Serious Eats Amateur Wine Taste-Along: Syrah

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My journey with Syrah started years ago with my sister (older and wiser by about 4 years). We were in an Australian wine shop (as in, a wine shop located in Australia) aiming to pick up something different and local that we wouldn't be able to find back home. At the time, my encounters with Syrah had been few and far between, but I knew that it was a big part of Australian wine. So I turned to the salesman and earnestly asked, "Could you make some recommendations for a few bottles we could take back home to the States? We're looking for something we wouldn't normally be able to get there, like an Australian Sy...errr..." I glanced at a bunch of bottles around me, and all of them said 'Shiraz,' not Syrah. So with my lightning quick mental agility, I ended the statement with: "az."
 
My sister just looked at me with an expression that read, "Really? You want some Syeraz? And where exactly do they grow that grape?" Fortunately, in the interest of the sale, my guy let that one slide. Since then, I've learned that this bold grape not only takes on multiple names, but what can seem like multiple personalities depending on where it's grown. This week we'll get into both of these issues, looking at Syrah from across the globe to prep us for the tasting.

The Name Game

Somewhat confusingly, Syrah can be called different things depending on where it comes from or in which "style" it's produced. Although Syrah is the more common name used in Europe, the US, and Chile, in places like Australia and South Africa they call it Shiraz.

But would that which we call a Syrah by any other name taste as sweet? Well, actually it might be sweeter. Generally speaking, "Shiraz" and other new world examples of Syrah tend to be perceived as riper and more fruity than their old world counterparts. This in part has to do with the fact that the new world regions are hit with sunshine that's long and strong, whereas old world regions (most notably France) have cooler climates and produce wines closer to the acidic side of the sugar-acid balance (as we learned with Muscadet).

So let's get a little more into the details of where Syrah is grown and what we're tasting this week.

France

There are a few major regions in France that you should look out for, most of which are in the northern part of the Rhône Valley. If you come across these AOCs indicated on a bottle, you can expect to get some old world Syrah, often smoky and tannic:

  • Crozes-Hermitage is an appellation which allows for the addition of 15% white grapes, usually Marsanne and Roussanne, to Syrah bottlings. White grapes can be added to Syrah to lighten the astringency and aroma of an often highly tannic grape. We'll taste two Crozes-Hermitage wines this week—E. Guigal Crozes-Hermitage 2006 ($13 for 375ml) and Domaine Alain Graillot Crozes-Hermitage 2009 ($32).
  • Côte-Rôtie is another AOC in Northern Rhône, where the Syrah can be blended with a white grape. In this case, up to 20% Viognier can be added to lighten the wine.
  • Lastly, if the Cornas AOC is on a label, it will tell you that 100% Syrah is in the bottle

We've got a final bottle from France, Domaine d'Andezon Cotes du Rhône Rouge 2010 ($13), which is also 100% Syrah.

Australia

There are two major Syrah-producing regions in Australia that would be helpful to know before dashing into a store—McLaren Vale and Barossa. McLaren Vale is in southern Australia and about half of the grapes grown here go toward making Shiraz. And this week, we've got three different bottles from McLaren Vale to try.

Oddly enough, we're tasting the Mitolo Jester Shiraz McLaren Vale 2009 ($17)—one of the wines my Australian salesman friend convinced me to lug nearly ten thousand miles, even though I saw it weeks later at the Whole Foods wine store practically around the corner from my apartment.

Thanks salesman! Despite the extra legwork this particular bottle required of me, it was a nice, affordable wine that I have since re-purchased.

The other McLaren Vale wines we're trying are the 2up Shiraz Mclaren Vale 2010 ($12) and the Kangarilla Road Shiraz, Mclaren Vale 2008 ($17).

And from Barossa we'll taste the Cupcake Vineyards Shiraz Barossa Valley 2010 ($9).

USA

The most notable states in the US producing Syrah are California (big shocker!) and Washington. In true American style of "we want it all," you can find bottles labeled with Shiraz made in the New World / Australian fashion in addition to the majority of wine using the French name Syrah. We'll be trying two Syrah bottles from the Columbia Valley in Washington State Substance Columbia Valley Syrah 2009 ($17) and the more affordable Castle Rock Syrah Columbia Valley 2009 ($9 or less).

Since that's a fair number of bottles, we're not getting into California Syrah this week—you can take a look at our affordable wine picks from earlier this year for a few recommendations.

South America

Chile and Argentina have seen a significant increase in Syrah production in the past couple decades, often creating riper wines than their Old World counterparts.

Chile is definitely an important part of my Syrah journey, and my trip down there last year gave me the "aha!" moment that really turned me on to the varietal. While down there, we tasted the MontGras Ninquen Antu Syrah Colchagua Valley 2008 ($20), which in my humble opinion both smelled and tasted delicious (or "delicioso" as they say in Spanish. I often impress my boyfriend by practicing Spanish in front of him. And I should note that he—like this tasty Syrah—is also Chilean). But this week, we'll let our tasters be the judge of whether they'd reach for this bottle again.

From Argentina, we've got an affordable young bottle to try, the Bodegas Callia Alta Shiraz 2010 ($9).

And...Israel

Lastly, to round out our trip around the Syrah world, we'll head back across the world to try a Shiraz from Israel, the Recanati Diamond Shiraz Mevushal 2010 ($15).

How to Serve Syrah

In terms of serving, room temperature or a little colder is likely best for Syrah, around 55-65°F. It's also good to give it a little time and air to open up before serving. I recently discovered how a little breathing room can be helpful with a bottle of Californian Syrah. The first glass I had after opening the bottle was quite acidic and you could feel a little burn from the alcohol, so I actually recorked it to save for later. Having let it letting it sit out for a while, the second go around was much nicer—earthy, with dark fruit to mellow out the acid. If you're in a rush (as my friends and I often are when it comes to drinking wine), using a decanter or some solid swirling in the glass would probably do the trick.

And what do we eat with Syrah? Grilled meats and veggies are a good call (especially in these last few weeks before we say goodbye to the sun). Meaty dishes—stews and pastas—would also be good for those of us that are home-bound.

What about you? Are you a fan of Shiraz and Syrah? Have you had any bottles recently that you'd recommend? Let us know in the comments section!

About the author: Seema Gunda is an avid wine traveler, collector, and student with a background in chemistry and a day job in consulting.

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