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Hurrah to Three Syrahs

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What do the wines of Hermitage (Jaboulet Aîné La Chapelle, Jean-Louis Chave), Cote Rotie (Guigal’s single-vineyard Cote Roties-La Mouline, La Turque, La Landonne), and Penfold’s Grange have in common? Well, they are easily some of the most sought after, iconic, and expensive wines produced (a case of 1961 Hermitage La Chapelle recently sold at auction for $98,587). More fundamentally, they are all Syrah-based wines. With the sea of unidimensional, mass-produced Shiraz that fills supermarket shelves and college dorm recycling bins, it’s easy to forget that some of the world’s most profound wines are made from Syrah.

When picked ripe, Syrah produces dark, dense, alcoholic, rich wines. In fact, these attributes made it common practice in the 18th and 19th centuries to “hermitage” the wines of Bordeaux. That is to say, wine makers and merchants blended Syrah from the Northern Rhone region of Hermitage to bolster the often anemic, under-ripe wines of Bordeaux. One writer even noted in 1827 that a staggering 80% of the production of Hermitage was sold that year to members of the Bordeaux wine trade. It is worth mentioning that even today, one often hears rumors about Pinot Noir producers, especially in California, augmenting their wines with Syrah. There is little doubt that Syrah is capable of supplementing some of the finest wines in the world, but it also produces plenty of fine wines that fall closer to the ‘everyday wine’ category.

Recently, Syrah has been hit by a wave of consumer disinterest. Only a few years ago, Australian Shiraz was a best seller and Syrah was being madly planted in California (in 1985, there were only 100 acres of it in CA, today there are at least 13,000 acres). Then, due to a complex nexus of factors, consumers began turning away from the variety and today most wine shops have greatly reduced their shelf space that was once devoted to Syrah. It’s a real shame because there has never been so much good Syrah on the market as there is today. While the famous appellations of the Northern Rhone (principally Hermitage and Cote Rotie) and Australia’s Barossa Valley remain the source of the most famous examples of the variety, there are fantastic Syrah’s being produced in the Languedoc-Roussillon region of France, the Central Coast of California, Yakima, Columbia Valley, and Walla Walla regions of Eastern Washington, New Zealand, and South Africa.

One of the most appealing aspects of Syrah is its stylistic range— determined either by terroir or winemaking techniques, or the combination thereof. For example, broadly speaking, wines from the Northern Rhone tend to express a certain meatiness and to possess solid underlying acidity, whereas many examples from Australia fall into the ‘fruit bomb’ category of exuberantly ripe, round fruit. Syrah, therefore, is an extremely versatile wine to pair with food. Moreover, in the winter months the variety is especially agreeable as its pairs particularly well with hearty, meat-rich dishes.

Below are three examples, each of which represents a fine example of Syrah.

2007 Camplazens Syrah Vin du Pays’Oc ($15.99)

This is a delightful example of the ‘old world’ Northern Rhone style of Syrah at a modest price. The Camplazens offers up a complex aromatic mélange of violets, enticing hints of grilled meat and sizzling bacon, wood smoke, and ripe blueberry fruit. This complexity carries over to the palate with dark plum and blackberry fruit, enhanced by meat and herb undertones. Nice underlying acidity makes this a great food wine, as does the fact that it weighs in at reasonable 13% alc.

2006 Rolf Binder Hales Barossa Valley Shiraz ($19.99)

This is a classic example of a relatively restrained Australian Shiraz, with its rich fruit profile, yet medium alcohol (14.5%) and modest new oak influenced flavors. On the nose, it presents intense creamy blueberry, and soy latte notes, while the palate is packed with jammy black cherry fruit with some nice spice accents. A great wine to warm up with next to the fire on a cold night, or to pair with rich winter beef dish, or wait until summer and pop it with some BBQ.

2009 Substance Syrah ($19.99)

While high-end Washington State Syrahs have been winning accolades for much of the last decade, this is a great example of a value-driven wine from the Evergreen state. It adroitly straddles the stylistic divide between the wines of old world and those of the new world. Pungent floral aromas of carnations and violets with hints of herb, humus, and grilled meats issue forth from the glass. In the mouth, it offers juicy raspberry and boysenberry flavors with a touch of fresh tartness developing at the back-end. This wine possesses amazingly richness and body for its medium alcohol (13.7%) and has nice acid and tannin underpinnings. It is very youthful and primary at this stage and, while it can be easily enjoyed now, it will only benefit from some short-term cellar time.