We'll be tasting six Syrahs (or Shirazes) today, two each from France, the United States and Australia; and within each pair, we'll try one in the budget price range and another that's more pricey. First, though, let's take a few minutes to recall the history and character of this first-rate grape.
One lovely legend has it that a French knight named Gaspard de Sterimberg went off to the Holy Land in the 13th Century to fight in the Crusades, found excellent grapes growing in Shiraz in Persia, and brought cuttings back home in his saddlebags. According to this story, he vowed to study war no more, built a home and farm that he called his Hermitage, planted the vines, and the rest is history.
It's a nice story, if probably only a legend, given that the fertile rolling valley of the Rhone has grown grapes and made wine since Roman times, a thousand years before the Crusades. But one thing is certain: The Rhone Valley has enjoyed a reputation for a millennium - or two - as the source of great, sturdy and long-lived red wines (one of the most famous and long-lived is called Hermitage after de Sterimberg's retirement villa) and the predominant grape is Syrah.
Ask any wine enthusiast to name the world's best red grapes, and chances are that the varieties of Bordeaux and Burgundy will be the first mentioned: Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir respectively. But Syrah just about has to be the NEXT red grape to come to mind, and I could make an argument that for producing wines of great enjoyment, full of fruit and structure, it's hard to beat a good Syrah on any given day.
Syrah virtually dominates the Northern Rhone in the wines of Hermitage, Crozes-Hermitage, Cornas and Saint-Joseph, and it's important in the Southern Rhone, where it's blended with Grenache and other grapes in Chateauneuf-du-Pape. The generic Cotes-du-Rhone, used for everyday table wines throughout the Rhone, can also carry some Syrah.
Outside the Rhone, Syrah gets less attention. In contrast with its dominance in Hermitage and environs, it represents only 2 percent of all the red-wine acreage in France, and such of it as grows outside the Rhone is reserved almost entirely to the Languedoc.
But the grape gets more respect in a few other wine regions around the world: Most of all in Australia, where it makes up fully 40 percent of all the red grapes harvested, and where the locals call it "Shiraz" (They say it "Shee-RAAAAZ," not "Shee-rahz", a practice that's apparently only coincidentally connected with the Persian city. In fact, the first cuttings planted Down Under, in 1832, were apparently mistakenly labeled "Scyras.")
The Australians make Shiraz in two primary styles, one bright and fresh and jammy and intended to be drunk up young, and the other big, tannic and oaky and requiring age, most notably Max Shubert's famous Penfolds Grange - which until 1990 was called "Grange Hermitage" until the French made it clear that Penfolds wouldn't be selling Grange in France unless that French name disappeared from the label.
Shiraz was a big hit in Australia for the same reasons that consign it mostly to the southern part of France: It thrives in warmer climates and requires an early spring, declining to bud during cool weather that Cabernet or Pinot shrug off as normal. Once flowering, though, it's an easy-going vine, naturally resistant to the insects and diseases that keep vineyard workers busy nurturing less hardy varieties.
While France and Australia are the dominant producers of Syrah or Shiraz, it's attracting more attention in other wine-growing regions with similar climates. It's a rarity in Spain, but one grower there - Marques de Griñon - has achieved near "cult" status with a Syrah of extremely limited production. South Africa, calling it Shiraz, is taking a closer look. And it's becoming quite a common bit player in California, particularly in the Santa Barbara and Paso Robles regions well south of the traditional wine country, where a band of experimentally inclined wine makers call themselves "The Rhone Rangers."
If there is any one characteristic aroma and flavor description that fits most Syrah, it would be "peppery." This character varies somewhat depending on soil and particularly climate - cooler weather tends to bring it out, warmer conditions (like the Barossa and McLaren Vale in Australia) tend to cloak it behind jammy fruit - I would still venture that any time you sense a fragrant whiff of freshly ground black pepper wafting up from your glass, you can safely yell out, "It's Syrah!" and impress your friends with your wine-tasting skill. In addition to pepper, a quality Syrah will generally show black fruits - plums, black cherries and blackberries and, especially in the bigger, more ageworthy bottlings, an astringent dose of tannin on the palate. I often spot a distinct note of mint or menthol in Australian Shiraz, especially those from Barossa. And both the Australian and even more so most of the California renditions see considerable time in oak, to the extent that the wood may dominate the fruit with smells of dillweed, vanilla and spice or butter.
As a quick footnote, let's address "Petite Sirah," spelled with an 'i' in place of the 'y' in "Syrah." Although the name seems similar, this California variety (called "Durif" in France) is NOT Syrah or Shiraz but a completely different grape, one that can make an interesting wine but not, in my opinion, a peer of Syrah in quality. (As an additional footnote, one that I almost hate to bring up, some French vignerons do distinguish between subspecies of Syrah by designating them "Gros Syrah" and, um, "Petite Syrah" [with a y], a complication so obscure that most of us will probably never encounter it.)
Here are links to my tasting notes on the six wines featured: