With the arrival of fall, it’s always fun to take a look at some of the heartier reds that have been hibernating through the warmer months. I get to taste a lot of wine, but I always look forward to the chances I get to taste Syrah. To me, Syrah is sort of the Riesling of red grapes: remarkably expressive of site. Syrah -- unlike some other, more popular I might add, varietal wines -- tends to reveal an expression of terroir almost anywhere it’s planted. While wines based on Cabernet, for example, tend to move towards a mean, Syrah seems to be much less tamable, much less prone to the mean.

I can’t tell you exactly why this is true, though the fact that Syrah tends to be savory and spicy in flavor profile, as opposed to purely fruity, has a lot to do with it. Even under less than ideal conditions, Syrah ripens to reveal complexity, depth and, with age, elegance that few grapes can match.  No wonder it’s planted round the world!

While I’d love to have a broader selection to share with you, I fall back today on a selection of North American and Australian examples of Syrah, or Shiraz as the case may be. I was frankly surprised at how well some of these wines showed!

A Super Value from California
2007 Kenwood Sonoma Valley Jack London Syrah 13.5%, $20

There’s a distinct wet dog, horse blanket note on the nose at first, with an interesting array of juniper, eucalyptus, pepper, cocoa and mineral aromas. Rather small on entry but then this gains volume in the mouth quite quickly. The fruit is slow to emerge, but unfolds with a surprisingly black cherry/black raspberry vein of flavors. This is downright restrained in the mouth and almost elegant with gentle suggestions of cocoa, earth and vanilla across the mid-palate and a tight, slightly drying cocoa tinged finish with a slightly minty finale. This is not fruit-driven and may disappoint some palates, but I find it to be surprisingly good. 91pts

A super value from Australia
2008 Yalumba Patchwork Shiraz Barossa 14.5%, $17
Vanilla, dried plum, cracked pepper and wood spice greet the nose. This is very clear on entry, low and focused with a mineral edge and bright acids. It’s a bit compressed on the mid-palate and needs time to open but reveals lovely purity and definition on the backend. The finish is long, firm and lightly spicy, with impressive purity to the plum and violet fruit. Well-proportioned and balanced. 91pts

My top-scoring wine
2008 Owen Roe Ex Umbris Columbia Valley 14.1% $25

This is dark, inky and brooding in the glass, giving only hints of charcoal, black fruit and earth aromas. With air, this gains a touch of hot iron and some candied blackberry tones. Very fresh in the mouth, with noticeable extract lending a tactile impression on the palate but not so extracted as to feel forced or weighty. This is round yet very well balanced with fresh tannins and that nice acid supporting deep, inky, gingerbread-crusted blackberry fruit. There’s a nice herbal top note and something almost floral as well, but this remains a bit tight in the mouth. The finish shows some sweet, toasty oak and a long layer of bittersweet chocolate and licorice before tapering off on some fleshy fruit tones. Quite a wine. 93pts

2006 Zaca Mesa Santa Ynez Valley Syrah 15%, $23
A bit tight at first but, with some air, this opens very nicely, revealing boysenberry fruit with hints of peach, leather, dried herbs, licorice and light cracked pepper. Broad on entry with a touch of sweetness from the alcohol but well structured. The tannins help ground the mid-palate, which offers nice fruit but a very fine earthy underlay as well. The backend is rich and layered with cocoa and licorice accents before yielding to the ripe berry fruit and light dusting of pepper on the moderately long finish. This has a nice firmness yet remains rather transparent and holds its alcohol remarkably well. 92pts

2008 Langmeil Barossa Valley Floor Shiraz 14.5%, $23
Aromatically this is quite tight at first, really restrained with soft herbal tones accented by bright cracked pepper notes. On entry this shows a touch of sweetness that is quickly swept away by the layered, rich, yet elegant mid-palate with its deep, dark fruits. Superbly polished and rather agile for a wine of this mass. The flavors show a touch of dried fruit, dates and figs, along with fresher plum fruit and some lightly stewy cherry tones. The black spice tones are really held in check by the fruit but emerge slowly with time. This really shows remarkable finesse on the palate and ends with a bright, red plum and cherry fruit finish, layered with very well integrated wood spice and vanilla tones. 92pts

2006 d’Arenberg The Dead Arm McLaren Vale Shiraz, $50
A bit dirty on the nose at first but the aromas really build, adding wild berry fruits, meaty accents, spice tones that recall candied violets and hung game with a touch of a terpene accent. In the mouth this is lovely, bright yet deep with a raw freshness to the wine. The fruit is pure and transparent, if a bit evolved, and the finish is long and succulent. 92pts

2008 Langmeil Barossa Shiraz Orphan Bank 14.5%, $60
Woodsy and herbal on the nose with light spice notes accenting black raspberry fruit. This smells faintly oily of resinny wood as well, with some violet notes framing the fruit and an interesting candied, apricot edge. Nice and bright in the mouth with modest but sufficient tannins framing out the unusually red fruited mid-palate. There are some nice herbal top notes here, along with a streak of vanilla and gentle framing spice tones. The backend shows off some slightly harsh wood tones that take hold a bit of the somewhat short finish. With air, the finish gains a nice aromatic quality and nice red plum fruit emerges to complement the generally austere tannins. This is better than it sounds! 91pts

2008 Owen Roe Chapel Block Yakima Valley Syrah 14.9%, $100
Salted plum, roast meat, smoke, a bit of ink -- actually quite inky -- and with a nicely integrated background note of cracked pepper. Smooth and rich in the mouth, with some cocoa on the attack, which is joined by very spicy plummy fruit on the mid-palate. Very peppery on the backend and onto the moderately long finish. This is big and well balanced, but shows very little detail at this early stage. It’s got a fairly heavy load of wood tannin as well. This will need time to integrate as it closes down on the finish but is well balanced for the medium haul. 90pts

