Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Get to Know your Grapes Series - Syrah a.k.a. Shiraz

"Once I saw this wino who was eating grapes, and I said, 'Dude, you have to wait'" 
- Mitch Hedberg

Syrah Grapes on the Vine
As you may already know, Syrah and Shiraz grapes are one in the same. The name Shiraz is used mostly in Australia, South Africa, and some other new world wine areas.  Some wineries in other areas will also use the Shiraz name to denote that they are attempting to make their Syrah wine in a typical Australian style - big, concentrated and fruity. Syrah on its own can make big, tannic wines that can rival the big Cabernet Sauvignon wines. In Australia, Shiraz is what put their wine industry on the map.  Historically, Syrah was the key red grape of the Northern Rhone in France, where up to 20% of the white grape Viognier is blended with the Syrah to tone down the “bigness” of the grape and to add some great floral and white fruit aromas. In the Southern Rhone, Syrah is also used as a blending component with Grenache playing the role of lead grape.

France and Australia may be two key spots to find Syrah wine, but others areas focus on this grape as well.  In facts, there is a non-profit organization in California called the Rhone Rangers that provides information and promotes the making of wine from the 22 allowable Rhone varietals, including Syrah.  This organization focuses on wineries and growers, but consumers like us can be Rhone Range "Sidekicks" at no cost to get information on Rhone Ranger tastings and events at member wineries - just click the Become a Rhone Ranger link on their site and select Consumer (Sidekick) to sign up.

You may have also seen bottles of “Petite Sirah” on the shelves of you local wine shop - a name that sometimes causes confusion for those in search of Syrah/Shiraz.  Petite Sirah is a grape related to  Syrah (a cross between Syrah a grape called Peloursin). The “Petite” refers to the fact that the grapes are smaller, which means more grapeskin to grape juice - making potentially bigger and more tannic wines that Syrah. So don’t think Petite Sirah is just a light bodied version of Syrah - depending on the winemaker, it make be more massive (kind of like calling your big friend “Tiny”).

Typical Aromas of Syrah.  Dark fruit like blackberries, licorice, tar, leather, black pepper, smoke, earth, and my personal favorite - smoked meats (including raw bacon).  I will always remember one of the wines from my wine class with the International Sommeliers Guild. It was a Crozes-Hermitage from the Northern Rhone - and as soon as I took a whiff it was like opening a package of raw smoked bacon - it just doesn’t get any better than that!  Syrah may also show some herbal characteristics like mint and sometimes even eucalyptus.

Penfold's Grange - My Bucket List Item!
Typical Styles of Syrah Wine. Around the world, Syrah is used to make some very epic wines. Starting in France’s Rhone region - Cote Rotie wines are super pricey and very interesting with the addition of white wine blending grapes to the mix.  Elsewhere in the world, Syrah may be used alone but is often blended with other grapes (typically red grapes) in order to mellow out the intensity of the wine and make it drinkable without requiring a lot of aging. One of the more famous New World takes on Syrah (Shiraz in this case) is one of my bucket list wines (yes my bucket list is basically a crazy wine list!) that I've been able to check off- Penfold’s Grange.  To say the Grange I tried was epic was an understatement.  For one year the bottle was basically my birthday, Christmas, Valentines, and Arbor Day (had to throw Arbor in to lower the price per holiday) presents all combined into one - but so absolutely totally worth it!

Let's Eat! What Food Pairs with Syrah/Shiraz Wines? Syrah is a great wine to pair with food, and I probably serve it more than any other red wine with food - from Sous Vide Lamb Loin Chops with a Mint Pesto to some great BBQ take out from Famous Dave's - very versatile!  Stay away from hot and spicy dishes or overly acidic dishes like a vinegary sauce for a salad or vegetables - find a white wine for these types of dishes.

  •  Grilled Foods. Much like Cabernet Sauvignon - the tannins in Syrah pair nicely with the bitter char added to food through a good grilling.
  • Herbs.  A dish with herbal notes, from a marinade or as a component of the dish will go nicely with the herbal notes of a good Syrah.
  • Barbecue. My favorite BBQ wine ever, the sweet fruit and smoky characteristics of Syrah are a natural pairing for any type of BBQ.
Who Makes Syrah Wines?  Here are the key places now producing Syrah/Shiraz: 
  • Rhone Valley, France.  In the Northern Rhone, Syrah is the star red wine grape, while it the Southern Rhone it is also used for blending. 
  • Australia. The home of full bodied, big fruit and potentially big tannins - key regions are the Barossa Valley and McClaren Vale.
  • Central Coast and Paso Robles, California. Lots of great Syrah being made in the central part of California.  Including great value wines as well as epic wines, impossible to get, and crazy expensive wines (i.e. “OMG wines”) from Sine Qua Non (which is Latin for “that without which there is nothing”... what a great name!)
  • Napa and Sonoma, California. Some makers of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot also produce Syrah wines.
  • Washington State. Especially in the Walla Walla region, definitely worth trying.
  • South Africa. Syrah was first planted in South Africa in the 1600s, the first appearance of Syrah outside of France.  Syrah plantings have been on the rise, surpassing the local South African varietal of Pinotage.
  • Argentina and Chile.  Once again, you can look to South America for some excellent value Syrah wines.  I have seen more Syrah from Chile than Argentina, but both use the grape is blends as well (e.g. with Cabernet Sauvignon).
Words of Advice. Some things to keep in mind to make sure you get the most out of your Syrah Purchase:
  • Choose your Style.  The French versions of Syrah will mostly differ significantly from New World Syrah/Shiraz from the U.S., Australia, South Africa etc - especially if white wine grapes are used in the blend.  You may ending preferring one style over the other.
  • Give Central California a Chance. Lots of great Syrah wines, and the cooler weather can make for better growing conditions for this grape than in Napa and Sonoma which is often more suited to Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Red Zinfandel grapes.
Looking for some good brands to try? 
Darioush Signature Shiraz
  • My all time favorite Syrah is a splurge wine - but it is just absolutely awesome: Darioush Signature Shiraz (from Napa, although called Shiraz for both the style of wine, and the Persian ancestry of the winemakers - Shiraz is also the name of a city in Iran).
  • Montes Alpha Shiraz - from Chile, a great value wine.
  • Buttonwood - a smaller winery near Los Olivos, CA likely only available at the winery, but oh so good!
  • R Wines Southern Gothic Belle Shiraz - I am not sure if they are still making this wine, but they actually age the wine in old Kentucky bourbon barrels, giving the wine some really interesting aromas and tastes - don’t worry the impact is subtle.
  • Charles Smith Boom Boom Syrah - from Washington State - a great value and our go-to wine to go with Famous Dave’s BBQ!

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