Syrah - Has Its Time Come?

Top quality Syrah has claimed recognition, at last!

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!

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Mentioned in this article


  • Interesting article...You could actually substitute the variety Pinot Noir each and every place Syrah or Shiraz is listed, yet the variety remains as popular as ever. It is just plain wrong to think that Syrah really lost its way...there are of course those who got lost and those that never found the variety to begin with. Great Syrah has ALWAYS been around and it will ALWAYS be around. I wish peeps stopping penning articles about it and just drank more of it... :)

    Jan 29, 2013 at 6:50 PM

  • Snooth User: Terence Pang
    Hand of Snooth
    1067620 44,140

    Nice article GDP. But what I take from this article is that the great divide between the American opinion of Australian shiraz, and what we actually drink here is as wide as ever. Apart from the Yalumba, which I wouldn't have included as it contains Viognier, I wouldn't recommend any of the other Australian wines in that line-up on any given day.

    I'm guessing that their price is a major consideration for inclusion in this lineup. Given the current strength of the Australian dollar, is it realistic to expect cheap Australian wines? I think that price bracket needs to be shifted upwards to the $20-30 mark, closer to decent French wines.

    Brand Australia really suffers from the export of poor to below average wines, and the continual production of these by corporations is a travesty to the winemaking industry. However, it does provide grape growers some semblance of an income. A tricky issue to attempt to resolve.

    Jan 29, 2013 at 7:30 PM

  • Snooth User: SM
    1097030 218

    An interesting article GDP about the continuing evolving story of Syrah/Shiraz.As you said and others mentioned it is an under rated and under appreciated cultivar/varietal.

    Its true that Aussie Shiraz especially in the Barossa Valley truly did lose their way and now Aussie wine has an identity crisis because of this. I do believe they are pulling themselves up out of this slump, but they will have to continue to work hard to re-brand and re-position themselves with this cultivar.

    For myself I have been having better experiences with South African Shiraz, as it seems to be more balanced, have more finesse and more elegance than its Aussie counterparts. Right now I'm not sure if that is due to terroir considerations or the wine makers or both; but they seem to strike the right balance between power and strength and finesse and quality.

    There is more tension between these two opposing traits in wine from Stellenbosch, Paarl and other regions. I do hope in the future all Syrah producers and regions will find their way, whether its the Rhone producers re-inventing themselves or the Aussies finding the right mix for their wine.


    Solomon Mengeu

    Jan 29, 2013 at 8:18 PM

  • Snooth User: hestamm
    1176940 24

    Actually, I prefer big, bold, over-the-top shiraz. I hope at least some producers keep this genre going. I don't age them; I just drink. Great with pizzas. Subtle & elegant are not wines that I like or drink. And $15 is getting pricey.

    Jan 29, 2013 at 9:00 PM

  • I've had both the Jacob's Creek reserve and Yellow Tail reserve syrah's and in a blind wine tasting I'd bet they'll beat many much higher priced relative to color, aroma, and even finesse. One thing I like about a $ 12 -15 syrah .. it's hard to go wrong. I think if MacDonald's ever started serving wine in their stores, their offer would be a Syrah.

    Jan 29, 2013 at 10:51 PM

  • Snooth User: outthere
    Hand of Snooth Voice of Snooth
    324443 3,861

    Tsk tsk, you scratched the surface but completely ignored the great things happening with Syrah right here in California. Copain, Myriad, Bedrock, Arnot-Roberts, Wind Gap, Jemrose, Quivet, Donelan, Baker Lane, Westerhold, Shane, Halcon... Damn the list goes on and on. Great things happening with SYRAH right here in the States. Don't neglect whats in our own back yard!

    Jan 29, 2013 at 11:48 PM

  • Snooth User: anage
    1183233 16

    Scratching the surface is ok for a short article and a huge topic like Syrah, but if you compile a list of examples, it's a MUST to include at least two top Syrah from Languedoc in France. In my opinion, the most elegant and constucted-in-perfection Syrah comes from Languedoc!

    Jan 30, 2013 at 2:02 AM

  • Snooth User: maffe
    146867 51

    I agree with "anage" above. It's of course not a coincidence that the Languedoc is the most successful region at the "Syrah du Monde" competition each year. It must be due to the wonderful balance between full and ripe flavours and spicyness/structure that many vineyards accomplish here. It's a shame that it seems to take forever before the rest of world finds out, especially since the wines are so affordable, but I'm convinced that it's just a matter of time before we see a big Languedoc hype.
    I'd love to taste some US Syrahs but they're almost impossible to find here in France.

    Jan 30, 2013 at 7:53 AM

  • Snooth User: Bobby Boy
    219559 22

    The "bad Press' given to Australian Shiraz in the USA over the past few years has largely been overdone. Firstly there are many great sources of fine Aussie Shiraz apart from the Barossa Valley. It is true that some Aussie Winemakers, Barossa in particular, were making Fruit Bombs - very big and upfront, high in alcohol, possibly to impress Robert Parker who lavished high scores on cult wines like Three Rivers, Amon Ra, Greenock Creek, Duck Muck (Victoria), Rockford Basket Press etc. All of the wines mentioned are top drawer and can be very expensive - all are still going strong by the way. Some of the cheaper offerings mimicked this big fruit cake style which has fallen out of favour. However, many great Aussie Shiraz makers never went down this path and made beautiful restrained, peppery styles which could have come from Cote Rotie. Labels like Mount Langhi Ghiran and Craiglee in Victoria and Clonakilla (ACT),
    have always made wines like this. Perhaps many of these do not make it to the USA?
    Generally speaking Aussie shiraz offers huge variety even at the mid to lower price points and in my opinion (as an avid Aussie collector), the criticism of the style in the USA comes from people who have tried only a small cross-section of what we offer.

    Feb 01, 2013 at 11:04 PM

  • Snooth User: EMark
    Hand of Snooth
    847804 5,661

    Very interesting article. I hope there is a follow-up with a list in the next price bracket.

    Feb 02, 2013 at 5:42 PM

  • If y'all are looking for a delicious cool climate Syrah, Drew in Anderson Valley makes an awesome one. It's definitely not cheap at $40, but it's worth every penny and made me raise my limit on what I'd spend for a bottle.
    On the lower end, we have Big Black Shiraz Benton Vineyard Barossa Valley on our shelves for $6.99(NCA TJ's). I was expecting the big fruit grenade I've had in the past, but this one is earthy, peppery with nice flavor & depth for the price point.
    Good with chips & dips and watching the game on Sunday.

    Feb 03, 2013 at 12:23 AM

  • Snooth User: Isaac42
    98135 26

    Having read the article and looked over the reviews, I have one question: where are the 90 point, $15 wines?

    Feb 13, 2013 at 2:41 PM

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