One of the classic grapes of the Rhone Valley in France (where it is commonly blended with co-stars Grenache and Mourvedre), Syrah is a dark-skinned grape that’s grown widely around the world. In New World plantings it is often called Shiraz, but it’s worth noting that while genetically they’re the same grape, they are not the same wine. A French Syrah vine will tend to produce a lighter, tighter, less aggressive wine than a cousin from Australia or South Africa, where it tends to produce very high-intensity, richer, more color-saturated wines. Whatever you’re calling it, Syrah’s a lover of granite soils and moderate climates and is commonly cultivated in California, South Australia, and Washington (where more than one winemaker I’ve talked to feels that it will emerge as the signature grape of the region), as well as New Zealand, Crete, and Texas. It’s full-bodied, high-acid, can be quite tannic, and depending on climate and age might express dominant notes ranging from mint and black pepper to licorice and chocolate to blackberry jam to wet leaves and leather. With its high tannin and acid levels it’s a good candidate for cellaring, so if you find one you like, consider shelling out for another bottle or two to put away and see how it changes over time.
Here are some bottles to look out for. Note: I made this list based on what I happen to like and I happen to like Northern Hemisphere Syrahs the most-by all means look for Australian, South African and Chilean ones too. They have their own unique styles and characteristics. Also, there is not a single French wine on this list even though it is one of the classic Rhone varietals. This is simply because I have not recently tasted a Rhone red that was a pure varietal Syrah; they’re more commonly blends and I wanted to focus on pure Syrahs. By all means seek out “GSMs” (Grenache, Syrah, Mourvedre) from the Rhone valley, they combine them for a reason and there are too many delicious ones to count.
Five Bottles to Try
Baker Lane Cuvee Syrah (Sonoma, CA, $20)
This is a coastal climate Syrah with sturdy structure (you could probably age it for several years) and an almost meaty character (in fact it’s on the intense side for a cooler climate Syrah). Peppery notes mingle with a bit of olive leaf and a lot of woodsy notes (there’s a hint of earth to it too.) Cranberry and pomegranate are also detectable. This wine’s soulmate is probably grilled lamb, but as always, play around. Good wine is good wine and it’ll tend to tell you what it wants.
J Lohr Syrah (Paso Robles, $14)
J. Lohr is turning out excessively affordable for the goodness wines including this Syrah. The last few years have seen severe drought conditions in California-this doesn’t necessarily mean bad conditions for wine grapes. In fact, many of them seem to be gluttons for that kind of punishment, thriving on parched conditions and turning out lower volumes of grapes but with higher intensity. So for example, 2014 was a good year for a lot of folks making warm climate wines. In this case, notes of plum, blueberry and tea, followed by various baking spice characteristics. (An interesting departure from the more typical notes of smoky meat and saddle leather.) Cherries and pepper and a little bit of something tart on the finish; cranberry or pomegranate. This is a dense wine with good structure and great depth. If you appreciate bacon, I suspect this wine does too.
Savage Grace Les Collines Vineyard Syrah (Washington, $30)
OK: I love Savage Grace and anything with their label on it has my endorsement, but maybe especially this one. This is a Loire Valley style rendering of the Syrah grape. It is lean, almost bony. It’s low-alcohol and shows a heady floral bouquet, intense freshness, a certain austerity. Coffee note definitely present, along with stewed cherries and spices. It’s a subtle, nuanced, highly refined Syrah. And highly tasty. Food-friendly, easy to drink, affable and gracious.
Van Duzer Estate Syrah (Oregon, $50)
Oregon’s Willamette Valley is increasingly famous for great Pinot Noir, and Van Duzer’s making some great ones. But you shouldn’t overlook their Estate Syrah. Lighter in color than some Syrahs, this one is a clear garnet color in the glass, but don’t let the translucency fool you into thinking it’s a lightweight (it’s not a lightweight price point either; in fact, it’s probably the highest priced Syrah in the Valley). Very intense and powerful, with a heavy blueberry note and a touch of hibiscus flower on the finish. It has some pepperiness, a little smoke, a slight woodsy character. Well-structured, very balanced and really tasty.
K Vintners Powerline Estate Syrah (Washington, $45)
This Syrah was named the second best in the world by Wine Spectator in 2017, and was the top Syrah on that same list. It’s a Charles Smith wine (the same guys who make that extremely affordable Charles & Charles rosé). The Charles Smith crew turns out some great stuff, largely at regular-folk price points. This bottle is in the splurge range but you know what, sometimes splurge is called for and if you are a Syrah fan you should probably try this. It’s not a shrinking violet: The meticulously structured, deep red juice is in the knockout punch range, with very high intensity and layered notes of roasted meat, leather, licorice, smoke and black plums. Not-screwing-around-here tannins, but refined enough to keep it approachable.