Affordable Wine Picks: California Syrah

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[Photograph: Sarah Chappell]

Syrah hails from the Rhône region of France but has made its home all over the world. Depending on the ripeness of the grapes and the climate in which it is grown, Syrah generally produces two distinct wine styles. In cooler regions, the wines are evocative of blackberries and black pepper, with age-worthy tannins and some barnyard stink thrown in if you're lucky. Syrah from warmer areas (such as Australia) tends to offer full and jammy blueberry flavors with a softer structure.

In California, Syrah has become a vocal alternative to the ubiquitous Cabernet Sauvignon, thanks to a group of winemakers known as the Rhône Rangers. The Rangers set up shop in the 80s with the goal of making wines that recalled the famed and long-lived ones of the Rhône Valley. These wines tend to eschew the excessive alcohol and overripe-fruit stereotype of California in a search for old world elegance, but California's varied climates mean that Syrah can find many different expressions within one state. Syrah plantings have increased from 344 acres in 1990 to almost 19,000 acres today. This impressive growth has flooded the market with expressionless wines, but even a few affordable selections show how great California Syrah can be.

Recommended California Syrah Under $20

Delicate floral notes and spice open up the 2008 Cline Syrah, leading to black cherries and fresh plum fruit on the palate. The wine from Rhône Ranger Fred Cline has medium body and minimal tannins; it's a simple yet lively wine to keep on hand for weeknight drinking with takeout. (Around $10, find this wine)

Randall Grahm, an original Rhône Ranger, offers up the Bonny Doon Vineyard 2007 Syrah Le Pousseur. The dark ruby color suggests that this might be a jammy wine, but the nose is elegant with hints of olive, cracked pepper, and fresh black fruit. A touch of earthy stink evokes the Northern Rhône and palate is leaner than many other California Syrahs with a pleasant food-friendly acidity. A hint of mushroom on the finish makes this a delightful richer red pairing for seared duck breast. (Around $17, find this wine)

The Shooting Star 2008 Lake County Syrah smells like ripe black cherries with a touch of sweet spice from the 20% new oak barrels used for aging. This wine is juicy and easy to drink with cassis and a hint of hard candy-like sweetness on the mid-palate. There is no finish to speak of, but no unpleasant aftertaste either. Perfect for sipping with a meat stew or barbecue. (Around $12, find this wine)

From the same producer as the Shooting Star, the 2008 Writer's Block Syrah is a completely different beast. Much bolder and much oakier, the romantically named wine falls more in line with a stereotypical California style. We found the alcohol too noticeable on the palate, and the oak overwhelms the ripe plum fruit. However, there is some nice minerality on the finish, and with some time in a decanter this opens up into a delicious steak wine. (Around $13, find this wine)

The 2009 Frey Vineyards Syrah is organic with no added sulfites, but this is not your typical natural-style wine. A prominent oak treatment gives a toasty nose full of sweet spices and vanilla. Ripe currant flavors are paired with grippy tannins begging for grilled meat. Like many of these young syrahs, give the wine some air to let it strut its stuff. ($14-$17, find this wine)

One to Skip

Qupé is known for their focus on Rhône varietals, but the Qupé 2008 Central Coast Syrah was our least favorite of the syrahs we tasted. The palate did have nice acidity and an earthy, mulchy undertone that we liked, but the finish was sour and the wine lacked balance. A decant helped some lovely ripe blackcurrant notes come through, but we found the other wines to be more enticing options. (Around $14, find this wine)

Disclaimer: All wines except the Frey and Cline were provided as press samples for review.

About the Author: Sarah Chappell is a wine writer and -monger living in Brooklyn. She holds the Advanced Certificate with Distinction from the Wine and Spirit Education Trust and contributes to Palate Press.

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