Syrah - Born on a Hilltop

                                                       Hermitage, France

                                                       Hermitage, France

The grape varietal known as Syrah in France, Shiraz in Australia and either Syrah or Shiraz, depending on the style of the winery, was originally believed to have originated in Persia in a city called Shiraz which the grape was named after.  DNA and ampelographic (field of botany that studies the identification and classification of grapevines) findings however, do not support Persia as the origin for this grape.  To date, the evidence shows that Syrah grapes originated from 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 Petite Sirah grape which is a cross of Syrah and Peloursin grapes.  The name Petite Sirah is very misleading since these wines are big, bold, deeply colored and tannic unlike the Syrah or Shiraz wines.

Syrah is 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 the largest wineries on this hill is Chapoutier Vineyards which occupies 175 of the 300 acres.

The Syrah grape was introduced to Australia in 1832 by James Bushby who brought in several varieties of Syrah vines from Europe.   In the beginning, Australia used the Syrah grape for blending but later bottled it as a single varietal which they call Shiraz.  The late blooming nature of the Syrah/Shiraz grape is suited for the warmer growing conditions found in Australia.

Syrah grapes were introduced to 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.  My experience puts the California Syrah wines in-between French and Australian versions. They tend to show similarities of both without favoring either one.

One of the key items that was noted at the tasting is that the wines from the warmer climates showed higher amounts of residual sugar with a more fruit forward profile.  The wines from cooler climates,  like the Rhone Valley of France, displayed more pepper and spice aromas in their flavor and less residual sugars.  Warmer climates result in higher sugar and low acid where cooler climates result in low sugar and high acid. When grapes are grown in warm regions like Australia they have a higher sugar content than those grown in cooler regions like France providing more food for the yeast resulting in higher alcohol content.  It is not uncommon to see Austrailian and Californian wines achieving higher alcohol content such as 16% compared to France where the alcohol content is around 13.5%.  Another item that weighs in on the difference of flavors is the acid balance since having lower acid levels in the warmer climate Syrah/Shiraz has an impact on the ability to balance the perceived sweetness of a wine.

Typical aromas and flavors from Syrah/Shiraz wines are raspberries, blackberries, blueberries, pepper, plum, leather.  Sometimes there are even notes of licorice, bitter chocolate and mocha that one can detect.

 Syrah Tasting Lineup:

  • 2011 Tobin James Syrah - Paso Robles, Ca.

  • NV    Ferrone Family Wines Shiraz - Peckville, Pa.

  • 2005 Barbieri KYLIX Syrah - Santa Barbara County

  • 2012 Brochelle Syrah - Paso Robles, Ca.

  • 2013 CP Wines Syrah - Santa Ynez, Ca.

    • Saarloos Vineyard Grapes 

    • Doug and Jackie Curran (GOTN Guests) made this Syrah

  • 2012 Herman Story - Paso Robles, Ca.

  • 2011 Etienne Pochon - Crozes - Hermitage, France

  • 2009 Cave de Tan - Crozes - Hermitage, France

  • 2011 JG - Crozes - Hermitage, France

  • NV   Ten Spoon - Prairie Thunder, Mt.

  • 2012 Nicolas Perrin Maison - Crozes - Hermitage, France

I was very pleased with the showing of people and many examples of Syrah wines that were provided by the group.  This provided a great platform for everyone to see the effects of different terroirs and climates on the Syrah grape.  Here is an overview by Appellation of America on the Syrah grape to help remember its characteristics and roles 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”.”

I would like to thank everyone for attending and especially Valencia Wine Company for their hospitality and sponsoring our group.  I also want to thank George Skorka, not only as a great friend but a great asset to the group with his extensive knowledge about wines. 

In closing, remember this is a learning experience so look for unique wines that you are not familiar with.  The goal is to expand your knowledge of wines and I feel that we are definitely going in the right direction.  So keep searching as there are many unusual wines to challenge us and I look forward to seeing all of you soon for our next adventure.

Rusty Sly