Top 10 Californian Syrah

Jon Bonne picks top 10 best Californian Syrah, where the best bring foward all the spice of the finest northern Rhone models, with a bit more sunshine.

Best Californian Syrah

California has a lot of not-very-funny jokes about Syrah. We’ll toss aside the popular winemaker one that it’s easier to get rid of a social disease than a case of Syrah, but let’s dwell for a second on the one about how much Californian Pinot Noir tastes like northern Rhône Syrah.

This particular joke stings not because it contains truth — even in these enlightened days, Californian Pinot can be as thick as a ripe Barossa Valley specimen — but because it reveals just how blurry the Californian view of Syrah has often been: as a big, dense, jammy wine with none of Pinot’s finesse.

Whatever. That might have been true in an earlier era, but today’s best Californian Syrah brings forward all the savour and spice of the finest northern Rhône models, with just a bit more sunshine in the mix. While vintages like 2009 or 2011 showed the more marginal, lean side of Syrah, robust years like 2012 and 2013 highlight its spice and full, charming fruit.

There’s one other connection: many of California’s best Syrah producers also work with Pinot Noir, namely because many ideal vineyards for Syrah sit on the edge of viable ripeness. That, too, is a change from 20 years ago, when misconceptions about the Rhône guided too many hopefuls to warmer spots.

You’ll locate some of the best wines in California’s colder corners. The western part of the Sonoma Coast, for example, where fog and chill can extend the harvest into November, underscoring all the spicy, peppery character that evokes – but doesn’t imitate – the french originals.

The same can be found in parts of Santa Barbara, including places like Ballard Canyon, which have similar climates to the northern Rhône.

Do these locations sound familiar in terms of another grape? That great Syrah and great Pinot Noir are often grown near each other in California is testament to the realisation that the northern Rhône is not really a warm place. (Note how many examples are shy of 14% alcohol.)

That’s a complicated concept for Californians to swallow. And yet, while there’s less Syrah being planted these days, there are far more great examples being made. No joke.