For a lot of American wine drinkers, Syrah is a grape that’s long had a bit of an identity crisis. It’s been largely anonymous, being a key part of Rhône Valley blends and appellations - such as Cornas, St. Joseph and Chateâuneuf-du-Pape. It’s been big and bold and jammy. It’s even been lurking behind an alias, with the Aussies calling it Shiraz.
The wines from Australia and California, in particular, were for a very long time big, brash affairs, pushing their way into your glass at 15% abv or more, overwhelming with dark fruit flavors, and demonstrating as much subtlety as Ric Flair in his feather-boa-adorned, “whoo!”-shouting wrestling prime.
If that’s all you know of Syrah, and you thought it was all a bit much, it’s time to revisit one of the classic grapes that originated from France and has spread throughout the world. While never unassertive, Syrah can be bright, juicy, fresh, rich, and extraordinarily complex, as the wines below show.
Stolpman Vineyards Crunchie Roastie, California - $25.99; Krog & West End
Perhaps no wine showcases Syrah’s versatility - and the new directions winemakers are taking it - then Stolpman’s beloved Crunchie Roastie. Syrah is picked while still “crunchy” - just ahead of ripeness, retaining plenty of acidity and without high sugar levels, keeping alcohol levels reasonable. The grapes are carbonically fermented: whole clusters are put into a sealed container, with the juices extracted under the weight of the grapes, reducing tannin extraction and preserving fresh fruit flavors. A little Viognier is thrown into the mix, providing a subtle addition of floral scents to add complexity and provide a complement to the Syrah’s black fruit aromatics and flavors.
The result is a delightfully friendly and approachable wine. Red and black fruits practically leap out of the glass, with hints of Syrah’s signature black olive and roast game accents. It’s bold yet playful, easy drinking without being remotely simple. A pure delight.
DuPuis Baker Ranch Syrah, California - $45.99; Krog
DuPuis is the new project from Wells Guthrie, the founder and former winemaker of Sonoma County’s Copain Wines. At Copain, Guthrie built a reputation as one of California’s masters of creating brooding, intense, enormously complex Syrahs made in the style of the legendary Syrahs of the northern Rhône.
Under his new label, Guthrie returns to a vineyard that helped him establish his reputation as a Syrah master: Anderson Valley’s Baker Ranch vineyard. The vineyard is located at high elevation in one of the coldest wine-growing regions in California. Anderson Valley’s thick veil of nightly fog and moderate afternoon sun allows grapes to ripen slowly and build complexity. The fruit is grown organically, then fermented whole-cluster in the traditional French style and bottled without sulfur additions.
The approach brings out everything quality Syrah is capable of: tart blackberry and blueberry fruit, complex dried savory herbs, olive tapenade, roast game, and wisps of black pepper. High acidity keeps the wine lively and engaging. This is gonna go great with that Beef Wellington or crown roast you’re planning for Christmas dinner.
Domaine Faury Syrah, France - $24.99; Krog & West End
From innovative, new-style Syrah to a California take on the traditional French template, we end with Syrah’s ancestral and spiritual home: the northern Rhône Valley. And while many wines in this region have the prices that reflect their quality and high demand, there are plenty of great, everyday sorts of wines that can be found for a very comfortable price.
Such as Domaine Faury’s Syrah. Faury grows vines in some of the most storied appellations in the northern Rhône: St. Joseph, Côte-Rotie and Condrieu. The Syrah combines fruit from the St. Joseph and Côte-Rotie appellations. The fruit is softly crushed to minimize tannin extraction and undergoes a temperature controlled ferment that optimizes the preservation of fresh fruit flavors. Faury minimizes the use of new oak, primarily relying on previously-used large-format barrels that help round out the wine and provide subtle accents of leather and tobacco, without leaving behind intense notes of barrel wood that could fight with the fruit.
What makes its way into your glass is classic French Syrah: dark fruit, smoked meat, floral accents (think wild lavender), earth, tobacco and black pepper. This is a wine for a cold night and a hearty stew.