Syrah to fly for

  • Monday 1 July 2002

Syrah has taken the US by storm. NORM ROBY looks at its rising popularity and recommends the best.

From Chile to Greece, countless New and Old World winemakers have eagerly climbed on board the Syrah bandwagon. Nowhere in the world is the Syrah express moving at a faster clip than on the West Coast. In California and Washington State, growers have been on such a Syrah planting spree that at times it seems quite insane. In these two regions alone, the pace has been so frenzied that, beginning with the 2002 harvest, a mind-boggling amount of new Syrah will come online. If it all finds a home, Syrah's rise could make the Merlot story of the 1980s and 1990s look like a warm-up act. But that's one big 'if'. With Australia and France also pumping up production, the Syrah market could turn into one big tidal wave. While every producer exudes optimism, it will require nothing short of a Herculean effort to create a demand for all the Syrah expected to be bottled over the next few years.

Here are a few salient facts about Syrah's emergence on the West Coast. In California, only 27ha (hectares) of Syrah existed in 1990, and today's total approaches 6,100ha. But the vineyards are spread out. The Central Coast (namely San Luis Obispo, Monterey and Santa Barbara) contains slightly more Syrah vineyards than the North Coast, which is led by Sonoma County. Growers in the Central Valley, which enjoys much warmer climes, have made a major commitment to Syrah, Lodi among them. Although dozens of Napa Valley wineries are making Syrah, no one producer here has jumped in on a large scale to live or die by the grape's fortunes. That tends to level the playing field.

THE LATEST FASHION

Unlike the ill-fated Rhône Ranger charge a decade ago, this current surge includes many established wineries and hundreds of upstarts. With such unlikely names as Chalone, Shafer, Cakebread and Gallo among the contenders, it seems as if everyone wants to take a crack at Syrah. Even now, there are more Californian winemakers producing a Syrah than a Sauvignon Blanc.Why this sudden interest? Motto, Kryla & Fisher (MKF), a leading wine industry researcher, suggests Californians want a piece of the supermarket volume action that Australian Shiraz enjoys. In fact, many producers offering wine made from the Central Valley seem to prefer the Shiraz moniker. Other pundits theorise that coastal winemakers, unable or unwilling to compete in the Cabernet Sauvignon- dominated market or Merlot madness, have turned to Syrah as an 'anything but Cabernet' red wine to run up the flagpole. Syrah is indeed shaping up to be the rising star in such non-Cabernet appellations as Monterey, El Dorado and Santa Barbara.

Marketing theories aside, on the West Coast Syrah has simply overwhelmed and charmed everyone. To Tom Selfridge of Chalone Estates, with five Syrahs in its portfolio, 'Syrah is versatile and adaptable and is easier to grow than Cabernet'. He adds: 'Syrah can be grown in rich soils but requires the correct rootstock selection and vineyard management for quality fruit.'To Robert Haas, who has teamed with the Perrin family of Château Beaucastel to produce Tablas Creek in Paso Robles, 'Syrah is the easiest grape you can grow. It buds early, adapts to cool conditions, and ripens early enough to fare well in warm regions'.

The more interesting question posed to West Coast winemakers is: Why did it take so long for them to fall in love with one of the world's oldest varieties? When Joseph Phelps Vineyards produced California's first Syrah in 1974, the grape was assumed to prefer warm climates. The first full-scale Syrah vineyard was at Estrella River (now Meridian), in the warm eastside district of Paso Robles. In general, Syrah also was so vigorous under California's sunshine and within its fertile soils that it was a monster to control and difficult to prune. Doug Meador, Monterey County's veteran grower from Ventana Vineyards, explains: 'It was years before we learned how to properly farm any variety, and after 20 years we now know how to curtail Syrah's foliage and vigour.' Before tannin management entered the winemaking lexicon, early California Syrahs were often big and rough. Now, adds Meador, Syrah can be as soft as Merlot and as fruit-driven as Pinot Noir.

ATTACK OF THE CLONES

Two upsides of California's most recent battle with phylloxera are a wider choice of rootstocks and greater attention to clonal selection. Because this disease was traced to rootstock failure, necessity required more rootstocks to become available. Many new rootstocks offered exactly what Syrah needed, a way to control its vigour. With respect to clones of Syrah, there were not many choices prior to 1990. Bill Crawford of McDowell Valley Vineyards in Mendocino, had one block of genuine Syrah and also added Syrah from the UC Davis clone, the Estrella River clone and the Phelps clone. And that was it until recently. When the Perrins and the Haas families began exploring Rhône varieties and experimenting with available clones at Tablas Creek, they soon realised the need to obtain plant material from France. At that time, in the early 1990s, UC Davis was not encouraging the introduction of any French clones. There were many stories about Syrah cuttings entering the West Coast in suitcases and backpacks, but none made a big impact on the Syrah situation. To legally bring vine cuttings into California is both time-consuming and expensive. They have to be indexed and certified virus free, and that requires two full growing seasons. The Perrins-Haas families were willing to go that route. After the dirt was shaken off their roots, French clones were taken back to Paso Robles and established in what evolved into a mini-nursery at Tablas Creek. At last word, a dozen or so winemakers have obtained Syrah cuttings from Tablas Creek. McDowell Valley Vineyards in Mendocino has also added several French clones to its holdings.

