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Californian Syrah suffering ‘identity crisis’

Excessive planting of Syrah since the late 1990s has resulted in under-par wines and consumer confusion, California's Rhone veterans have said.

Randall Grahm: Syrah ‘compromised”

Paso Robles in Central California recently hosted some 130 producers for the 19th annual Hospice du Rhône.

Crowds of over 2000 were greeted by California producers accompanied by wineries as far afield as Château la Nerth in Châteauneuf-du-Pape to Barossa’s Torbreck – about 30% of the wineries attending were foreign.

This year’s auction took in a total of US$77,000 from the 20 donated lots, but despite healthy attendance numbers and the festive atmosphere there was concern for the future of California Syrah from some of the State’s earliest growers of the grape.

‘Consumers are put off before they have a chance to really see what Syrah is capable of doing,’ Randall Grahm of Santa Cruz winery Bonny Doon, one of the most prolific and renowned producers of Rhone varietal wines in California, told Decanter.com.

‘I don’t think we are ever going to see anything close to the kind of hysteria about “cult Cabs” and even “cult Pinot Noirs” occur again with any coming New World variety.’

Grahm says Syrah is suffering from poor quality amongst the cheaper wines and overpricing at the higher end.

‘Syrah as a category was damaged both by some very bad wines coming from Australia as well as bad wines coming from California.

‘In addition, as part of the irrational exuberance [around Syrah], some very good Syrahs were priced rather too high. In all, this compromised the viability and potential growth of the category.’

Another veteran producer, Bob Lindquist of Qupé, said even though the Hospice event grows year on year, Syrah is suffering an identity crisis.

‘The consumer can easily be confused with the wide variety of Syrahs available on the market. From Yellow Tail Shiraz, to jammy 99 pointers, even Qupé. They might pick up any of these at random and get slightly confused about the wine, lose patience and drop Rhône all together.

Lindquist plans to soon double the production of Qupé’s most popular brand, the Central Coast Syrah, which made up half of the 2009, 35,000 case vintage.

Hospice du Rhône claims to be the biggest international tasting of Rhône varieties. ‘We might not get huge attendance numbers, but we have a core of faithful followers, who truly appreciate the Rhône,’ John Alban, co-founder of the event and owner of Alban Vineyards, said.

Written by Louis Villard in California, and Adam Lechmere

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