Wines of the Month

January, 2002

Paternity Test

The origins of grape varieties can be fascinating. The best-known grapes have been grown for centuries, and the origins of many of them have been lost to history, often becoming shrouded in uncertainty and myth. Until now, that is.

Modern science has a way of dispelling myths, no matter how poetically appealing they may be. And in the case of grapes, the science of DNA analysis (basically, the same type of analysis done in paternity tests and criminal investigations) has resulted in a bounty of information about the previously mysterious origins of some of the oldest and most famous varieties. And one of the most tantalizing examples of the power of science to debunk old legends is that of Syrah.

"Syrah" is best known for its role in France's Rhône Valley, where it is the principal red grape of the Northern Rhône, starring in wines such as Hermitage and Côte-Rôtie. It also appears in the wines of the Southern Rhône, though Grenache is more widely cultivated in that region. Today, Syrah is produced in many areas of the world, and some people even argue that the grape is most widely known, at least among casual consumers, by another name, "Shiraz" (more on the importance of this name in a moment). "Shiraz" wines were popularized by the Australians, who generally favored a lush, fruitier, less-earthy, and more forward style than the Rhône vintners. Today, you can also find "Shiraz" from South Africa and the United States. However, regardless of which name is used, the grape is still the same.

Syrah has been known by many names at various times and in different regions, but "Syrah" and "Shiraz" (along with some variants) have contributed most to the myths about the origin of the grape. The most widespread story used both names to point to an Eastern origin. The ancient Persian city of Shiraz was famous for its high quality wine. As a result, some people believed that Syrah was a corruption of "Shiraz," denoting that the grape had its roots in that region, being introduced into France by Romans, Crusaders, or trade (depending on the version being told). Some Australians have gone so far as to claim that their name is really the "proper" historical designation, and that they aren't using the French "corruption." However, like many aesthetically pleasing stories that aren't based on much evidence, this one falls apart if you look carefully at the facts.

First, the idea that this red grape made the Persian city of Shiraz famous seems unlikely, at best. Shiraz was famous for its white wine, not red. Second, the name of the grape doesn't really point at one unique possible origin. Using the name of a grape to determine its origin has its own difficulties (as you'll see later), but even if you accept the validity of the technique, the relationship between Syrah/Shiraz and the Persian city becomes quite murky. Shiraz was given that name in Australia after being imported from france by James Busby in 1832. Unfortunately, he didn't call it Shiraz; he noted the grape name as "Scyras". Now "Scyras" and "Syrah" may share some similarity to "Shiraz," but people have also argued for a connection to Syracuse (on Sicily), from where it could have been brought by Romans, or Cyprus. Since the name doesn't just lead to one possible origin, but to many, its usefulness is limited at best. The circumstantial evidence, along with ampelographic analyses of various Rhône grapes, led experts to abandon the city of Shiraz hypothesis years ago. However, the myth has continued to spread; in the past year, I've heard it from wine enthusiasts, retailers, and even, just last month, a local wine columnist.

Fortunately, in June of last year, scientists Carole Meredith, of the University of California at Davis, and Jean-Michel Boursiquot, of L'École Nationale Superiore Agronomique de Monpellier, produced a definitive study, absolutely settling the question of Syrah's origin. Their DNA analysis established that Syrah is the offspring of two obscure French grapes, Dureza and Mondeuse Blanche. Dureza is grown in the Ardeche region, west of the Rhône, and Mondeuse Blanche (a.k.a. Dongine) is a relative of Mondeuse Noire, both of which are grown in the Savoie. With two French parents, it is absolutely clear that Syrah is indigenous to France, despite any more exotic myths you may hear.

Whatever the name, and regardless of its origin, Syrah can make wonderful wines, with fruit, earth, spice, and pepper elements. The best Syrahs reward aging, and many are great to drink in their youth. Even though it may not have as exotic of a history as some people thought, it still gives plenty of pleasure in the glass!

This month, I've selected a few Syrahs (and a Shiraz...) in a range of styles, and from very different parts of the world, to show off the versatility of this great grape.

Rosemount Shiraz South Eastern Australia '99 - Typical Rosemount diamond-label shiraz, with plum, spice, black cherry and a bit of chocolate in the nose. Lush mouthfeel with little acid or tannin. Good black fruits with a bit of leather to keep things interesting. Finishes with medium length and intensity, black fruit flavors dominating. Not as intense as some previous years, but still quite enjoyable and a bargain at approximately US$10. Drink soon.
B+

Qupe Syrah Bien Nacido Vineyard Santa Barbara '98 - Aromas of chocolate, toasty wood, and some plum. Flavors of plum and black cherry, but also a lot of wood given the intensity level of the fruit. More oak than fruit on the finish, too, along with very moderate tannins. While I think time would help the fruit and oak integrate, the lack of acidity and tannin makes me think that this will drink better young. If you are fond of oaky wines, you'll like this better than I did.
B

Paul Jaboulet Ainé Crozes-Hermitage Les Jalets '94 - A nice bargain from the Rhône Valley. This wine was decanted, and the evolution was followed over several hours. The nose is subdued at first, but then develops some cherry, meat, pepper, and other complex notes. Dark ruby, with brick edges, and a somewhat murky appearance. The palate also changes with time, being quite closed at first, with only modest cherry and leather. Later, meat, plum, and anise come out, and later, pepper and tobacco. Somewhat lacking concentration, and the acidity seems slightly high. Graceful finish, with anise, leather, cherry, meat, tobacco, and tertiary flavors. The smooth tannins are still evident. A bargain for US$11.
B+

The Ojai Vineyard Syrah California '94 - Fills the glass and your nose with plums and chocolate, later adding some earthy notes. Lots of plum, cherry, and brambleberry fruit, along with some spice, earth, and smoke notes. Tannins are still evident, but very smooth. Long, satisfying, mouthfilling finish of cherries, earth, and plums.
A-

As always, your comments are welcome.


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Copyright 2002 by Marcel Lachenmann.