has been a perennial dark horse in the US market for much of the last two decades. It’s a grape that always seems to be on the verge of greatness, even exploding on the scene in the late 1990s under the Shiraz moniker and with a thick Aussie accent, but as we all know, Aussie Shiraz is so very 1990, and Syrah struggles to find a following because consumers don’t know what to expect, or do they?
The truth remains that Syrah tends to be produced in a range of styles that might be a bit broader than many other wines. It’s a grape that seems more sensitive to variations in climate and terroir than some of our mainstays, but that should be a good thing, an advantage, not the distinct disadvantage its made out to be.
In truth, I believe that Syrah has suffered in part from an identity crisis as well as guilt by association. Much of this was probably created by people like me, in the media, telling you why people didn’t buy or like Syrah as opposed to created by consumers who just did not buy Syrah. Well the times have changed, and along with those changes, a new appreciation for Syrah is on the way. Let’s take a look at the recent developments.
Syrah is now better understood by producers.
The effect of terroir on Syrah is now better understood.
The Australians have rediscovered restraint when it comes to Syrah.
The French have abandoned restraint when it comes to Syrah.
The first two are relatively self-explanatory, over time winemakers and growers make mistakes in planting and production and if they are competent, they learn from those mistakes. Unlike with baking, wine mistakes tend to have fairly long horizons, so you can screw something up and not know it for sure for a year or three. Screwing things up in the vineyard can take even longer, four years for fruit, a few years to figure out you’d be better off planting another variety, rinse, lather, repeat.
Syrah grape image via Shutterstock
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!
Dark and spicy on the nose with early hints of cracked black pepper, grilling beef, chocolate, violet pastille and fruit that recalls both black currants and blackberries. A powerful wine and one that surprises on entry with a burst of inner mouth perfumes that range from mint to plum, vanilla and violet. The impact in the mouth is substantial but not sweet, with a fair dose of wood and wood tannin covered by rather rich chocolate covered cherry, dried herb and Italian plum flavors. Wood spice pops on the back end and drives the finish, which shows that even the wood tannins here are rather polished. There's a touch of heat, and nice vanilla and spice notes framing the dried blackberry, blueberry, cinnamon and black plum fruit on the long finish. Big and decidedly New World but very well done in the style. 92pts
Dark and mysterious on the nose with game undercurrents and licorice, vanilla and tar accents to the dried plum and black currant fruit. This is a big, rich, powerful wine with a lot of blackness obscuring any detail today. It's smooth and supple, if opaque in the mouth with glimpses of vanilla oak, green olive, and violet along with a note of bitter orange peel, all struggling to reveal themselves on the palate. The finish is a touch short with a bit of coffee oak over blueberry and blackberry fruit, but it's not really showing much either. Tough to score this, it is really well balanced and shows great promise, but it's hiding most of what it's got today. Give it 89pts based on potential with room for significant improvement.
A little funky on the nose at first, then this settles down into a deep carob, earth, and ground beef accented groove of blueberry and plum fruit sprinkled with a touch of black pepper. This enters the mouth with a slight degree of plumpness or ripeness, which immediately disappears leaving behind a rather transparent, well-focused mouthful of fuzzy tannin supported blueberry, mulberry and plummy fruit. There's a nice base of earthy old wood here and the fruit is nicely framed with a savory, meaty character but this really shines because it comes across as pure, fresh and naturally complex enough to be interesting. The finish is fresh and while fruity, really shows lovely peppery spice and savory nuances. Not fancy, this is kind of delicious in a freaks meet geeks kind of way. 88pts
Dark and spicy with an almost camphor-like aspect to the black pepper top note to the blueberry and blackberry fruit. Air brings out the classic apricot and floral aromas of Viognier which are sweet and well-integrated here. This is a little tight on entry but shows fine balance with an early rush of blueberry and blackberry fruit followed by layered toasty oak, vanilla and spice flavors that are obvious if subtle. The wine broadens in the mouth towards the back end, revealing a lovely sweet edge to the stone fruit flavors, reminds me of plum ice cream a little bit. The finish tightens up once again with a hint of noticeable wood tannin and a little heat as well as the lovely parting aromatics of Viognier. This is lovely, balanced, fresh and with some nice nuances in a New World package. 88pts
