Syrah, the predominant grape of northern Cotes du Rhone, is one of the noblest varieties capable of reflecting terroir perfectly.
There are many theories regarding its place of origin, some of which are captivating but untrue. The one most popular but incorrect is that it was brought by the commanders of the fourth Crusade who made detour to the city of Shiraz, in Iran, and brought cuttings to the Rhone delta in their saddles. As intriguiging as it sound researchers proved the theory wrong, as the grape existed well before the fourth Crusade arrived in the 11th century.
Another theory suggests the city of Syracuse on Sicily to be the birthplace; this was also proven to be just a theory.
DNA analysis shows that a natural crossing of mondeuse blanche (dongine), and dureza from Ardeche, just west of Cotes du Rhone, created syrah.
Syrah was so famous that in the 18th century Bordeaux wines were blended with Hermitage and sold as Hermitagé (i.e. mixed or blended or ennobled with Hermitage wine).
Syrah wines age well, but can also be vinifed as a fruit-forward, easy drinking libation, as Australian winemakers have been doing for decades. It can be blended with cabernet sauvignon to soften it, or rendered lighter with a splash of viognier, the preferred white grape variety in northern Cotes du Rhone.
Characteristic flavor descriptors are: blackberry, chocolate, pepper, spice in Australia; and smoke, tar, iodine, herbs, and gaminess with cellaring.
Vignerons in northern Cotes du Rhone distinguish between petite syrah and gros syrah. The former is small-berried bunches that yield darker and more flavorful wines, whereas the latter yields much more but coarser wines.
Some California vignerons call syrah petite syrah (durif) believing it to be a different strain. In reality durif is not related to syrah at all.
Syrah is a dark thick-skinned grape that likes hot climates, and ripens early if properly pruned for low yields. The soil must be well drained, chalky-clay or mixed with iron as is the case in some Australian regions. Syrah’s longevity from the vineyards of Cote Rotie (blonde or brune), Crozes-Hermitage, Hermitage and Cornas are legendary. At the very least these wines need five years of barrel aging.
In 1950’s acreage of syrah in France was declining, but thanks to new plantings in Languedoc Roussillon it has reached 40,000 hectares.
In Australia, wineries promoted the variety and invented a new style. It is fruit-forward, low acid, high alcohol and easy drinking, slightly sweet wine particularly suitable to young palates. Australian winemakers also make a sparkling sweet shiraz that is popular with desserts or as refreshing glass of wine during receptions.
James Busby, who many consider to be the father of Australian vitiviniculture, introduced the grape in Australia. He obtained cuttings from Montpellier, France.
While at the beginning of 1990 there were only 5000 hectares of syrah in Australia, today the acreage is well over 30 000 hectares and growing.
Barossa Valley, north of Adelaide, Clare-, Eden Valleys, Coonawara, and the Hunter Valley north of Sydney are famous for their succulent shiraz.
Australians call syrah (shiraz( as distinct from the French and in fact produce a completely different style of wine. Since its introduction in 1832, the grape has also acclimatized to local terroir yielding different wines than those of Cotes du Rhone.
South Africa has been successful with syrah and markets a style that is somewhere between European and Australian styles.
Californian, particularly Sonoma County, Santa Barbara, Napa- and Central Valley, have been very successful with syrah. Mc Dowell in Mendocino, J. Phelps in Napa, Qupe in Santa Barbara, and Cline in Sonoma County produce excellent syrah wines.
Argentina and Chile have had many successes with syrah and will produce better wines in the future as the vines become older.
New Zealand also planted some syrah and prices mid-weight, well-balanced wines.
Ontario, British Columbia and Washington State also boast many hectares of syrah, which are eminently enjoyable. In the future, we can expect to see better and more of them in major markets.
Syrah as a grape is likely to become very popular because it can be fashioned to please the palate of a large segment of wine consumers. The name is easy to remember and reminds one of both the fruit and flavour of the wine which appeals particularly to young consumers.
The vigor can be adjusted to satisfy price-point requirements.
Winemakers would be hard-pressed to find a more versatile red grape variety than syrah or shiraz!