Make smart Syrah choices; don’t fall for the hype

October 21, 2019

This week is about Syrah. Some name it Shiraz, Antourenein noir, Balsamina, Candive, Entournerein, Hignin noir, Marsanne noir, Schiras, Sirac, Syra, Syrac, Serine, and Sereine depending on which country you are visiting. For our purposes, let’s stick with Syrah or Shiraz. Please don’t confuse Syrah with Petite Sirah (actual name is Durif), a cross of Syrah with Peloursin. Syrah is a black grape varietal, a clonal mix of two obscure clones, Dureza and Mondeuse Blanche. Most commonly found in the Rhône Valley of France, Spain, Italy, South Africa, California AVAs, Texas, the Columbia Valley in Oregon and Washington, and Hunter Valley, McLaren Vale, and Barossa Valley in Australia. It loves very hot days with cool nights and literally can grow on rocky granite escarpments.

Descriptors commonly associated with Syrah are blackberry, dark chocolate, prominent tannin and acidity. Where the climate is more moderate you will often find mint, eucalyptus, smoked meat, and black pepper notes, while in hot regions, licorice, cloves, espresso, mocha and dark chocolate come into play. Old World, France, Italy, Spain and Africa Syrahs in addition to brighter acidity usually show earthy forest floor and herbaceous notes, while those from the U.S., Australia, and South America tend toward olive, pepper, clove, vanilla, mint, licorice, chocolate, allspice, rosemary, cured meat, bacon fat, tobacco, herbs and smoke. Nearly all are barrel aged. Sirah is usually one of the darkest red wines to be found. Those who enjoy bleu cheese burgers, barbecue, venison or roast lamb with garlic and aromatics such as Herbes de Provence, composed of lavender, fennel and thyme, will truly enjoy Syrah. 

Domestic Syrah runs anywhere from $400/bottle to under $20. I say avoid the highly touted and shop. A terrific way to start learning about domestic Syrah is to pick up a bottle of Chateau Ste. Michelle Syrah Columbia Valley. These have rated 88 McD forever and can be had in the $15-$16 range. Try to locate something from 2013 or ‘14. Mocha nose, berry flavors, approachable. Shop this wine carefully. For example, Charles Smith K Vintners is going for $55-$70. I only rated it 87, as did most critics. For some reason there is a lot of hype surrounding many Syrahs from Columbia Valley.

As a kid, I loved Davy Crockett. I now enjoy Fess Parker Santa Barbara Syrah when I’m looking for the Central Coast profile. Consistent 89-90 McD and priced around $20. The 2017 has had some nice press, and prices are near $25. I’ve not sampled any yet. Wine Spectator says 91 points, plump and zesty, showing layered blackberry, grilled anise and pepper flavors that finish with refined tannins. Drink now through 2024. 

Big-buck buyers, this is a shopper’s paradise. Colgin Cellars IX Estate Syrah 2012 from Napa rated around 95 points and in its window came in at $200 and is selling for $190. Still has plenty of shelf life. Many like this are in the same happy valley. Kongsgaard Hudson Vineyard Syrah 2012, by comparison, came in at $251 due to huge hype and is ready now; it can easily be found under $180. I’m aware I wrote that Petite Syrah “ain’t Syrah,” but Turley Vineyards is in Napa and Tegan Passalacqua is a standout winemaker. Here’s a true bargain: Turley 2012 was a Parker 100 points pick; drink 2015-53. Less excitable writers awarded 95ish. It came in at $101 and is easily found under $90; McD 96 and a great way to acquaint yourselves with this varietal wine. You can’t talk about Cali Syrah without mentioning Sine Qua Non. Sorry, gang, this reminds me of the Pouilly Fuisse craze. People felt so cool saying the name. Yes, that is a bit snotty, but most of these are overhyped, overpriced and those reading here can do much better. Send me an email and I’ll clue you in.

Let’s finish the week with an affordable, good-value product. Ferraton Pere et Fils Saint-Joseph La Source 2015 will run you about $30. It opens to dark, nearly black color with plum, blackberry, coffee, graphite, smoked meat aromas and some barrel notes. Blackberry and plum plus barrel spice repeat on palate; add in some black pepper, coffee, anise and a touch of smoke. Finishes long and slightly tannic indicating it will cellar, 89 McD.

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