2007 Jorian Hill Santa Ynez Valley Syrah 14.8%, $28

This offers up very complex aromas of sweet candied fruits, dried hay, smoky oak, diesel exhaust, forest floor, raw beef and a really strong black tea top note. Nicely rich and quite bright with succulent acidity lending this a red fruited character. The tannins creep up on the mid-palate and really begin to assert themselves, adding an autumnal character to the forest floor and dried herb notes. The finish is a bit clipped by the tannins, though the brief flash of red fruit is pure and fresh. This may sort itself out with a little time but the tannins are a bit too dominant at this point. The wine is aromatically quite decadent, though, which does bode well for the future. 89pts

2005 Jacob’s Creek Centenary Hill Barossa Valley Shiraz 14.5%, $30
Fairly gamy at first with a decidedly funky edge to the sweet, almost candied wild berry fruit. There are nuances of juniper, licorice, and canned black olives with an over-arching root beer-like sweetness. A touch flat though broad in the mouth, with a nice supple texture and a rather elegant mouthfeel for a Barossa Shiraz. There is nice fruit that emerges on the mid-palate with a note of cocoa and some of that canned olive aroma as well. This is almost surprisingly dry on the palate with a nice tobacco, nutty oak note on the finish. 88pts

2007 Valley of the Moon Sonoma County Syrah 13.5%
Tarry and chocolately with notes of vanilla, dried fruits, smoke, ash, and a touch of diesel. Round, yet fresh and bright, in the mouth with lightly spicy plum and blackberry fruits. This is quite fruit-forward with just a little spice on the backend and a slightly drying, though moderately long finish. 87pts

2008 Yellow Tail Reserve Southeastern Australia Shiraz
Earthy and a bit funky/reductive on the nose though the tight nose does show a minty aspect as well as a bit of earthy minerality. Stiff and extracted in the mouth with a lot of fruit that is skewed toward the sweeter end of the spectrum. This is fairly well structured yet is a bit obviously extracted with good length to the cocoa-tinged finish. A fairly big wine that trades power for elegance. 87pts

2008 De Bortoli Family Selection Shiraz South Eastern Australia 14%
Decidedly beefy on the nose with an underlay of dried herbs, cracked pepper, smoky wood notes, fresh woodsy mushrooms and wild plums.  Soft and open on entry with a juicy, plummy entry, some light spice notes and a hint of vanilla on the midpalate that leads to a fresh and brightly fruity finish. Medium bodied and well balanced in a an easy to appreciate style. 86pts

2008 Marquis Philips McLaren Vale Shiraz
A bit off on the nose with both lactic and acetic accents to the bright, juniper-accented aromas of sweet black fruit, peach tea and grilled meats. Velvety and sweet in the mouth, with good freshness to the core of plummy fruit. This is fairly weighty and while it’s reasonably well-balanced, it is a monotone wine that finishes a bit abruptly. 86pts

2008 Cupcake Vineyards Barossa Valley Shiraz 14.5%
Rather simple on the nose with a creamy, spicy rendition of the blueberry riff, smelling a bit like Pop-Tarts. A bit sweet up front, but suitably rich, round and soft. Quite well put-together actually and a rather rich mouthful of wine, though it does feel and taste a bit extracted. It’s a biggish yet simple wine with a vanilla and blueberry mid-palate and a little sweet/tannic tension on the modest finish. 84pts

2009 Austin Hope Paso Robles Syrah Hope Family Vineyard 15.5%
Heavy and rich on the nose with meat drippings, sweet wood, coffee, orange rind, light pepper spice and boysenberry fruit. This starts out rather nicely but quickly turns drying and raw on the palate, with uncovered wood tannins dominating the palate. There’s nice fruit on the backend with aromatic spicy, meaty inner-mouth perfumes but the finish is dominated by the drying, woody tannins. If the tannins soften this may improve but, for now, it’s just not friendly. 83pts

NV Barefoot California Shiraz 13%
A little sweet on the nose with a slight roast beefy underlay to the jammy black cherry fruit that is framed with gentle smoky nuttiness. A little sweet up front with plenty of acid to try balance it out. This is still noticeably sweetish on the palate, with lots of jammy strawberry and cherry fruit. There’s a bit of an extracted feel to this, though it does offer up some light notes of herb and spice that help punctuate the fruit. The finish is short and a bit clumsy but adds a touch of earth to the mix. 84pts

2007 Archetype Vineyards Barossa Shiraz
Gamy on the nose with a touch of crack pepper accenting a rather composty, vegetal, meaty nose. There’s a touch of volatility here and a bit of a fishy smell as well. Red-fruited up front, then turning a bit darker on the mid-palate with slightly muddy flavors supported by soft tannins and bright acidity, though there is no finish to speak of. 82pts

2008 J. Lohr Paso Robles Syrah South Ridge 13.5%
Dark and jammy on the nose with lots of licorice, fennel seed, and green seed tones under lightly chocolaty fruit. This is really fairly soft in the mouth with little detail. The fruit is fairly intense, candied red cherry and plum with some Jolly Rancher acids in the back. Fruit-forward, easy to drink, formless and very short, not to mention a touch hot considering the stated alcohol. 82pts

2007 Jacob’s Creek Southeast Australia Shiraz 14%
Dry and woodsy on the nose with more wood than fruit. Sweet on entry with a loose, rather soft feel. There are nice sweet berry flavors accented with a touch of peppery spice but the tannins are drying and rob the mid-palate of its appeal. The finish is dry, woody and raw with light carob flavors. 78pts

To view the photos for this article, go to Syrah - December 2010.