Syrah: A Primer

Posted on Jan 15, 2020


Washington Wine

Washington State’s Force Majeure’s Syrah wine.

Syrah, also known as Shiraz (in Australia) is getting on more and more wine consumers’ radars. And for good reason. It can make delicious wine, it has long been a favourite among sommeliers, and is grown in many different regions that result in many different styles. Something for everyone! In this article we hope to give you what you need to know about Syrah, whether as an introduction to the wine or to expand your horizons.

Bottle with glass of Killibinbin Shiraz

A glass of the 2006 Killibinbin Shiraz

Syrah is probably the darkest of the more popular red wines. If you have been served a wine and are asked to identify it and it looks inky and dark, more black than red, it is probably Syrah. But Syrah comes in many different styles and reflects the terroir that it came from, so we want to be cautious about making generalizations too early in this article.

A Little History

Syrah has been around a long time, perhaps since as far back as 500 A.D. But certainty cannot be had since it was only as recently as 1999 when ampelographers (botanists that specifically study the origins of grapevines) discovered that the Syrah grape is actually a cross between a white grape, Mondeuse Balance with a red grape, Dureza.

A map of the Rhone Valley [source: demaisonsselections.com]

Both of these parent grapes are quite obscure today, and it strikes us as unusual that they would produce an offspring so dark in colour. The first occurrence of this cross was thought to have occurred on the west bank of the Rhône River in what is now known as Côte-Rôtie in the Northern Rhône region of France.

Just south of Côte-Rôtie lies the appellation of Hermitage, an area known for making dark, masculine wines from the Syrah grape. In the 1800s, Bordeaux winemakers would sometimes, usually in lesser vintages, purchase some of this Syrah and add it to their Bordeaux blends and hermitagé their wines to make them darker and more robust. New appellation rules prevent this practice from occurring today.

French Wine

1990 Chapoutier Hermitage

Syrah from the Northern Rhone definitely existed in the shadow of Cabernet Sauvignon in Bordeaux during these times. But after the Second World War, this perception started to shift as winemakers in the Northern Rhone really focused on the quality of their Syrah-based wines. Wineries such as J. L. Chave, Paul Jaboulet, Chapoutier and Guigal were on the leading edge of the quality revolution for Syrah in the Northern Rhone and did much to advance the grape’s and the region’s reputation on the world wine stage.

Cuttings of Syrah from the Northern Rhône were transplanted and propagated successfully in many other countries around the world, most notably Australia, Italy, Spain, the USA and South Africa. As the quality revolution in the Northern Rhône progressed, other parts of the world started to take their Syrah more seriously. Today, top-ranked Syrah is produced in each of the other countries just mentioned.

What Does Syrah Taste Like?

As we earlier stated, Syrah will transmit the terroir it originates from, and therefore can come in many different styles. But one thread that seems to run through most examples of wine made from this grape is dark fruit and medium to full body. Climate seems to have a big influence on the style of Syrah that is produced. Wine Folly produced this graphic describing Syrah’s colour:

Syrah primer

The colour spectrum of Syrah [source: Wine Folly]

Syrah is certainly at the darker end of the spectrum but just how far to the right it goes will be a function of the heat in the growing season. Hotter climates, such as Australia’s Barossa Valley or California’s Central Coast produce very dark Syrah, redolent of blackberry and plum with supporting notes of dark chocolate and espresso. These wines are often very full bodied, have lush textures and can have high alcohol.

washington state syrah

Darby Cellars’ Aunt Lee Syrah from Washington State.

Medium climate regions such as Spain, Italy, Washington State and the Southern Rhone Valley are slightly less dark and showcase black cherry and boysenberry flavours, a bit more tannic structure and nuances of spice, mocha and coffee. Cooler climates such as the Northern Rhône, Santa Barbara County and South Africa will still produce dark wines but more in the dark red/purple end as opposed to the purple/black end. These wines will show more tannin and acid with raspberry and blackberry fruit with support coming from pronounced black pepper on the finish together with olive brine and herbs. Think of a more black-fruited, slightly spicier version of Cabernet Sauvignon.

Bordeaux France

Cabernet Sauvignon bud break in Bordeaux.

Another word is worth mentioning on the comparison to Cabernet Sauvignon. The two wines taste quite similar: dark fruits, structured and age worthy. Both pair extremely well with grilled meat dishes and stand up well to spices. In fact, Cabernet-lovers would be well served to try a Syrah the next time they are grilling a steak or roasting a leg of lamb. Syrah is often more approachable than Cabernet at a younger age and is usually quite a bargain, too.

Syrah: Viticulture and Viniculture

colchagua valley wines chile

The hill sloped syrah vines at Polkura wines in Chile.

Syrah is grown in many places but sites that tend to produce the best results have enough heat to allow its thick skins to fully ripen. Hillsides are often chosen to plant Syrah. Syrah roots want to dig deep and the drainage of hillside vineyards causes them to do so.

Very cool regions can produce Syrah with green and stemmy notes, not very appealing to us. Hotter regions such as California’s Central Coast or Australia’s Barossa Valley can, in some vintners’ hands, produce wines that if allowed to ripen too much become alcoholic and almost port-like. Between these extremes you will find most Syrah is grown in moderately warm climates where vineyard practices focus on canopy management (the amount of leaves left on the vines) to allow full- but not over-ripeness. Dry farming, or not irrigating can produce great results by forcing the roots deeper in their search for water. Crop levels kept to low levels increase intensity, a phenomenon that occurs naturally at higher elevations and on steeper slopes. Some of the best sites in Hermitage and Côte-Rôtie are so steep they must be terraced and cannot be mechanically farmed.

