You are absolutely driving a large number of grape growers and wine producers mad. Yes, you! Don’t look around, innocent and all, playing like it isn’t you. Who else could it be?
Winemakers are enamored with the syrah grape. Also known as shiraz in Australia. They love it and most want to make some really good fermented juice from this fetching creature. But you won’t buy it if they do. You have almost completely turned your back on one of the major grape varietals in the wine world. What are you thinking?
Okay, take a moment. Let’s start at the beginning.
Syrah probably dates back to at least the time of Pliny the Elder (I wonder what name his grandfather was known by as a child), who referred to a prized grape and the resulting wine around the town of Vienne in the northern Rhone Valley of France. Quite possibly that was the earliest reference to Côte-Rôtie, a wine still popular today.
It is conjectured that the name of the grape was taken from the Iranian town, Shiraz, and brought to France’s Rhone Valley by early itinerants who settled around what is today Marseilles, then known to the Phocaeans as Masilla. Once the grape was established the local dialect changed its name from shiraz to syrah.
Seems the Australians have great respect for old European (oh, sure!) cultures and when the grape demonstrated adaptability to their soils and climate, they decided that Shiraz was a more authentic name. Both Shiraz and Syrah are the same grape genetically, just grown in different spots.
Which brings us, most likely, to our current tale, shiraz and the Australians.
Since shiraz wants, and is capable, of producing big outputs of crop and thus juice, that is the quantity trap into which the Australians have fallen. When a grape, any grape, yields lots of fruit, and the vineyard manager allows that condition, the wines suffer. Sure, you have plenty of product with which to work but the end result is not going to impress anyone really interested in fine wine.
Throughout the 90s and the 00s (I really don’t know how else to express that period of time), the juice was flowing, the wines were coming, and the public was not showing up at the cash register to purchase and consume. Highly forgettable and huge crops became a literal ocean of grape juice. Simultaneously (do ya’ think there’s a connection?) anyone making syrah or shiraz wine soon built up huge inventories of stocks and no place for them to go. They certainly were not going to the consumers, who wanted nothing to do with them.
Sadly for the American winemakers they had some darn good juice that could not find a home. On the other hand, the French had a run of good vintages and they were doing pretty well. Maybe it was due to the fact that consumers of French wines are more knowledgeable. Maybe it was due to the fact that French wines for the most part are not identified on the label by the name of the grape varietal but rather by the geographic area of origin. Quite possibly some consumers found they really like Côte-Rôtie or Cotes du Rhone and had no idea these wines contain syrah. Nor would they even care. They just wanted fine wine. And they did get it from these regions.
Even to this day, well after Australia has somewhat cleaned up its Shiraz act, the wines sit there on the shelves. Retailers and restaurateurs many years ago decided to cut back on what they bought of these wines. Quite possibly if you are an adventuresome wine purchaser and drinker you can find some older vintages at decent prices. In shiraz, it’s a buyer’s market. Keep in mind that you will be in a minority of wine lovers mining for bargains with this grape.
Yet, syrah is a fine grape with which to make wine. It’s just had thrust upon it a very bad reputation. Maybe syrah can consult with merlot, which has now come out of its funk days as a whipping child.
And maybe the answer is about the same: start blending. Syrah and grenache are already natural bottle-buddies as many of the wines from the Southern Rhone region contain sizeable percentages of both grapes.
For purposes of our friends on the West Coast, syrah and zinfandel could be interesting bedmates.
Our friend, Dan Berger, respected wine critic and author, suggests that syrah, sangiovese, and barbera may work together because of complementary acid levels, with the Italian grapes having higher acids than the low-acid-level Syrah. I really don’t see this as a great possibility because there is not that much sangiovese or barbara being made on the West Coast, and those folks that are growing those grapes want to establish them as viable winemaking raw products on their own.
And there has been much discussion of putting syrah together with pinot noir. In fact, some winemakers have been accused of doing that already without revealing on the label or to the wine buyer that the blend was done. No one has admitted to this sort of activity, but American wine laws say that in order to put a sole grape varietal on the label, the wine must contain at least 85 percent of that grape, which leaves 15 percemt for a winemaker to use other grapes in order to shore up certain shortcomings of the main grape, like color, bouquet, middle-palate support, or acid. In truth there are very few wines that are 100 percent of any one grape. Also in truth, winemakers are loath to disclose all of their techniques or additives to consumers. Hate to tell you that, but it’s true.
Anyway, since you have shown the good grace to come this far, let me ask you a favor. Pick up a bottle of syrah from the West Coast. Taste it well. What I think you will find is a good product with excellent depth of flavor. Perfect for many of our heavier dishes, like duck confit or even with a steak.
I would hope the price is a value and that you get a lot of pleasure from the experience. And know you will be making a winemaker very happy.