Honestly, it might be the most misunderstood varietal out there today. I mean, we can’t even agree on the name and while that’s not entirely unheard of in the world of wine, no other grape really gets split quite as evenly.
I mean, does it really bother you if someone makes a Carignan or a Carignane? Sauvignon Blanc and Fume Blanc might be the same, but how often do you really see Fume Blanc being used on a label?
The general naming convention in terms of Syrah and Shiraz is pretty simple. Some time ago, Australian vintners started using Shiraz to help differentiate their style of the grape, from those being made in France. They were bigger, more extracted and generally grown in a much warmer growing region.
Of course, things have changed and the caricature of Australian wine that was told to the press for so long isn’t nearly true any longer, in much the same way that the same tale was told about California wine for so long.
But, thinking about the Australian vs international spelling of the varietal got me thinking, what’s the deal with Syrah in America’s west coast wine regions?
To help decipher where the grape is going, I decided to look at Syrah being produced in five spots in three states
Ballard Canyon Santa Barbara County
Santa Barbara is way, way more than Pinot Noir. But, after the success of Sideways, Santa Barbara is having trouble convincing people of that.
Paso Robles California
In many ways, Paso Robles is the home of Syrah in America. Some time ago, the grape had gone almost extinct in the state. In fact, so had all the Rhone varietals (which also include Grenache, Mourvedre, Roussane, Marsanne and another 20 or grapes). If your headed to California make sure you check what the cheapest airports to fly out of are!!
Then the Rhone Rangers were founded and they quickly became an effective trade group. Over the years, Syrah has continued to grow, from only 200 or so planted acres back in the 1980’s to well over 15,000 acres now. In fact, more Syrah is planted in almost every calendar year currently than existed in then state when the Rhone Rangers were founded, according to the California Department of Agriculture.
Paso’s grown along with their favorite varietals and a region unknown to basically everyone that sits about 3 hours from both San Francisco and Los Angeles without any natural market of its own, now has been called “The Next Napa” by Wine Spectator.
One small tip for Paso, eliminate everything east of the 101 freeway and stay somewhere close to town which boasts a HUGE central European style square with a park, library, restaurants and shops.
Napa Valley California
In one of the first meetings I had after opening my online wine club, I had a winemaker who made $125 a bottle Cabernet (which was like 95% of his production) tell me that the $40 bottle of Syrah he was selling me was the most important grape on his property. It was shocking on a few levels. Part of the reason of course was that he was looking for a way to differentiate himself and to grow sales in a spot that wasn’t quite so competitive. Fast forward a few years later, I asked him via email how the Syrah was doing and he said quite succinctly, that they had grafted it over to Cabernet. That about sums up Napa Valley’s experience with Syrah. The wine is good, but it’s financially impossible for it to work.
One small tip for visiting Napa: Stay on one end, finish on the other. If you stay in downtown Napa, make the slow winding trip up the 29 and finish in Calistoga. Or vice versa. Spending too much time in the car happens to plenty of people, Napa traffic, especially on weekends is rough.
Skip the long tourist lunch. Eat something quick, like a burger, or taco shop. Save your time since most wineries are only open 11am-5pm.
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Rogue Valley Oregon
What do you picture when you think of Oregon wine? Pinot Noir, right? So does everyone else.
What you’re thinking of though, happens in the Willamette Valley just south of Portland. The Rogue Valley is named for a river and sits right about where the California-Oregon border does. It’s also a heck of a lot warmer than the rest of the state, based on being both inland and more southern.
This is almost the exact same climate as the Rhone Valley in France, making it a natural home to Syrah. One small tip for the Rogue Valley: There’s only about 30 working wineries. Reach out via social media, you’ll find a higher percentage of owners and winemakers available than anywhere else in the country.
Walla Walla Washington
Washington’s had a funny process with grapes. First, they were thought of as the best spot in America to grow Merlot. Then they went to Syrah.
Now, it’s Cabernet Sauvignon in some spots, whereas Syrah still reigns in the southeastern most part of the state, Walla Walla. Walla Walla is interesting on so many levels.
First, it’s a world class wine destination that’s only now realising it in such a way as to build tourist facilities. It’s also not especially close to tourist traffic, so the consumers finding their way to Walla Walla are among the most ardent wine drinkers on the planet.
So Why Syrah In Eastern Washington?
Their climate is pretty unique in wine. They receive about the same amount of precipitation that does Bordeaux, but half of it comes in terms of snow. That’s actually pretty good for grape vines, keeps the top soil healthy, but if the snow comes after bud break, you can lose an entire crop like they did about a decade ago.
A tip for visiting Walla Walla:There are basically 4 parts of Walla x2. Downtown is highly walkable, but you’ll need a car for the rest. Rent one, but stay downtown because the restaurants are great, the Marriott is brand new and you the tasting rooms in the center of it all stay open later than the wineries which require a car.
Ok, so that’s a quick review of a handful of wine regions that are focused, rightly or wrongly on Syrah. While worldwide consumption of Rhone varietals is on the upswing, that hasn’t held true in more expensive regions.
For some time that hurt Australian exports, but the country and it’s vintners have found a logical way to combat that: simply planting their favorite grape in regions more appropriate for international tastes.
Thanks to Mark Aselstine of Uncorked Ventures.