The Winemaker's Grape
California winemakers often refer to Syrah as a “winemaker’s grape” —meaning that it produces a wine beloved by geeky insiders but largely ignored by the wine-guzzling masses. Why this robust, meaty, full-bodied red wine has never caught on with the general public remains a mystery to many of us. That puts California Syrah in a funny position: it’s grown in many of our regions but is the signature wine of none, still trying to find its niche in the market, still undefined, searching for its true California identity.
As wine, Syrah is a chameleon, able to show a range of floral aromas (especially violet and lavender) and also to ooze with the unmistakable flavor of bacon fat.
In France’s northern Rhône Valley, especially the appellations of Hermitage and Côte-Rôtie, Syrah produces a brawny, peppery, tarry wine, often marked by roasted meat and licorice flavors. In Australia, where it’s called Shiraz, the grape often makes chocolatey wines exploding with rich, sweet fruit flavors, sometimes verging on a Port-like character. California’s tend to fall somewhere in the middle, lacking a statewide signature style. In Paso Robles, Syrah and blends are often bigger and fruiter; from Sonoma, Mendocino and Santa Barbara, meanwhile, they can be more taut and peppery.
Don’t be put off, either, by the burnt-rubber aromas that some Syrahs exhibit while young; this phenomenon, known as reduction, should blow off with a few strong swirls of your wine glass. And, in fact, reduction bodes well for the wine’s aging potential.
The wines are similar in weight to Cabernet Sauvignon and can serve a similar role in a meal —another reason why Syrah’s unpopularity continues to perplex. One group, the Rhône Rangers, has been trying to do something about that for the last few decades, promoting Syrah and other Rhône Valley grape varieties with tastings and events around the state. Surely Syrah’s time will come sooner or later — because once you discover the brooding possibilities of this endlessly complex wine, you’ll understand why winemakers obsess over it.
Major California regions: Paso Robles; Sonoma County, especially the Sonoma Coast; Sierra Foothills; Santa Barbara County; Mendocino Ridge.
Characteristic flavors: Black pepper, tar, leather, roasted meat, bacon fat, licorice, black olive, blackberry
Term to know: Co-fermentation
Co-fermentation refers to the practice of fermenting two different grape varieties together —far less common than blending, in which the two varieties are combined once they are each already a finished wine. The most famous co-fermentation practice happens in Côte-Rôtie, in the northern Rhone, where small amounts of the white grape Viognier are interplanted among Syrah vines. Each vineyard is picked all at once, and grapes from the scattered Viognier vines -- sometimes up to as much as 10 percent —go into the fermentation vats along with the Syrah. (In California, the grape varieties are not typically interplanted in the same vineyard.)
The logic goes that Syrah, especially when grown in such extreme conditions as the sun-baked, precipitous slopes of Côte-Rôtie, is so tight, brawny and meaty that it needs some of the floral, rounder white wine to soften it. While most California Syrah is just that -- Syrah -- there are a number of producers who will tell you they make a Côte-Rôtie-style wine, co-fermenting Viognier, often a very small amount, with their Syrah.
Learn More: Take the Sonoma Syrah Tour