It’s no surprise that grapes take a while to become established in a region, and then even longer to become popular. Case in point item #3 above. Australia enjoyed a Shiraz boom in the 1990s driven by two significant developments. The first was the critics love for more. Australian producers learned that by producing ever bigger wines with more alcohol, more oak, more fruit, more power, more body, more black, more cowbell, they managed to get higher and higher ratings from some of the most important wine critics on earth. While this is a great opening to jump in and critique the critics, lets leave most of that for another time.
With every raising of scores, the popularity and prices of the wines soared in the obedient US marketplace. Wines that scored 90 points and sold for $15 quickly turned into 96 point wines attempting to sell for $100 in just a few years. This in turn allowed other wines to emerge, filling in the lower price points. Consumers, being only relatively easy to fool, caught on to the fact that there was little difference between the new 90pt $15 wines and the former 90 point $15 wines that had their blackness turned up to 11. Even worse for those wines, as it it turns out, they aged like crap, falling apart into pools of alcoholic former blackness.
The market collapsed, and even now a decade later it continues to be depressed, though you can still find perfectly fine 90 point $15 wines, and in typical fashion the pendulum has swung. Big is now out in Aussie Shiraz and balanced is in. Producers have learned that points can help sell wines but only to a point and with the ever-increasing savvy of wine consumers, and grade inflation where every wine seems to get 85 for showing up, and an extra point for every degree of alcohol over 11, with a bonus for extra toasty oak. We’ve all grown weary of the promise of these high scores. So producers today are increasingly making wines they want to drink, and you know what? They’re pretty good, and in some cases very good. Yes they are Aussie Shiraz and won’t be to everyone’s taste but they are ready to start regaining market share, when it becomes available.
And that conveniently brings us to point #4, the recent French discovery of the Cliff Notes to how to get 96 points for your wines. Basically it’s a copy of the Australian game plan: more alcohol, more fruit, more oak, more sugar, more blackness. Hell, you can read all about it in the tasting notes. Opulent, explosive gobs of hedonistic fruit. That certainly does not sounds like my father’s Cornas, hell it doesn't even sound like my Cornas, but that is the coming state of Cornas, and Cote Rotie, and Hermitage, and who knows where else.
We’ve been down this road before and the parallels are there for anyone to see.  Huge critics scores. Check. Huge price jumps. Check. Lesser priced wines emulating the style. Check. All that’s left is to wait for these high flying wines to begin to fall apart. Even if they don’t outright fall apart, I find it doubtful that they can ever live up to the hype. The market will sour on these new Super Syrahs, and yet the Syrah market might just begin to flourish. Why, you ask? This hype is being built on the back of French wine, Old World wine, traditional wine. Don’t worry about the fact that these wines are neither Old World nor traditional in style or intent, wine is about romance so stop with the facts.
Syrah might be set to get its mojo back! And then we’ll all be looking for authentic versions of Syrah, those that show their terroir, that don’t seem to be a caricature of what a critic might think Syrah should taste like. We will want to find wines that taste the way we think Syrah should taste. Being subjective will open many doors; some people will be ready, others will be quite embarrassed when that door opens!
It will be fascinating to watch and see what happens. One thing I have learned in my brief stint as a wine writer is that what you write is never held against you. Right or wrong, the masses move on because there are always new points out there, fresh points, and wines to mortgage your house to buy. Wine writing is not so much about teaching and guidance as it is arbitrage. There’s not much to arbitrage here, but I’ve got a feeling I’m going to turn out on the right side of this story. While we’re waiting, I did happen to taste some Syrah for the article I had planned to write about Syrah. Some are great, other less so but all should find a happy home in the glass of the right enthusiastic wine lover so don’t miss my notes. They have fresh points!