Wines made from particularly ripe fruit tend to be particularly fruity. That fruit, like the boundless energy of children, is fairly short lived. With time the fruit fades, revealing the wine’s underpinnings, tannin and acid. What was once the framework for this giant tent of fruit too often becomes a simple set of jarring poles of acid and tannin- uncovered, ungainly and unpleasant.
I may be generalizing here, but as far as I can tell there is a lot of truth to this analogy. Somehow the naturally occurring tannins in wine tend to melt away faster than wood tannins, with some notable exceptions.
The wines tend to have an innate balance that carries them through life, fruit and tannins dancing into the distance, heading off hand-in-hand. Acid on the other hand tends to remain the final marker for the great grandstand that once stood proudly.
This finally brings me back to the object here, a description of the way Syrah ages. While Old World Syrah tends to struggle to find its balance, with its initial burst of fruit being immediately appealing only to dip lingeringly into gangly adolescence, New World Syrah tends to only dip briefly.
New World Syrah, with its bold fruit and ample dose of oak-derived aromatics and flavors, tends to find its footing quite quickly, with the oak and fruit building to an early peak as the modest fruit tannins fall away. Once on its plateau, it can be wonderful: fruity, spicy and with some savory elements working as a foundation, but the life of all that exuberant fruit tends to be relatively short lived. By age 10 or 12, the wines tend to express more wood than anything else, with spicy aromatics and lingering, often uncovered wood tannins marring the mid-palate and finish.
On the other hand, Old World Syrah tends to lack that boldness of fruit, or at least the examples that are becoming mature today do. In their place are savory characteristics and balance, with more restrained and often redder fruit. These wines need about a decade to hit their peaks. The fruit tannins melt away, adding to the richness of the wine and helping to define the harmony that is possible with proper aging.
So there is an intersection of sorts here. As I’ve crudely plotted out on the attached graph, the two styles both tend to hit their peaks together about 10 to 15 years after release. This was one of the hypotheses I planned to test when putting together my aged Syrah tasting. The notes pretty much support this hypothesis, though my selection of wines may have predetermined that to a certain extent.
One final note about the wines: while I have mapped out my thoughts here in rather broad brushstrokes, it is worth adding that not all New World producers produce New World wines. This characterization is as much a function of winemaking as it is of where the wine is made. The Edmunds St. John’s performance will attest to that!
So what were the results? Not surprisingly, the wines from 1988 were both on their down slopes yet still enjoyable; a particularly noteworthy feat for the Edmunds St. John as 1988 was a notoriously difficult vintage in California. The bulk of the wines bore out my hypothesis, with the New World wines being mostly at peak and moving down slope, and the pair of Hermitages showing wonderfully with youthful vigor.