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Alex Ulreich

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The Seductive Nature of Syrah

Sometimes it’s subtle, sometimes it’s smoky

During the 13th century, a weary knight returned to France after fighting in the Crusades, and proceeded to hole himself up in a little hut atop a hill in the northern Rhône Valley. In 1937, this steep granite hill was amongst the first to achieve AOC status (or cru) in France by the name Hermitage, and as a prime site for growing syrah, it went on to help establish the grape’s reputation as a noble one that can produce elegant vin de garde (wine for aging).

While syrah grapes from the Northern Rhône are today responsible for producing some very coveted and expensive bottles, during the 19th century they were predominately used to bolster the wines of Bordeaux. That was partly because the Northern Rhône counts significantly less vineyard space as compared to Bordeaux (thus with an overall lower wine yield), as well as other historical factors like Bordeaux’s geographic locationbeing closer to ports, it was more known to the British. So, the Rhône lived in the relative shadows of Bordeaux for some time. And it's only in recent decades that certain red wine crus of the Northern Rhône—the complete list, from north to south: Côte-Rôtie, Saint-Joseph, the aforementioned Hermitage, Crozes-Hermitage, and Cornas—have finally garnered the esteem of connoisseurs, with prices to match. Meanwhile, new and more affordable Rhône Valley crus have become known to a younger generation of drinkers.

Common attributes of syrah include black olives, smoked bacon, and blackberries.

Syrah is a dark-skinned grape that can become very ripe if it grows in a warm region, ultimately producing high-alcohol wines. But, in the cool climate of the northern Rhône Valley, it takes on a lithe, mineral character that produces age-worthy wines, which express nuances of terroir. Common attributes of syrah wine include black olives, smoked bacon, and blackberry, and the juice can develop wonderful acidity. With the exception of the Cornas cru, in the Rhône small amounts of the white grapes marsanne, roussanne, and viognier are blended with syrah to add softness and aromatics.

Along with the historic hill of Hermitage, the crus of Côte-Rôtie and Cornas are generally most prized in the Rhône—but other crus have risen in recent decades. "Crozes-Hermitage is flat, and it wasn’t as sought after, but young winemakers realized they couldn’t afford vineyard land in Cornas and Côte-Rôtie," explains Bryn Birkhahn, head sommelier at Manhattan restaurant Pearl & Ash. But in the last few decades, winemakers like Alain Graillot of the namesake domaine, one of the Northern Rhône's most celebrated syrah producers, began discovering the potential of these vineyards. Saint-Joseph, according to Birkhahn, is "where you start getting into serious structure," with wines showing darker fruits, cooler tones, and metallic notes like pencil lead.

There is something seductive about syrah. A good bottle can impose silence upon a normally talkative group: Syrah makes imbibers want to slow down and concentrate on its flavors. Winemaker Kate Norris, one half of the Division Wine Making Company teaman urban winery in Portland, Oregongrew up drinking Côte-Rôtie with her mother when visiting their family home in France. "I’ve always loved the Northern Rhône wines. They speak to me in a way, that’s what I think syrah should be," says Norris. When local grape grower Herb Guady offered Norris a gift of his high-elevation, organically farmed syrah grown on granitic soils, she jumped at the chance to work with her favorite variety, and with it created a new label, Gamine. Southern Oregon typically produces robust red wines, but the cool microclimate of Guady’s vineyard site was ideal for syrah, which "loses its elegance" when it is too ripe, says Norris.

A good bottle of syrah can impose silence upon a normally talkative group.

Winemakers like Norris in Oregon and Bob Lindquist in California have slowly worked to build syrah’s reputation in areas generally keen on pinot noir and cabernet sauvignon. "During the financial crisis" of 2008, "growers were calling me to give away their syrah," recalls Lindquist, whose Santa Barbara winery Qupé was the fourth in the state of California to make varietal syrah wine, starting in 1987. But today, he says, there are around 70 producers near him making syrah. Like Norris, Lindquist emphasizes the importance of cool air for syrah vines; he and his wife planted the grape in a spot 15 miles from the coast that gets transverse winds, which, he says, are like "open windows for the ocean." This breeze helps the grapes maintain acidity, and yields lively, fresh wine.

Lindquist was one of California's pioneers in demonstrating that New World syrah can be light, vibrant, and lean, while still displaying its meaty character—just as producers from lesser-known Rhône Valley appellations have given credence to their vineyards. Birkhahn feels that Northern Rhône wines are rising in popularity "because they seem to offer a certain raw, authenticity that is very compelling," especially to millennial drinkers. "Crozes-Hermitage and St. Joseph are a huge boon for consumers that want a wine of purity and intensity, that they don't have to age for ten years or shell out a lot of cash for," she adds.

Although the focus of this piece is on American and French syrah, there is very good syrah to also be found in Morocco, South Africa and, perhaps most notably, Australia, where it called shiraz.

Below, a few stellar syrah wines from the Rhône Valley, California, and Oregon.

Syrah Bottles to Try:

All photos by Alex Ulreich.