Washington state wine

Winemaker Chris Peterson of Avennia Winery.

The best Syrah winemakers we have interviewed explain that Syrah can be almost as tricky as Pinot Noir to vinify. Too little oxygen in the winemaking process can lead to pronounced aromas of tar. Too much new oak can make the wine too plush and lose its vinosity. Gentle handling, minimal intervention and avoiding excess extraction seem to be the most common mantras we have heard from the pros.

grape vine

Grenache grapes.

In most regions Syrah is vinified as a “varietal”, that is a wine made from a single grape variety, not a blend. In the Southern Rhone Valley and in Australia, adding Syrah to a blend dominated by Grenache (and frequently with Mouvedre as well) is a common practice as Syrah fills out the middle of the wine and can give it more body and more structure.

A somewhat unusual but very effective practice is to introduce a little (3% to 7%) of the white grape Viognier to the Syrah. This has been practiced in Côte-Rôtie for decades (Guigal’s famous La Mouline adds 11% Viognier) and is now catching on in Australia (notably Torbreck and Standish) and elsewhere as well. The Viognier is not blended (mixing one finished wine with another) but is co-fermented (the two different grapes are placed together in the same fermenter and run through the fermentation process together). Co-fermenting is thought to extract more of the floral lift from the Viognier grape. Contrary to intuition, co-fermenting with Viognier actually results in a darker wine. That is because an enzyme in that white grape will extract more colour from the red grape during fermentation.

Syrah Around the World

France still has the most Syrah planted in the world, but it is grown in many other countries as well. There are about 460,000 acres of Syrah planted and about 1/3 or 160,000 acres are found in France. Australia has about 105,000 acres, followed by Spain with 49,000 acres, Argentina with 42,000 acres, South Africa with 25,000 acres, USA with 23,000 acres and Italy has 17,000 acres.

barossa valley wine

2016 Steinert Flaxman’s Valley Shiraz

We mentioned earlier some of the greats from the Northern Rhone when it comes to making Syrah. But mention also needs to be given to some of the Shiraz coming out of Australia. Penfolds Grange is world class and has exceeded most of the top wines from the Northern Rhone in price. Other great Shiraz coming out of Australia are Torbreck Run Rig, Powell and Son Steinert Vineyard and Kraehe Vineyard, Henschke Hill of Grace and Standish The Relic.

red wine

2006 Cayuse Syrah

California is home to Krankl Winery, Alban Winery and L’Aventure who are definitely notable. Up the coast in Washington some world class Syrah is being made and only now getting the recognition it deserves. Cayuse is coveted (and hard to get) and is the winery that put The Rocks region (on the Oregon border) on the map. Also look for anyone sourcing fruit from Boushey Vineyard, such as Avennia, Betz, DeLille and àMaurice. One of our personal favourites is the Syrah made at Force Majeure, now sourcing their own fruit from the vineyard planted at the top of Red Mountain. We tasted some very elegant Syrah at Waterkloof in South Africa and a powerful Syrah at Montes in Chile, their iconic Folly. Straddling both elegance and power are the beautiful Syrahs made at Polkura in Chile.

WA Wine

2011 Lauren Ashton Syrah

Some great quality Syrah that can be had for a real bargain include Lauren Ashton (WA) $35, The Black Chook (AUS) $20, Domaine Guisset (FR) $20, Waterkloof The Circumstance (SA) $14. By the way, the Polkura Syrah mentioned above is just $25!

8 Comments

  1. martindredmond@gmail.com'

    A great read about my favorite grape variety. It’s funny you mention L’Aventure. I just recommended the winery to a friend who is visiting Paso yesterday. Whenever I think of L’Aventure I think of their “Paso blend” (at least that’s what I call it) of Cab and Syrah. So good!

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    • Thank you Martin! We’re certainly hoping to get there in person in the near future…great wines!

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  2. robin@42aspens.com'

    We have been diving into some Syrah lately. I have also been listening to some of the “I’ll Drink to that” Wine podcasts on Rhônes and Syrahs where they talk about California Syrahs (which is my jam!). I love that you have given us more tie in’s internationally and so many geeky details about this luscious variety! Here’s to enjoying some Syrah together this year!

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    • Wouldn’t that be great! We’ll have to check out that wine podcast too…thanks Robin!

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  3. dracaenawines@gmail.com'

    Fantastic article! So much awesome information! We are so lucky to be on Cayuse’s list! We adore Syrah!

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    • Very lucky, incredible wines. Can’t wait until we get to Cabernet France 😉

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  4. lwg.mine@gmail.com'

    Super article you two! M and I always have a bottle or five on hand as we enjoy the different expressions as you mention. Interestingly, I’ve grown to enjoy cooler climate syrah. Thanks for the intro to other great Aussie shiraz. We’re heading there this November, first trip!

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    • Thanks Lynn, we’re on the same page with regard to cool climate syrah but you will LOVE Australia! We look forward to hopefully seeing you in the spring in BDX too!

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