Ask most wine pros and they’ll tell you that outside their clique-y world syrah is hurting for love these days. From my own past retail experience it’s easy to see why: syrah is simply too distinctive to be liked, much less loved, by many wine fans who have been weaned on user-friendly pinot noirs, merlots, grenaches and even cabernets.
The traits that mark typical syrah, such as olive, smoked meat, espresso and bitter chocolate, are acquired tastes, and it’s easy for those of us who work in the wine world bubble to forget that fact. Surround yourself with enough like-minded wine aficionados and before long you might start to believe that your group’s shared tastes are actually universal, not isolated by personal preference.
That point was driven home to me last week when I moderated a panel discussion at TexSom, an annual sommelier-focused event that takes place in Dallas every August. It’s a combination of teaching sessions, tastings and general wine geekery that attracts a pretty impressive array of sommeliers, producers, importers and retailers from across the country. I was asked to talk and taste through a selection of syrahs with some of America’s most esteemed sommeliers (Rajat Parr, Bernie Sun, Robert Bohr and Serafin Alvarado), with the focus on international renditions of the variety and syrah’s relevance in restaurants and wine lovers’ hearts and minds. The outcome was a very pleasant surprise for anybody who over- or underestimates the progress that the New World has achieved with this prickly variety.
We tasted through the following wines, in this order:
Delas Frères 2010 Cozes-Hermitage Les Launes (France)
M. Chapoutier 2011 Hermitage Monier de la Sizeranne (France)
Matetic 2012 Syrah Corralillo San Antonio Valley (Chile)
Craggy Range 2009 Syrah Le Sol Gimblett Gravels Hawkes Bay (New Zealand)
Gramercy Cellars 2009 Syrah Lagniappe Columbia Valley (Washington)
Copain Cellars 2009 Syrah Hawks Butte Yorkville Highlands (California)
Stolpman Vineyards 2009 Syrah Estate Santa Ynez Valley (California)
John Duval Wines 2012 Shiraz Entity Barossa Valley (Australia)
Jasper Hill 2010 Shiraz Emily’s Paddock Heathcote (Australia)
Compared to the French wines, virtually all of those from the New World came off as shockingly elegant. That’s not a knock on the balance and finesse of the Delas or Chapoutier offerings, but it made a huge statement for many in the room regarding the strides made by winemakers working with syrah outside France.
My favorite wines, on the day, were the Copain, for its intensely perfumed, floral bouquet; the Gramercy Cellars, which was filled with vibrant berry and violet character; the spicy, deeply flavored yet nicely balanced Stolpman; and the wild, aromatic, youthful Jasper Hill, which includes 5% cabernet franc in the blend. The Entity was a big, rich wine, as expected, but with an element of vivacity that surprised those used to large-scale Aussie reds, and the Corralillo, the least expensive wine in the group, showed excellent aromatic complexity, especially at its price. The Craggy Range actually displayed what I would call typical Old World character and the structure and balance to ensure years of positive development in bottle.
Those who follow syrah know that such results shouldn’t come as a surprise because producers around the world have been taking their cues from the Rhône Valley more than ever, with increasingly positive results. Harvesting at lower sugar levels and with higher natural acidity is yielding fresher and more incisive wines, and a lighter hand in the cellar has helped to preserve energy and aromatic complexity. At the same time, a number of Rhône producers have actually been seeking to make syrah in a richer, more extroverted style, often as an attempt to broaden their audience.
So in a sense the two categories might appear to be converging, meaning that consumers are now as likely to run into an elegant syrah from the New World as an opulent one from the Rhone. The result is startling, not to mention potentially confusing to old-timers who expect wine styles to remain static region by region. And on this day at least, the case was made to most of our audience that syrah’s home country is truly getting some worthy competition. It’s becoming less possible to generalize about the character of any particular country’s—or even hemisphere’s—wines because good farming and winemaking are now a universal reality. And the Old World’s primacy when it comes to producing wines of real elegance and balance is no longer a given. This is all to the benefit of wine lovers, if they’re willing to open their minds and palates.