First, lets take a look at what was tasted:
1988 Edmunds St John Sonoma Syrah
1988 Guigal Cote Rotie Brune et Blonde
1994 Columbia Crest Reserve Syrah
1994 Swanson Napa Valley Syrah
1995 Delas Bessards Hermitage
1995 Charles Melton Barossa Shiraz
1996 Columbia Winery Red Willow Vineyard Syrah
1996 Jean-Louis Chave Hermitage
I believe that most Syrah intended for the cellar peaks relatively early in the context of cellarable wine, which would make an argument for the wine’s popularity. In fact with a few exceptions, I tend to prefer my Syrah a bit on the younger side while the fruit is still intact and covering the structure.
What does that mean? In the case of much New World Syrah, that means that the wines are drinking fine after two years or so from release, and tend to stay on a slowly fading plateau of maturity for around another 10 years. With Old World Syrah, I find a distinctly different cycle of aging, one that sees the wines going through a closed period when one frequently second guesses one’s sense. Why did I buy this again?
Syrah, for all its incarnations, remains a fairly structured wine and one with assertive acidity in many years. There is some kinship between Burgundy and Syrah in this aspect. In less ripe years, Syrah can manage to produce complex, aromatic and richly flavored wines, but that acidity remains rather vibrant.
Case in point is the 1996 Chave Hermitage, which remains a fairly acid-driven wine, though it has fleshed out considerably over the years. What was once lean and hard exposed acidity is slowly becoming brightness.
That sounds distinctly familiar to me, I could easily have written it about a 1996 Burgundy! While this comparison may be a bit extreme, there is a delicacy to the finest Syrahs, primarily from the Northern Rhône, that does make them seem Burgundian to me. Their ageing cycles do diverge once the wines are mature.
Syrah tends to be a wine which loses its fruit faster than its tannin once it matures. Nowhere has this been more evident than in Cornas, that Northern Rhône appellation famed for its rusticity, particularly of tannin. Even here things are changing and those raspy tannins of yore are being replaced by a manner of suppleness. Some of that suppleness is coming from the increased use of newer, smaller barrels that are used in standard operating procedure of the New World.
Those small barrels fundamentally change the nature of Syrah, softening the wine at first and adding rich spice notes and a sweetness that Syrah seems capable of handling, but there is a price to be paid. That price tends to come in the form of tannins, and more specifically, wood tannins from the barrels that are replacing fruit tannins.
As grapes mature they tend to lose both tannin and acidity. Warm climate wine producers combat these losses by adding both: acid added directly to the fermenting wine or corrected after fermentation, and tannins added through the use of new oak barrels. Some say these additions bring the wine back into harmony, which may be true on the day the corrections are made and for the near future, but there is something inherently dis-harmonic about many of these additions.