Saturday, February 24, 2018

SYRAH: a Shiraz by Value

Terraced vineyards of Cote Rotie, Rhone Valley
A river runs thru it; the mighty liquid highway churns south, just as it was for the conquering and wine loving  Romans.  Today, the Rhone River Valley of southeastern France remains that ancient birthplace and a benchmark of the ancient dark skinned Syrah grape. Here it produced the wine of French Kings' and their diplomacy from the 17th century, crafting notable wines even then that invited cellar aging and convenient favors. Outside of the Northern Rhone, Syrah found the sun that promoted its stiff, fleshy backbone, allowing the brooding variety to be a decorated foundation to the blends prominent in throughout the Mediterranean south. However, this noble grape of historical origins has gone global over the last two plus centuries, now to be found widely introduced from South Africa to Washington State and Australia.

Savory. Blessed with acid and tannin strengths that encourage bottle aging, having opaque skins that could tolerate warmer climates, Syrah today is one of those grapes that can reflect where it was nurtured, thereby altering its Old World character. Tasting of savory dark fruits, bramble and olive, often described as gamy or of smoked meats, Syrah in warmer climates can introduce a riper, jammy fruit and occasional notes dark of spices and roasted earth.  It has proven to be quite adaptable, finding success with regional and international consumers far beyond its noble origins in the continental Rhone.
Groomed vineyards of McLaren Vale, South Australia
Here in the States, venerable Cline, Bonny Doon Vineyard, a host of Central Coast AVA wineries and boutique local producers from the 1980's still toil to grow the lagging Syrah domestic market. As of 2016, California still produces about 85% of all our domestic U.S. wines, farmed on more than 600,000 sustainable acres, but Syrah acreage remains stagnant at around 18000. In emerging Washington State(2nd largest U.S. producer), Syrah production in this past decade has grown measurably,  even as fruit pricing remained somewhat flat; and still sits far behind Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot in acreage worked east of the Cascades.

Australia today dominates the value to quality Syrah marketplace with fruit-driven brands like Layer Cake, d'Arenberg Stump Jump, and behemoths Rosemount and Penfolds. From the heat of the Barossa Valley to the cooler coastal vineyards of the Great Southern, smaller Aussie brands like the widely available Paringa Shiraz, are consistent best buys, offering cost-conscious consumers bright Syrah character for pennies. Across its 65 winegrowing regions, nurturing almost 100 thousand acres of what is known down under as Shiraz, this long-tenured Aussie variety is today accounting for about a third of a thirsty nation's total wine production.
Distinctive grapeleaf of Syrah/Shiraz

Global acreage of the Rhone grape has continued to increase(lots of domestic Syrah planted in years that straddle the millennium), yet sales domestically remain modest, annually losing share to other popular millennial growth varieties (rose,malbec??). Syrah's challenge is today a varietal identity at these more modest retail pricepoints.  Mass produced, it consistently offers wines that are typically ordinary, non-distinctive, a lowest common denominator kind of full-bodied wine where savory is lost along with memorable personality.

Noble Syrah needs the right environment in which to shine, such as demanded by the continental Rhone Valley. She is not ordinary.  With attention in the vineyard, situated in draining soils, and nurtured with patient crafting in the cellars, Syrah shows all her many charms.  Her allure can be displayed at festive regional events, like the annual Hospice du Rhone, Paso Robles; her noble honor supported by the championing of the Rhone Rangers.  She can maintain her varietal mystery, her potency that can hold blended wines seamlessly, and remains faithful to feed our need to find really good value memorable Syrah.  Always a perfect lady, for many in the global consumer marketplace, Syrah's value is simply known as Shiraz.
New World vineyards of South Africa