Wines of the Month

August, 2000

Syrahs of Summer

Summertime means meals with bold flavors, often cooked on the grill. Or at least it does most years -- when we actually have a summer. Still, even with the cold, wet weather we've been having in New England this year, I've still managed to find a few days when I could fire up the old outdoor cooker. The products of my backyard culinary expeditions usually beg for assertive wines that can stand up to charred meats and vegetables. One good choice is a big red wine. It doesn't have to be too complex; after all, it's summer, so life shouldn't be too complicated. However, it can't turn shy when a big slab of meat slams onto the plate, nor can it back down when challenged to a duel of flavors by a spunky spice rub.

What kind of wine fits the bill? Well, this year I've found myself reaching for a Syrah more often than anything else. I'll bet that some regular readers expected me to say "Zinfandel," and Zin is another good choice, but we all need some variety in our lives, right? However, beyond the desire for something different, Syrahs show a great affinity for the kinds of food I eat during the summer.

The Rhône region of France is the home of Syrah, and is where some of the most famous and ageworthy examples are made. It is especially prominent in the wines of the Northern Rhône, where it makes up 100% of the reknowned Hermitage reds, and a minimum of 80% of Côte-Rôtie (the white grape Viognier accounts for the rest of the blend). In the wines of the Southern Rhône, Syrah is often a minor component (Grenache rules in the South), but its popularity has been growing recently, and by looking carefully at the labels in the wine shop, one can find Southern Rhône reds made mostly (or entirely) from Syrah.

The Rhône isn't the only region making great Syrah, though. Plantings have been steadily increasing in Southern France, with many new Syrahs from Languedoc-Roussilon showing up on wine store shelves. However, the region which probably has created the most worldwide awareness of the variety isn't in France, and doesn't even call the grape Syrah. I'm speaking, of course, about Australia, where Syrah is known as Shiraz (and in the past was sometimes called "Hermitage," before international agreements rightly put a stop to the practice), and has long been the workhorse red grape for winemakers. Australia has done such a good job promoting its Shiraz that the variety is probably better known under that name than under its "original" designation. And the fact that Australia and South Africa use varietal labelling for most wines, while the traditional regions of Syrah production in France use geographic designations, hasn't exactly hurt the spread of the name "Shiraz."

The name Shiraz often causes confusion among consumers. In fact, I'm often asked, "What's the difference between Syrah and Shiraz?" My answer is, "Nothing." In the past, some people might have claimed a difference based on geography, as the grape was known as Shiraz in Australia and South Africa, but Syrah nearly everywhere else. However, I've recently seen wines from California with "Shiraz" on the label, and wines from Australia called "Syrah," so the name may be due to the winemaker's (or a marketer's) whim. The names also lead to some confusion about the origin of the variety. While you may see claims that Syrah/Shiraz originated in the city of Shiraz in ancient Persia, that theory has been discredited for a number of reasons -- one of which is that, although the city of Shiraz was once famous for wine, it was known for its white wines. No one really knows where Syrah/Shiraz originated, but the strongest current hypotheses are that it is either indigenous to the Rhône, or that it was brought there by the Romans (but not from Shiraz...).

Regardless of the controversies around the grape's name and its origin, there can be no doubt that it is responsible for great wines from many areas of the world. In fact, Syrah seems to be undergoing an explosion in popularity. Not only are plantings increasing in France (particularly the Southern Rhône and Languedoc-Roussillon) and Australia, but California Syrah acreage increased by five times in the short period from 1992 to 1996. Syrah has also been gaining popularity in Washington State and parts of Italy. And Syrahs from New Zealand have started to hit the shelves in the United States (a couple of good ones from the 1998 vintage are listed on my Boston Wine Expo 2000 New Zealand page).

Why is Syrah becoming so popular? I'd like to think it's because the grape has the rare ability to produce both great wines and great bargain wines. While Syrah can produce powerful, profound, ageworthy wines (think Chave Hermitage, Guigal's single-vineyard Côte-Rôties, Penfolds Grange), it can also produce inexpensive, easy-to-drink wines with a lot of character. You can find a number of consistent performers, particularly from Australia, in the $8-15 range that will give you a lot of pleasure for a reasonable price. I think that the currently ubiquitous Merlot provides an interesting contrast. Merlot is capable of producing some of the world's greatest wines (e.g. Chateau Petrus), but your wallet will likely feel much lighter after making that kind of purchase. Cheap Merlots do exist; however, they aren't necessarily bargains, as shown by the wave of inexpensive, but essentially characterless, Merlot currently inundating US wine store shelves and restaurant wine lists.

Many inexpensive Syrahs, like the ones I'm recommending this month, offer forward fruit, often showing exuberant plum and berry flavors, making them effective crowd-pleasers. For grilling, though, it's the characteristic notes of leather and meat, along with pepper and spice, that really make the match. Although some Syrahs can be quite hard when young, the inexpensive ones -- which are the ones I'd pick when cranking up the backyard BBQ, anyhow -- tend to drink well from release. These aren't delicate, shy wines, either; their muscle should stand up to the bold flavors of grilled fare. So next time you're heading outside to cook, pop the cork on a good Syrah. You won't be disappointed.

Domaine de L'Auris Côtes du Roussillon '98 -- A Syrah-based blend from the south of France. Aromas of blackberries, meat, slightly candied black cherry along with some floral notes. Nice plum blackberry, and black cherry fruit in the mouth, framed by charred oak, with subtle notes of anise and roasted meat. Finishes well, with more fruit, dark chocolate, and a fairly strong tannic grip. The only quibble is that it seems to lack a bit of concentration in the mid-palate. May be better in a year or two. A good deal at $10.

Rosemount Shiraz (Diamond Label) South Eastern Australia '98 -- This wine is a perennial best-buy. No, it isn't profound, but it always provides a lot of pleasure for a little money. The nose is somewhat simple, showing just some plum and a little vanilla. Lush plum flavors, with vanilla, chocolate and spice. Given a little air, some leather and meat character shows through, along with some black cherry, adding just enough complexity. Light tannins. Big, if somewhat simple, flavors. Pleasant -- and likely to be a crowd-pleaser, as there aren't any rough edges -- but not as good as some earlier vintages. Still a good buy.

Peter Lehmann The Barossa Shiraz Barossa '98 -- This Peter Lehmann Shiraz is one of my perennial favorites in the $10-15 category. Peter Lehmann is one of the legendary figures in Australian winemaking, and his winery has produced another winner. The nose is closed at first, showing only chocolate and oak. 10-15 minutes in the glass make a big difference, with aromas of plum, cherry, chocolate and some high-toned, almost floral, notes coming through. Lush mouthfeel, with plum, black cherry and chocolate flavors, along with a good oak structure. The finsh shows more fruit, along with some hints of meat. An occasional streak of acidity shows up at the end, making this wine show better with food than alone. This vintage has very little tannin, so I think it will be better for drinking earlier than other years.
(The '95 vintage of this wine was reviewed in the October 1999 Wines of the Month)

Bedford Thompson Syrah Santa Barbara County '95 -- Starts off with aromas of blackberries and spice, making me think at first that it may be the "Zin of Syrahs". The inital flavors of blackberry and vanilla do little to change my impression. Later, however, the wine develops plum, leather, game and black pepper aromas, and flavors. The berries and vanilla don't disappear, either, adding to the complexity. Finishes nicely with more of the same flavors, along with a little black cherry. Very little tannin is in evidence. Found on sale for $14, which is a real bargain. Drink up.

As always, your comments are welcome.

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Copyright 2000 by Marcel Lachenmann.