Wine "discoveries" are very American ― and we're in the process of making another one. In countries like France, people drink mostly what's grown down the road, and those grapes haven't changed for hundreds of years. (In fact, in France, what's grown where is a matter of law.) Here, vintners can experiment with many varieties to find out what shines in a region, and, maybe more important, plant what consumers seem to want to consume.
About 15 years ago, I remember a colleague musing, "You know, I'm kind of interested in this Merlot grape … " And a darling it became ― the softer little sister of Cabernet Sauvignon. Then two years ago, pop culture embarrassed Merlot fans and made Pinot Noir queen.
Now a wine is coming on in the West that's threatening to supplant Pinot: Syrah. It offers the advantages of a big red (concentrated fruit, meaty textures) without the drawbacks (unwieldy tannins). As Jeff Cohn of JC Cellars in the unlikely wine country of Oakland, California, puts it, "Syrah can taste like nothing else you've ever had in your life ― minerals, smoke, game, raspberries … It can take you to new places."
Twenty years ago, the acres of vineyards in the West planted with Syrah numbered in the double digits. By 2004 in California alone, Syrah acreage had grown to 17,638. We're discovering something that's deeply rooted in other parts of the wine world. In France, there's almost as much Syrah planted as Cabernet Sauvignon. Earthy Syrah from the northern part of the Rhône Valley (where the grape was born) is the wine's prototype. In Australia, Shiraz (as it's called there) is fruity, full of brambly berries.
It's looking like we have the best of both worlds on the West Coast. According to Cohn, "Syrah here can be more about fruit than in France … but if made right here, it has those other layers too." Whether it leans toward fruit or minerality depends on the climate. Early wisdom had it that Syrah needed heat to thrive, and big fruit was extracted from warm regions like California's eastern Santa Barbara County and Paso Robles. Some of the newest lean and layered Syrahs, though, are coming from cooler places ― California's Monterey County and Sonoma Coast and eastern Washington (where it's doing phenomenally well).
No matter where it falls on the spectrum of earthy to fruity, Syrah is full of food-friendly factors: smoke and leather, pepper and herbs. There's no better wine to have on hand through grilling season. We tried it with chicken, steak, lamb, sausages ― its reach was amazing. Without huge tannins, Syrah is at peace with many proteins, and its juicy fruit and rustic textures work small miracles with charred meat and even vegetables. It's a slam dunk with barbecued ribs.
Grand Archer Syrah 2001 (Sonoma County; $20). Good Syrah priced at about $4 per glass is a real find. This one has a fascinating spiced tea, briary, molasses-like aroma and appealing cherry cola, licorice, and rustic meat flavors.
JC Cellars Ventana Vineyards Syrah 2003 (Monterey County, CA; $30). Fabulous wild game and tobacco aromas reminiscent of Syrahs from France's northern Rhône Valley, with a rich core of fleshy blackberry fruit that's completely Californian.
Morgan Syrah 2003 (Monterey County, CA; $22). A little spicy and outrageously bold, with bright, distinct blueberry flavors, pepper, and vanilla.
Taz Syrah 2003 (Santa Barbara County; $25). An exciting, spicy Syrah, with a warm, herb-scented aroma almost like the dry, rolling hills of California in summer. Opulent fruit and a texture as soft as felt.
Tolosa Edna Ranch Syrah 2003 (Edna Valley, CA; $20). Winning licorice-Hershey bar aromas, with rustic, can't-stop-tasting espresso, cocoa, and deep berry flavors. Try with slow-grilled ribs. Karen MacNeil-Fife