On Aging Syrah Wine

Find out how it works based on a recent tasting


With almost all of our recent discussions of Syrah, the topic has eventually turned to the ageability. If the question is does Syrah age, the answer is of course. However, Syrah’s answer is more conditional than most. Allow me to explain by using a set of wines tasted last night to illustrate!

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
Related Imagery
Syrah Maturity Curve
We had a moderately broad range of vintages and appellations here, considering the modest sample set, so we can draw some strong conclusions with the help of my previous experience- which did serve to help craft this line-up.

Check out the line-up and tasting notes here

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.

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  • Snooth User: Eric Guido
    Hand of Snooth Voice of Snooth
    92549 198,230

    Well done Greg, For broad brush strokes, I feel you really nailed it.

    Feb 23, 2012 at 1:38 PM

  • Snooth User: Richard Foxall
    Hand of Snooth
    262583 4,003

    I think a lot of folks miss the connection between acidity and old-world Syrah. Not always there in a noticeable way, but key to the really long agers. I just purchased a MacLaren Judge Vineyard Syrah from the RRV that is an interesting experiment--less overtly tannic, like a wooden chair under a silk slipcover, the usual attribute of my favorite syrah, but more highly acidic. I'm betting that, in 5-6 years, maybe more, it holds up much better than the warmer weather, fruity, low acid wines.

    Feb 23, 2012 at 5:06 PM

  • Snooth User: osca1600
    974102 1

    I am sorry but this really is a very silly article; of course Shiraz can and will age beautifully, and in addition given the writer has only concentrated on discussing French wines, it is both a little biased and unbalanced. While there is no doubt the French make excellent Shiraz, there are other countries including Australia that similarly can claim the mantle of making some of the best Shiraz in the world. High quality shiraz from South Australia from wine companies such as Penfolds, Henschke, Wyns etc are really up there. Similarly even the now defunct Colonial Wine company, which picked up a gold medal at the Vienna Shiraz wine show last year for its 2010 Exile.

    Snooth get your facts correct please and look a little wider than the usual players, ie France and the US.

    The key to aged shiraz is the quality of the grapes used in the first instance to make the wine, how it was made, that is the balance between acidity, tanins, alcohol % etc (the experience of the wine maker in getting all these factors correct), and lastly how it is stored. Well stored wine, ie constant/cool temperatures and not exposed to light, when coupled with the two other factors will ensure longevity.

    I have an '83 Penfolds Grange Hermitage (Grange being one of the best most valuable wines in the world), let alone plenty of other aged Shiraz's that have been stored well and I know they will be fine. The Grange still has plenty of life in it yet to age further.

    Feb 23, 2012 at 6:15 PM

  • Snooth User: cathytsui
    1004508 5

    there is some points worth attention there. While Shiraz are normally grown in hot area with ripe grapes, some cooler area could make shiraz with more acidity and that acidity can change to be more tender by wood storing. I have not tasted, but in theory, I think it could be true.

    Feb 23, 2012 at 8:04 PM

  • I tend to agree about the longevity of the best australian Shiraz like Henshcke, Old Block, being in the decades, and I also agree that this grape variety is very tasty in its youth.
    This excellent series on Snooth proves it comes in many forms, with many different characteristics and food combination possibilities, and stereotypes are looking threadbare.

    Feb 24, 2012 at 4:51 AM

  • This is very good to hear. I find that in America when people start a profession that has a lengthy history they are too busy and too full of themselves that they do not take the time to understand the roots that built the industry. They have no real pride in what they are doing nor have any intent to reach a level of skill that is required to be a JOURNEYMAN in their field.
    I am sorry if I insulted some people out there by saying what I said, but I wanted to point out the fact that many people in the wine and spirit trade do not have the right attitude to be professionals. This is not necessarily their fault because they followed the guide lines and rules and did not understand that what they were seeking was well short of what they should have been looking for. But that is a fault all too common in our modern society. “ Where is that bottle of French dry vermouth?”.

    I have always felt that enjoying wine is a learning process and over time I have relaxed and simply allowed the wine to speak to me first. It is much later that I try to figure out why the wine was the way it was. Gregory Dal Paiz has given us a very good explanation on why New and Old world wines age the way they do. But we need to sit back and enjoy what is in the glass first then wonder about the reasons for the conditions we find the wine in.
    I realize that contributors to Snooth have access to a wide range of wines and can comment on what they have tasted in depth. Osca1600 makes a good point about various countries not being represented in the testing and that he feels Snooth is prejudicial in its constant selection of wines to speak of. However I felt that Gregory Dal Paiz’s selection was not about how wines from France and California stand up against each other or how South Australian do not merit being in the group tasted. He probably picked what was available to him to make his point about the aging difference between the Old World style of making wine form the Shiraz grape and the New World Style.
    I found his comments to be instructive and helpful in seeing the way the two styles differ and his assessment as to why. The joys I have after drinking wine is to think about how the wine has developed in the bottle and whether my judgment of its’ future development will be correct when I try it at a later date.
    Just a footnote:
    I have been drinking red wines in the age range of 8 to 14 years for the last two years. The range of grapes is across the board for reds. California, French, Italian, Chilean, Argentinean Spanish and a few South Africans. I am now in the habit of opening the bottle and letting it stand for a few hours or more before having a glass. Then I put a vacuum stopper in and enjoy a glass the next day. The difference between the two samples is very interesting. I find that wine has opened much more as it should in the second day. I may finish the wine or leave it for a third day and drink. Since I go through three to four bottles a week, I have enjoyed some very fine wine. Yes there is an occasional bad bottle to contend with but my point is that allowing the wine to breath a few hours the first day and then again an hour or so the second day brings about some nice changes. The differences are sometimes noticeable but mostly small, usually it is where you might expect in that the after taste is smoother and the back end of the fruit flavor can become more noticeable as I like to say a haunting cherry lingering in the back of the throat.

