I confess it: Before I could ever see what the fuss was about with Bordeaux varietals, I loved Rhone natives. And even after I learned to appreciate Cabernet Sauvignon, I secretly preferred Syrah.
I love it because Syrah is versatile. A dark-skinned grape from France, it is planted around the world in coastal climates like Santa Barbara, moderate ones like Walla Walla, and hot zones like Australia’s Barossa Valley. Depending on the particulars, it can be rich and jammy or restrained and stony, but it’s always pretty damned tannic and fairly high acid. Prominent notes can include mint and chocolate, cherries and earth, tobacco and pepper and in some cases smoked meat. If it’s aged, which it often does with aplomb, it can express a forest floor character with notes of damp leaves and even something a bit like black truffle. Syrah is hugely responsive to terroir, picking up such a broad range of secondary and tertiary characteristics in different locales that it’s almost hard to say what it’s “like.” It’s most typically full-bodied and powerful, and beyond that it depends.
Traditional blending partners for Syrah are Grenache and Mourvedre, and “GSM” blends are ubiquitous in France and not uncommon even in the varietal-obsessed west coast zones. Serve it with anything you cook over an open fire, for starters. And don’t stop there.
14 Bottles To Try
Abeja Syrah (Washington, $48)
Syrah is, in my opinion, the grape of Washington, but until the rest of the world loosens it’s vise-grip on Cabernet as the pinnacle of red wine, we luckily get Washington Syrah at relatively good values. This one’s still pricey but requires a mention for its extreme clarity, subtlety and balance. Plum, clove, currant, violet, cherry, and a trace of wild mushroom.
Alazules Syrah (Spain, $20)
Friendly, rich and rounded. White pepper, blackberries, violets and earth. An easygoing wine with a casually elegant vibe.
Beso de Vino Syrah-Garnacha (Spain, $15)
Pairing this with burgers and fries would be a solid decision. It’s dark, rich, slightly peppery, with a blueberry note on the nose. Substantial and approachable.
Columbia Crest Syrah (Washington, $10)
Excellent solidity for the price. Dominant notes are currant, blackberry, cedarwood, smoke and peppercorn. I’d open this with steelhead or salmon, but you can try it with whatever you like.
Demorgenzon DMZ Syrah (South Africa, $15)
If smoked meat is not your thing, keep shopping; this Syrah has a lot of it. In a great way. Supple, with blackberry, violet, and a cracked peppercorn spiciness. Really good.
Domaine de Bila-Haut Occultem Lapidum (France, $25)
That name means “hidden jewel,” but honestly this stuff isn’t that hidden, it’s easy to find. Herbs, pepper, leather, black plum, a little blueberry and blackberry. A hint of chocolate on the finish, and a sexy, fleshly kind of feel throughout.
L’Ecole #41 Columbia Valley Syrah 2015 (Washington, $25)
If this wine cost twice as much I wouldn’t bat an eye; it is a steal at this price. Lithe, balanced, rich and exuberant. Prominent notes are marionberry, licorice, plums, graphite, with some stoniness and very balanced acidity. Tannins in the range generally referred to as “chewy.” A versatile food wine.
Martin Ranch Therese Vineyards (California, $38)
From the Pinot-dominant Santa Cruz Mountains. This wine is dark and earthy, with an unusual olive leaf note and a bit of menthol and quite a lot of white pepper. Blueberry and violet are also dominant.
Michael David Winery Sixth Sense (California, $20)
From the hot zone of Lodi, CA, better known for its old vine Zinfandels. A heady, jammy, voluptuous wine that does not subscribe to the “less is more” thing at all. Licorice, blackberry, meat (bacon or pancetta, in fact), vanilla, violet, eucalyptus, cassis, and peppery spice.
Paniza Syrah (Spain, $12)
If you want an entry-level Syrah that doesn’t deliver a knockout punch and won’t throw your palate that much of a gauntlet, consider this easygoing Spanish character. Lightly cherried, some blackberry, a modest ration of spice and a little violet. Nice and simple.
Ramey Syrah (California, $33)
From Sonoma, this is a well-crafted Syrah with a grounded, solid kind of feel. Dense dark fruit (blackberry, blackcurrant, a little cherry), strong earthiness, hints of pepper and leather and roses and thyme. Strong smoked meat characteristic as well.
Tapiz Syrah (Argentina, $15)
Youthful but not without intensity, this is a bit of a jam-bomb with dense blackberry and currant flavors, licorice, violets, and a pronounced vanilla oakiness. Some cocoa on the finish. It’s a little on the hot side, so if you like to stay in the lower alcohol range, find something from Washington.
Van Duzer Estate Syrah (Oregon, $50)
Special occasion pricing for many of us and quite worth it. This Syrah is quite acid-driven and very layered, showing notes of pepper, mint, baking spice, dried blueberries, black plum, cocoa and cinnamon, underpinned by an earthy tobacco note. A contemplative wine well suited to enjoying, say, sunset on the first warm day of the year, but also any number of other occasions.
Waxwing Syrah Flocchini Vineyard (California, $50)
Santa Cruz winery, Petaluma fruit. They have somehow managed to bottle a walk in the woods. Beuatiful nuanced layers of forest floor notes, mushroom, leaf litter, cedar, eucalyptus, with a big peppery finish.