versatile wine. Because of this balance, syrah is able to pair with many dishes. It takes well to oak aging, yet is delightful without it. Its diversity and quality are ancient, yet it is a very up-and-coming grape today.
Recommended syrahs and syrah blends:
Covey Run Syrah, Washington $7
Bonny Doon Sirah-Syrah, Languedoc $10
Domaine d' Andezon, Rhône Valley $11
Woop Woop Shiraz, Australia $12
Cimicky Trump Shiraz, Australia $15
Babcock Syrah, California $21
Domain du Roc Tradition, Rhône Valley $15
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