Syrah has thrived in the Rhone valley of France for thousands of years while its origin has been the subject of mysterious and romantic tales befitting the wines it is capable of producing. Some claimed it was brought to France by Roman legions from Egypt, while other versions held that it originated in Persia near the city of Shiraz (hence the Australian name for the grape) and found its way to Marseilles via the nautical Phoenicians. In the late 1990s, research at the French National Agronomy Archives in Montpellier and the University of California at Davis eliminated the romance by establishing that Syrah is an indigenous variety to France. DNA profiling proved Syrah to be a genetic cross of two obscure varieties, dureza and mondeuse blanche.
Syrah has long been the star of red Rhone wines in France, and the blockbuster Shiraz of Australia. Now, in the United States no red varietal is growing faster in popularity than Syrah/Shiraz. Its sales are rising each year, eclipsing the percentage rise in Zinfandel and Merlot. Granted Syrah started from a smaller base, but there are signs that Syrah is just warming up to grab hold of the palate of American wine consumers and not let go. Giving Syrah a big boost is The Rhone Rangers, an organization of Wineries, Growers and Consumers dedicated to introducing and educating consumers to what fabulous wines American grown Syrah can produce.
Syrah is packed with flavor, color and a tannin structure built to last; it is relatively hassle-free, both in the vineyard and the winery; it works well either as a single varietal or in complex blends; it has historic credentials for fine winemaking; and today it produces world-class wines from France, Australia and the US. Syrah's characteristic flavors have been described as dark fruits, sometimes smoke, meat (particularly bacon), leather and a white pepper finish. Cooler regions seem to bring out black pepper, green olive and spice aromas while warmer regions have more pronounced raspberry, cherry and earthy notes It is as versatile a “food wine” as any red wine can be and with its complexity, depth and spice it is no wonder that Syrah is headed to be a superstar.
Other Syrah characteristics are that it does best in a warm (but not too hot) climate, and on well-drained, rocky soils; it buds relatively late and ripens relatively early; is not prone to disease or rot. Over-cropping or excessive water can make quality drop off sharply. Syrah is one noble variety that shows well when aged in American oak.
In France, Syrah is the only red grape allowed in the great wines from the northern Rhone (Cote-Rotie, Hermitage, etc.), and it makes an important contribution to the character of the blended wines from the southern Rhone (from Chateauneuf-du-Pape to Cotes-du-Rhone) where it is typically gives color and structure to wines based on Grenache and Mourvedre. In Australia, where it comprises about 40% of the planted wine grapes, it forms the backbone of generic red table wine, as well as the basis for more serious Cabernet-Shiraz blends and the near-legendary Penfolds Grange.
According to wine historian Charles Sullivan, the first Syrah vines were planted in California in the 1880s, but the modern Syrah era only started in the mid-1970s. As late as 1985, there were probably only 100 acres planted in the state; by 1997, acreage was over 2,000, and at 7200 acres just 3 years later. Today, plantings in California is estimated at over 13,000 acres and growing. Good Syrah grapes and good Syrah wines are emerging in many parts of the state, as well as the rest of the U.S.
All over California, growers are actively searching for ways to ensure quality in their fruit. The relatively rich soils and abundant water supply often lead to overly vigorous vines -- free of the stress that great Syrah needs. But each region of the state feels that it can grow the best Syrah. Paso Robles played an important role in propagating Syrah cuttings from France into California vineyards in the 1970s. Syrah seems to thrive in the Central Coast, which is the driest of all the coastal appellations, warm days and cool nights. It’s a rare summer night that doesn’t get below 55°. Yet, the oldest known Syrah vines in California (1919) are in Mendocino County. From the coastal hills near San Diego to Napa, Sonoma, Lodi-Woodbridge and the Sierra Foothills, Syrah is taking hold. But this exciting story doesn’t end with California. Many producers in Washington are looking for Syrah to become “the” red grape in the state and the enthusiasm for the varietal is convincing evidence that it will soon be true. New York, Texas and Virginia have taken to the grape as well. The upshot of all of this is that good Syrah, in a range of styles, can come from lots of different places and consumers are benefiting with wider availability of exceptional wine.