    Feb 24, 2012 at 10:44 AM

  • Nice points well made.
    It takes great patience or personal organisation to open wine hours in advance and especially to have 8-14 year old vintages!
    We cheat by pouring young wines from height into decanter and then big glasses.

    The second days "leftover reds" do have this characteristic of tasting even better.

    One of the reasons I became a big fan of the gigondas wines from 1982 vintage on (it was the mid 80's) and great Italians (Barolo Monprivato 82, 85) - and on to discovering cheaper reds thereafter, was this evolution as you slowly reached the depths of the bottle. The G wines seemd to have a kind of chocolate wickedness that came into play after the violets and blackberries of the early glasses.

    There is a lot of mystery with wine, like why a fine burgundy can be softer and slightly changed by time in a refridgerator, while Rioja seems to suffer if cold, yet is most aromatic and complex on a sweaty day.

    Feb 24, 2012 at 11:13 AM

  • Thank you Williamsim for the complimentary addition to this discussion.
    It is nice to see someone who likes to share little secrets like this to make wine drinking more interesting.

    Feb 25, 2012 at 1:25 PM

  • I believe that Williamsim made some very interesting comments about older wines that may help many of the readers who have not experienced older wines. This is a world of experience that many people simply do not know exists. How often have you heard a person say, Gee I opened a old wine and it tasted like $%#&, I threw it out. Chances are they walked away from a very enlightening experience. But who can say they were wrong. The wine community on a whole does not discuss drinking older wines so how are people to learn?
    Just the few points that Williamsim shared with us are really Nuggets of Gold as they give you an insight as to what to expect from an older wine.
    A Caveat to those who do not have the time to look for older wines and have little interest in drinking them. To enjoy an older wine, you need to train your pallet because the first time you try one after letting it breath for three or four hours or trying it the next day after re-corking with a vacuum cork you will experience flavors uncommon with young wines. So you have to take the time to nurse the wine and allow your taste buds and sense to acquaint themselves to what is in the glass.
    If the wine is over the hill and falling apart in the mouth you will understand this, but if the wine still has shadows of fruit and balance then you have something to investigate and perhaps even appreciate after the first two or three times of drinking older wines. I always look forward to opening an older wine of 8 years or more in reds because I am usually surprised what I find and enjoy what the bottle has to offer. I have tasted some 8 to 12 year old Chenin Blancs from Loire Valley France and California that were really very well balanced and pleasant. I have tasted older Sauvignon Blanc or Fume Blanc from France and California that were really nice and I have had some that were over the hill and disappointing but that is the excitement of finding older wines and tasting them that I like. I find chardonnay’s do not age as well as the Chenin Blanc or Sauvignon Blanc wines in general. So I keep my expectations to 6 and 8 year olds and occasionally I find an older one that has aged very well. My hat off to the wine maker for that vintage year.
    What I have said is very general in nature, I have not given specific wineries responsible for the better aged reds and white because every bottle that I drink has its own history of storage and handling so will your bottle that you try. What I enjoyed may turn out to be over the hill or just not there at all and this would be due to mishandling and poor storage of the wine until you purchased it. Keep that in mind as I often will buy two of the same wines from different retailers and both will be different as one bottle may be unbalanced or have lost its essence and in some cases one is spoiled while the other is still fun to drink.
    Another point for me is just tasting and trying to understand what the wine is about. Can I taste its original source? { the terroir ( taste of soil or mineral effects on the juice of the grape)}. I think that you can taste the terroir better in some older wines as the fruit flavors had diminished as has the tannin and so the flavors the minerals in the soil bring to the wine have a chance to stand out. I contribute much of the different fruit flavors in wine from the minerals in the soil but there is also what I think a second level of flavors that I find in the older wines that I would not be able to distinguish in the same wine when it was younger. Now having said that, if I drank the same wine again and again when it was say 5 to 7 years of age perhaps I would be able to distinguish the second level of flavors brought about the by the mineral in the vinerard.
    Perhaps Williamsim can enlighten us a little more on his thoughts about the flavors he notices in the older wine that are not so recognizable when the wine is younger so you get a better impression of what I am speaking about.

    Feb 27, 2012 at 12:03 PM

  • Snooth User: Wisequeen Donna Jackson
    Hand of Snooth
    1062644 320

    great article. syrah from bolgheri seemed like an oxymoron for years until my friend pioneer winemaker michele satta let me taste his sold out precious syrah 2007 really good, have you tied it? i will add a review if you want to include it.

    Apr 04, 2012 at 4:43 PM

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