THE COOL GANG

Whether Syrah prefers California's cool or warm sites will likely become the focus of endless debate. Recently, 'cool-climate viticulture' has become a popular phrase, but we are talking California cool, not New Zealand. By consensus, the cool regions are Carneros and its newly developed neighbour, the American Canyon, Russian River Valley, Sonoma Coast, Edna Valley, Santa Maria Valley and Monterey. In most regions Syrah remains a secondary player, but in Santa Maria Valley and Monterey it has already taken on greater significance. All things being equal, cool-climate Syrah retains a definite black pepper and spice character and an elegant structure. Though ripeness and tannin levels vary, a distinct black pepper note unifies the best Syrah from Carneros – Havens, Truchard, Neyers and Cakebread. Similar but with softer tannin, Russian River Valley Syrah captures loads of pepper and spice, as typified by recent vintages from Arrowood, Dehlinger and Gary Farrell. Santa Barbara's Santa Maria Valley Syrah usually exhibits black pepperiness with blackberry fruit, along with a slight herbal character. The leading names working long and hard with Santa Barbara Syrah are Qupe, Foxen, Cambria, Andrew Murray, Fess Parker, Babcock and Zaca Mesa. Newcomer Jaffurs Wine Cellars has shown flashes of brilliance, and veteran winemaker Daniel Gehrs is once again making lovely Syrah from this region. In nearby Edna Valley, where the climate is cooler yet, Syrah is also performing well. John Alban of Alban Cellars led the way, now Edna Valley Vineyards has invested heavily in the future of Syrah here.

The long search for a red variety that thrives under Monterey's cool, windy and semi-arid conditions may have finally ended with the emergence of Syrah. After two decades of experience with Syrah, Meador goes out on a limb to predict: 'The grape will achieve its greatest potential in cooler areas and may become Monterey's first truly great red wine. If so Delicato Vineyards will become a leader, since it has the largest planting of Syrah within Monterey. It has also produced a show-stopping Syrah labelled Delicato Vine Select.' Paraiso Springs, Morgan, Jekel and Chalone will also have much to say about Syrah from Monterey.

IN-BETWEENERS

Among the warm regions, Paso Robles has made the biggest commitment to Syrah. Both Tablas Creek and Justin Vineyards grow Syrah in one of the cooler hillside pockets in the west. Most Syrah comes from warmer sites to the east and tends to be massive, ultra-ripe wines. J Lohr, Peachy Canyon and Anapamu (Gallo's brand) typify this over-the-top style. Showing more restraint, Meridian's Syrah regularly wins kudos for value and consistent quality.

MENDOCINO

Mendocino is warm enough to encourage big-bodied, intense, powerful Syrah. But the cool summer-time evenings allow the wines to retain acidity and good structure. In general, Mendocino Syrah displays berry and jammy fruit, tempered by subtle flavours of mineral, violets and spices. McDowell Valley Vineyards and Bonterra have proven track records. Other names to look out for are Eaglepoint, Mariah, Fife and Jepson.

SIERRA FOOTHILLS

El Dorado, Calaveras and Amador County are inland, high elevation regions. Both Steve Edmunds of Edmunds St John and Bill Easton of Terre Rouge maintain there are hillsides in these foothills 'containing both decomposed granite and volcanic soils that mimic the Northern Rhône'. Easton adds: 'The best growers have cooler sites near river canyons and others at higher elevations, and have planted those sites to a variety of clones.' El Dorado Syrah 'has a minerality more Rhône-like than the fruit-driven Syrahs grown elsewhere.' Folie A Deux, Renwood and Montevina join Terre Rouge as Amador's leaders. El Dorado is also well represented by Syrah from Firefall, Sierra Vista, Granite Springs, Perry Creek, Boeger, Madrona, and Edmunds St John. In Calaveras, Stevenot is making first-rate Syrah.

HOT REGIONS

Super-fruity, super-friendly Syrah seems to be what we can expect from Lodi and other Central Valley regions. Drawing heavily from Lodi, highly visible brands like Talus, Pepperwood Grove and Delicato are creating a market for inexpensive, round, smooth, ultra-jammy wines labelled either Syrah or Shiraz. It is a good bet that most 'California' Syrah/Shiraz, such as Beringer's new Shiraz, are made from these warm spots. This low-priced segment will expand because the quality from the start is much higher than warm-climate Cabernet.Though among the last of the noble red varieties to take hold, Syrah has taken the New World by storm. Many winemakers agree with Doug Meador who concludes: 'Syrah offers everything consumers want in a red wine and is so reasonable to produce that it could someday replace Cabernet as America's favourite red wine.'

Norm Roby is a co-author of the best-selling New Connoisseur's Book of Californian Wine.

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