Producer: Franck Balthazar
Wine: Casimir Sans Soufre, 2013
From: Cornas, Rhône, France
Retail: $60

"Sans soufre" translates to "without sulfur," which means that a winemaker chose to refrain from using this preservative during vinification. This is a risky winemaking choice because active yeasts and bacteria can take the juice in dangerous directions—but, when successful, can produce exciting, alive wines, with tons of freshness and nuance. Winemaker Franck Balthazar converted his vineyards on the steep, granitic hills of Cornas to organic farming in 2010, and then started making sulfur-free wine with just one 220-liter barrel in 2012. For the 2015 vintage, he is now making about six times as much. Incredibly light and bright, this is a beautiful example of sans soufre, with lots of freshness, and classic syrah notes of olives and bacon. Perfect with a quick decant.

Producer: Pierre Gonon
Wine: Saint-Joseph, 2013
From: Saint-Joseph, Rhône, France
Retail: $69

Pierre Gonon was an important figure in the expansion of the Saint-Joseph appellation, which was created in 1956, but grew to accommodate more vineyards in the 1970s. The highly respected Gonon estate, today run by his two sons, is farmed organically; winemaking is traditional, with foot-trodden grapes and open-vat oak fermentation. This wine lets the classic black olive, meaty aspects of syrah really shine through;  some might even find notes of pickles, too. Medium-bodied, reminiscent of earth and soil, with red and dark fruit together, this is a beautiful and very versatile food wine, superb with lamb or beef ribs. Enjoy now with a decant, or cellar. Also in Saint-Joseph, which is one of the larger Rhône Valley crus, the syrhas of renowned producer Jean-Louis Chave are considered some of the world's best.

Producer: Alain Graillot
Wine: Crozes-Hermitage, 2014
From: Crozes-Hermitage, Rhône, France
Retail: $38

There is a practice in France of lesser-known appellations tacking on the name of a more prestigious, nearby cru—which is the case here, where the renown of Hermitage bolsters this site (Gevrey-Chambertin in Burgundy is another example of this phenomenon). But the organically farmed estate of Alain Graillot has proven that Crozes-Hermitage produces complex and exciting wines, and the price is much lower than other Northern Rhône bottles. Thanks to a several day long maceration, this wine develops a robust, fruit-forward character, with classic meaty notes, smokiness, and savory spices. A few years of cellaring is advisable. Pair with venison.

Producer: Old World Winery
Wine: Flow, 2013
From: Sonoma, California
Retail: $39

Native yeast fermentation in stainless steel, followed by aging in new French oakwith only minimal amounts of sulfur and excellent cool-climate terroirconspire to deliver a slightly funky wine, with very pure fruit and lots of character. Winemaker Darek Trowbridge makes a small amount of this wine with grapes from volcanic clay soil in the Bellenger Vineyard, in Sonoma's mountainous Fountaingrove District, in addition to several other reds from vineyards in the Russian River Valley, due north. After spending two years in neutral oak, this syrah is delicious: meaty, chewy tannins grace the palate, with a healthy dose of spice, and an overripe plum flavor throughout. Supple but very bright, this is a wine to drink now or hold onto for a little while.

Producer: Qupé
Wine: Santa Barbara County, 2012
From: Santa Barbara, California
Retail: $30

This wine is a blend of Qupé's top two vineyards: one is the Bien Nacido vineyard, which was the first cool-climate syrah vineyard in California, and the other is the biodynamic Sawyer-Lindquist plot, which Bob Lindquist and his wife Louisa Sawyer Lindquist planted in 2005. The couple was considering the biodynamic approach, and finally  two legendary biodynamic winemakers from France (André Ostertag and Dominique Lafon) convinced them that natural was the way to go. The year 2012 was an excellent vintage in the cool climate vineyards of Santa Barbara County, and it shows in the juice, which was fermented in stainless steel before spending around 20 months in oak (30 percent new, some were Hermitage barrels). Plums, coffee, earth, and electric acidity balance each other out in this dark purple wine that pairs excellently with rich meats or pasta.

Producer: Eric Demuth
Wine: Bei Ranch Vineyard Syrah, 2013
From: Sonoma, California
Retail: $40

This bottle comes from a very unique, small parcel of land located at 1,600 feet of elevation—which is really, really high up. But the plot is located above the fog line, which helps grapes ripen. It’s also located roughly four miles from the Pacific, which is the closest syrah to the ocean in that part of California. There are only 900 vines, so, at most, seven barrels are made annually. A fan of Northern Rhône syrah, winemaker Eric Demuth produces a stunning iteration using very traditional vinification methods: the grapes are left 100 percent whole cluster, foot-stomped, and pressed in an old-fashioned hand basket, and put into neutral Bordeaux barrels to ferment and mature on their lees for almost one year. He adds a small amount of viognier to the syrah for a purple-fruited, meaty, but lithe, wine elevated by acidity, with a tart, mineral finish.

Producer: Gamine
Wine: Syrah, 2013
From: Oregon
Retail: $36

With grapes from organically farmed Mae’s Vineyard, in Southern Oregon’s Applegate Valley (the same vineyard where Leah Jorgenson, Jackalope Wine Cellars, and Brianne Day source from, for those who follow Oregon’s natural wine scene more generally), Kate Norris has produced a seductive and nuanced wine. After fermentation in plastic vats, the juice spends a total of 18 months in mostly neutral barrels, with one racking (when wine is transferred from one vessel to another), which gives the wine structure. Lush but not overpowering, the wine is full of blue and black fruit notes, with an overarching earthiness and just the right amount of acidity to add lift on the palate. Decanting is a good idea, as is chilling the wine for a bit before serving.

Editor: Kat Odell


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