The Social Syrah

Syrah, or Shiraz, wines are a favorite of many red wine connoisseurs.   I often place Syrah and Merlot into what I call 'social wines' as neither have idiosyncrasies that will challenge or offend the drinker whether they are casual or Sommeliers. 

The grape varietal that is known as Syrah in France and Shiraz in Australia, but in the United States either name is applied depending on the style of the winery.  Originally, the Syrah grape was thought to have its origin in Persia.  The grape was called Shiraz after the name of the city it was believed to have originated from.  DNA and ampelographic (field of botany that studies the identification and classification of grapevines) findings however, do not support Persia as the origin.  To date, the evidence supports that Syrah grapes originated in Northern France.  Syrah is the offspring of two grapes from Southeastern France known as Dureza and Mondeuse Blanche.  The Syrah grape should not be confused with the Petit Syrah grape (Durif), which is a cross of peloursin and true Syrah.  The name Petite Syrah is very misleading since these wines are big, bold, deeply colored and tannic unlike Syrah wines.

Syrah is famous as being the primary grape in the Northern Rhone region of France and is associated with classic wines such as Hermitage, Cornas and Cote-Rotie.  The Syrah grape is believed to have been brought to France during the Crusades by Guy De’Sterimberg.  He lived as a hermit in his winery on a hill in the Rhone River Valley known as Hermitage.  The name Hermitage means chapel and is so named for a single chapel on this hill.  Hermitage is only one hill that is 300 acres in size where the soil is granite based.  One of my favorite vineyards is M. Chapoutier which occupies 175 of the 300 acres on this hill.  Chapoutier wines are unique as they were the first wine producer to put Braille on their labels.  Michael Chapoutier derived the idea when a singer friend, Gilbert Montagne, who was blind, commented on TV that he would need to have someone identify the wines in a store.  This was also a tribute to a family member of Chapoutier's, Maurice de La Sizeranne, who founded and was the president of the French Association for the Blind.

The Syrah grape was introduced to Australia in 1832 by James Bushby who brought in vines of several varieties from Europe. In the beginning, Australia used the Syrah grape for blending.  Later it was finally bottled as a single varietal and called Shiraz.  The late blooming nature of the Syrah grape suited the warmer growing conditions that are found in Australia.

Syrah grapes were introduced into California in the 1970s by a group of viticulturists known as the Rhone Rangers.  Washington has also been successfully planting Syrah grapes.  The climate and terroir are similar to that found in France thus providing some similarities in the wines. 

One of the key items is that the wines from the warmer climates, like Australia, were sweeter and riper with a fruit forward profile on the palate whereas the wines from cooler climates, like the Rhone Valley of France, displayed more pepper and spice aromas in their flavor profile and were dryer on the palate.  Climates play a huge role with this varietal as warmer climates result in high sugar and low acid where cooler climates result in low sugar and high acid. When grapes are grown in warm climates, the residual sugars are higher than those in cooler regions.  By having so much sugar available for the yeast to consume during fermentation the wines in regions like Australia can not only achieve high alcohol content but also maintain a substantial level of sweetness.  As an example, wines from Australia have an alcohol content of 16% while still maintaining a high level of sweetness whereas wines from France have alcohol contents of 13-14% and are dryer on the palate. 

Sarah & Sparky Marquis

Sarah & Sparky Marquis

Alcohol content of wines always seems to be an area of discussion in wine circles.  Syrah wines from the US were in-between France and Australia when it came to alcohol content and sweetness.  Does this mean that it would be safe to say that the temperatures the grapes are grown is directly proportional to the alcohol content and sweetness of the wine?  Not necessarily, remember that other factors come into play such as when a winery decides to pick the grapes (ripeness) as well as when they decide to stop the fermentation process. The key thing is how much sugar is available in the grape at harvest.

Here is an overview as quoted from Appellation America on the Syrah grape that will help you to remember the characteristics and roles of Syrah in the wine world, “During the Roman occupation of Gaul you rose to fame as a captive vine turned gladiator. Your legend grew in the spartan competition of Northern Rhône amphitheaters. But little did the Romans know; you had more than just brute tannic power. Behind your fiery, spicy attitude there was the soul of a great leader. You outlasted the Romans and eventually ruled the Rhone Valley from the hill of Hermitage. But your greatest victory was to come in the New World, as emperor of the masses ‘Down Under’. Never one to rest on past laurels, you have set your sights on America. It is only a matter of time before you conquer this continent, leading the charge of an imposing legion known as the “Rhone Rangers.”

Rusty Sly