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Sipping Syrah by Timothy Buzinski and Mei Ying So

As with autumn, spring is a season of changes. Days grow longer and sweaters emerge from beneath winter coats. Our minds run to thoughts of tender asparagus, locally foraged morels and more delicately prepared dishes. The reality is, there is still a chill to the air and each week seems to bring a new snowstorm, each touted as bigger than the last. Thus we still crave wines that offer some texture, some body and complexity to pair with roasted meats and vegetables. With spring celebrations coming up, give syrah a try.

History of Syrah

You are probably most familiar with Australia’s ever-popular shiraz. Don’t be fooled by the spelling; this is indeed the same grape as syrah. The name variation leads to a discussion on the origins of the grape variety. Many point to the ancient Persian city of “Shiraz” in modern day Iran as the source for the grape and thus the name. The wine of “Shiraz” was known far and wide to be of high quality, however, the wine getting the most attention was in fact white, not red. Another theory revolves around the town of Syracuse in Sicily as shiraz was originally spelled scyras when it is thought to have arrived in Australia in 1832. Regardless of the theories, in 1998, it was scientifically established that the parents of syrah are in fact two obscure southern French grapes. While at home in France, the grape is now planted throughout the world. According to renowned wine writer Jancis Robinson, it is the seventh most planted grape and fifth most common red grape. Examples can be found everywhere from Argentina to Switzerland and beyond. While most wine critics acknowledge that shiraz has a rightful place in the world, they also agree that France is home to the world’s best syrah.

Styles of Syrah

Every region and country brings its own unique set of factors to bear on growing syrah, thus different styles have developed. Again, there are no hard and fast rules about syrah or any other grape, or region for that matter. It is often tempting to simply label or compartmentalize grapes or regions as being of a certain style, but there is always an exception. With that in mind, some regions have become known for creating certain styles of wines. Syrah offers perhaps the clearest example of this generalization. The most simplistic way of looking at this would be to compare fruit-forward, softer styles with more complex, dry versions.

Australia would have to be the epicenter of fruit-forward syrah/shiraz. These wines are usually riper and sweeter, offering hints of cocoa mingled with a more subtle sense of spice. At the other pole, France’s northern Rhône, with its steep, rocky slopes, offers wines with more dominant spice, more subtle fruit and a medium to full body. While many would say the region of Hermitage makes the finest manifestation of syrah, other areas in France can also produce expressive wines. Other names to seek out in France include Côte Rôtie, St-Joseph, Cornas, and Crozes-Hermitage, all neighbors of Hermitage. At their best, these wines are silky in texture with intoxicating aromatics of peppery spice and dark fruit notes. Of these areas, in general, only Crozes-Hermitage and St-Joseph are approachable in youth.

Looking at domestic syrah, perhaps the most effective way to describe it is as a synthesis of the two styles. Syrah from California is generally more plush-textured than the wines of the northern Rhône while more restrained than those from down under. Syrah adapts well to a warm climate, so many parts of the west coast are good fits for this noble grape. Central California and parts of Napa, Sonoma and Mendocino are all sources for excellent quality syrah wines. On a recent trip to Sonoma, we discovered many innovative winemakers who are championing cool-climate syrahs. These wines focus on a fresh, elegant and more subtle style of syrah. Washington State is also producing exceptional wines using syrah, many of which hedge even closer to traditional northern Rhône styles. Wines from Columbia Valley and Walla Walla must be included in any conversation of home-grown syrahs. In addition to Australia, other southern hemisphere countries also use syrah. South Africa in particular is a great option with its smoky-styled shiraz. Chile and Argentina are also places to look to for well-made, value-driven syrah.

While syrah is not exactly a chameleon grape, changing with every different hillside, it does adapt. This is one of the reasons syrah is considered such a noble grape variety. Along with, for instance, pinot noir, when well-made, syrah not only expresses the subtleties of various regions, but also maintains a focus that lets you know you’re enjoying a bottle of syrah and not a merlot or zinfandel. Add to this its inherent structure and syrah earns a place among the best grapes. Lighter and fruitful versions are enjoyable in youth while more ambitious bottles are capable of aging for decades. With the spring holidays approaching, syrah will make a perfect companion on the table. This would be especially true if lamb is on the menu. The drying tannins of a youthful syrah will meld with the rich, gamey flavors of a Walnut Grove Farms leg of lamb.

A Few Bottles to Try

Bernard Ange Crozes-Hermitage AOC 2006 ($22-$25)
This is a delicate and pure expression of syrah. Loads of white pepper on the nose with more gentle fruit on the palate. A must for roast chicken.

Wines of Substance Syrah Washington State 2008 ($16-$18)
With a label design that riffs on the periodic table, the bottle is as memorable as the wine. This complete package has just the right balance, offering fruit, acid and structure.

Arnot-Roberts Syrah Hudson Vineyard North Block Los Carneros Napa Valley 2006 ($40-$50)
This wine is more subtle than many other California syrahs, but offers a powerful structure with juicy acidity and dry tannins that will marry perfectly with an Easter lamb.

Wagtail Shiraz Barossa 2008 ($15-$17)
A full-bodied style but with more balance than many Australian wines.

Galil Mountain Winery Syrah “Yiron” Galilee 2005 ($17-$22)
This Kosher wine is dark and intense with rich fruit and spices, sure to please on the Passover table.

Timothy Buzinski & Mei Ying So are the owners of the Artisan Wine Shop in Beacon

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