Of Syrah and Goat's Milk Baths (April 10, 2003)
I like Syrah and you like Shiraz so let's call the whole thing
off. Actually, I like both expressions of this Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
grape (Australia's Shiraz and the reds of the Northern Rhône) and
I predict Syrah/Shiraz is destined to become the red equivalent of Chardonnay
very soon: the global grape.
In terms of vines in the ground, it is the fastest-growing variety on
the planet. In France, over the past 20 years, plantings of Syrah, once
restricted to the Rhône Valley, have grown from 4,000 acres to 110,000
acres, spilling over into Languedoc-Roussillon and Provence. In Australia,
Shiraz accounts for 40 per cent of all red varieties and has increased
from 12,500 acres in 1990 to over 75,000 acres today. In 1996 California
had 1,350 bearing acres of Syrah; today it has 11,200 acres (Qupe Syrah
Bien Nacido Vineyard Syrah from Santa Barbara is amazing). South Africa,
where they currently make Shiraz to rival Australia's, has over 22,000
acres; Argentina has 20,000. Chile has tripled its plantings in one year
and now boasts 4,200 acres. Errazuriz was the first winery to produce
Syrah in Chile, but the best I tasted was Montes Folly, from an impossibly
steep hillside slope of the Apalta Valley.
You can find Syrah in Tuscany (Isole and Olena blend it into their Chianti),
in Valais in Switzerland, in five of New Zealand's red wine regions and
also in Washington's Yakima Valley, where David Lake makes a spectacular
version from the Red Willow vineyard at Columbia Winery. From a global
perspective, Syrah acreage has swelled from 25,000 acres in the early
1980s to over 225,000 acres today.
Syrah is also grown in Ontario (40 acres) and more prolifically in British
Columbia, where Alex Nichol has been producing a sterling Syrah for ten
years. Jackson-Triggs made a first-rate Shiraz Reserve in 2000 (it won
the "Red Wine of the Year" trophy at last year's Canadian Wine
Awards) and an even better Cabernet Sauvignon/Shiraz blend in 2001. Mission
Hill produces a hearty Shiraz Reserve 2000 aged in American oak and a
rich and complex Syrah Estate 1999 aged in French oak.
As a grape, Syrah/Shiraz has a long history dating back to 500 BC.
Its two names suggest two different origins the city of Shiraz
in ancient Persia (Iran) and Syracuse in Sicily.
Ampelographers believe the original cuttings were either brought to the
Rhône Valley by Greek colonists, the Phocaeans, around 530 BC,
or by Roman legions under Probus who brought cuttings north to Marseilles
from the Egyptian vineyards via Syracuse.
According to Chilean viticulturist, Pedro Izquierdo, "There are
historical accounts of Cleopatra drinking Syrah wines while bathing in
goat's milk." Which I guess is better than the other way round.
Whatever its geographical provenance, Syrah's parentage is less spectacular.
Dr. Carole Meredith and John Bowers of the University of California at
Davis subjected many varieties in the plant collection at L'École
Nationale Supérieure Agronomique de Montpellier in the Southern
Rhône to DNA analysis. They identified the pedigree of Syrah as
a natural crossing of two obscure varieties a white grape from
Savoie, Mondeuse Blanche (a.k.a Dongine), and Dureza from the Ardèche.
(They also discovered that the coupling of Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon
Blanc gave the world Cabernet Sauvignon.)
The twin names of this hot variety also suggest winemaking styles.
Australian Shiraz is a fruit-driven wine, very deeply coloured, high
in alcohol and usually made in a basket press to limit the amount of skin
contact. This ensures softer tannins, which means the wine is ready to
drink sooner than the French Syrah model (except, of course, for notable
exceptions at the high end of the scale, such as Grange, Henschke Hill
of Grace, Elderton Command, and Clarendon Hills, that require lengthy
bottle ageing). In Australia you can find Shiraz vineyards that range
in age from sixty to one hundred and forty years old. The taste profile
is concentrated blackberry and chocolate flavours with pepper and spice
notes. The wines are generally aged in American oak barrels.
The Rhône style of Syrah tends to be more structured, with firm
tannins with livelier acidity, and aged, of course, in French oak. The
characteristic flavour descriptors are smoke, tar, blackberry, iodine,
pepper and herbs, reaching gaminess when aged.
Whatever the style, you're going to see a lot more of the variety on
the shelves in the next few years. Which is all to the good.