A bit stemmy on the nose with attractive green olive, caper and black pepper aromas over somewhat intrusive new oak. This shows noticeable dry extract in the mouth with a bit of a pasty feel, even though the wine manages to remain fairly fresh feeling. The flavors are decidedly in the red fruit end of the spectrum with a nice herbal edge and a slight stemmy undertone. A touch of dryness appears on the back end along with some green peppercorn spice that vanishes on the modest finish which is dominated by wood tannin. This seems to have had some good raw material, but is a bit too extracted and oaky. 85pts
Dark, earthy and woodsy on the nose with hints of sweet cinnamon, floral herbs, candied spiced lingonberries, a little prune and a nice dusting of white pepper. Very precise on entry, this really has fine balance with polished yet firm tannins and well-integrated acidity supporting earth and cocoa-tinged dried dark fruit on the attack. The mid-palate shows a bit of floral/vegetal brightness along with a little spiced lingonberry red fruit that leads to a clean, fresh if darkly flavored finish that ends with a touch of caramel and some peppery spice notes. Nicely done, a bit chunky fruit but nicely supported. 87pts
Lots of blueberry fruit greets the nose along with some nuanced notes of grilled meats, toasty oak, a touch of black pepper and some fresh balsamic notes. There's plenty of oak here, with lots of vanilla and toasty, oaky flavors wrapped around the core of blackberry and blueberry fruit. There's a pleasant astringency to the tannins, which helps to balance out some of the light sweetness this shows on the mid-palate. The finish is a bit spicier, with more toasty oak and vanilla than fruit, but decent length. A bit rough around the edges and showing some heat, but offers a lot of wine. 87pts
Fresh and nicely focused on the nose with clean, cedary oak supporting red currant and raspberry fruit topped with some floral violet and vegetal nuances. Low acid and soft on entry, this is rich with black cherry and blackberry fruit over a base of leather, toast and vanilla with a nice edgy feel to the modest tannins and a hint of tar on the back end. The finish is quite attractive with very nice balance between the rather rich fruit and the firm tannins. Perhaps a bit simple, this is nonetheless well-balanced and tasty. 86pts
Very tight on the nose, but what is there shows sweet boysenberry and candied violet notes. Wow, this is fresh and lively in the mouth with an initial burst of blue fruit followed by some lovely dried meat and black raspberry flavors. Very pure, if perhaps a touch sweet, the tannins here are fleshy fruit tannins balanced by juicy if not pronounced acidity all tied together in a lovely hit of pomegranate fruit on the back end and through the modest finish. A little too young, give it three to six months to settle down and drink it over the following year or two for what it is, a lusty little bistro styled wine that is delicious and very easy to drink! 85pts
Tarry and gently spicy on the nose with mulberry and blackberry fruit framed by woodspice with a vanilla topnote. This enters the mouth with good acid-driven focus but it gains significant weight in the mouth, developing into a slightly rustic if rich mouthful of tannin-laced black cherry and blackberry fruit. There's a fair amount of oak spice here and a pretty peppery note on the mid-palate. The fruit fades rather quickly on the finish leaving rough, rustic tannins and some heat on the moderately long finish that does show some lingering red berry fruit on the finale. Plenty to like here for the price. 85pts
Fresh on the nose, slightly reduced and a bit stemmy/herbal in nature, this does offer up simple, clean cracked pepper and red plum aromas. A bit lighter bodied than most but well-balanced and fresh feeling with well-judged tannins and almost juicy acidity accentuating the core of plummy fruit. There's a lovely hint of spice here and again an herbal nuance on the palate that recalls the nose. With air the fruit gains some darker aspects but the appeal here for me is the freshness in the mouth and the decidedly medium-bodied feel. A nuance of toasty marshmallow appears on the back end and some gentle streaks of oak pop on the finish but the oak is well-used here. Easy drinking bistro styled wine. 84pts
Cedary, toasty and tarry on the nose with a deep base of worn leather, nuances of vanilla and white pepper and jammy cooked berry fruit. Nice and bright on entry with soft tannins and nicely supportive acidity that adds lift to the red plum and wild berry fruit here, but the oak is definitely the dominant flavor in the mouth. Toasty and heavy on the vanilla and spice. A little fruit pops on the finish, which is slightly sticky if smooth. Easy to drink, smooth and simple. 83pts
Intensely aromatic on the nose with a huge rush of truffle early on that is followed by toasty oak, cracked black pepper, aromas of dates and figs and some sweet vanilla. Low acid and languid in the mouth, this is smooth and glossy, with a fair amount of weight but not that much detail to the core of plump dried fruit, truffle, vanilla and black plum flavors. The finish shows a fair amount of wood tannin and some heat. A little unbalanced but not entirely unpleasant. 78pts