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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.




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