Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The state of Syrah, its ideal food matches, and a short list of inspiring American producers

Since the beginning of the year (2009) I’ve made no less than four extended passes through the West Coast, and one of the most significant things that I have found is this: the West Coast makes kick-butt Syrah. I mean, not just a handful of significant Syrahs, but an entire Sgt. Pepper’s bandwagon of them. Gloriously rich, complex, inspiring, soaring Syrahs – everything a wine lover, any wine lover, would want.

Yet, in how many places are you hearing people say, with palpitating enthusiasm, that American grown Syrahs have reached exalted levels – which they most certainly have – in the same way Chardonnays and Cabernet Sauvignons did in the wake of the Judgement of Paris way back when, before our kids were born, or Pinot Noirs in the days before and after “that movie?”

It’s such a shame: that the dramatically ascendant quality of California, Washington and (especially) Oregon Syrahs has been met with a collective yawn.

Invariably, this brings up talk of sales. It’s being said that American Syrah, as an ultra-premium wine category, has been stuck in the doldrums. I can see why: most certainly during the past year, the action has been in the $10-$25 retail price range, and consumers still buying in the $25 and up categories (where the highest quality Syrahs reside) have a huge number of extraordinary wines to choose from, made from every grape imaginable, coming from every part of the world.

When times are tough, and people are buying less, it only makes sense that they stick mostly to what they like: Bordeaux and Cabernet drinkers who cling to their favorite châteaux and Cabernets, Pinot Noir lovers gravitating to their Pinots of choice, Spanish wine junkies to their increasingly growing choice of exceptional Spanish wines, and so forth. Needless to say, there are almost no regional or grape categories (apart from the price points) seeing notable growth at the moment, and so even the finest Syrahs are in pretty much the same boat.

One of the silliest, yet strangely the best, assessments I’ve heard about the grape’s current market indolence is the observation that “consumers simply don’t know what to expect” from a bottle of Syrah, according to one recent online report filed by a Wine & Spirits correspondent. Will the wine “be a spice box – peppercorns and lavender, anise and mocha? A butcher’s banquet – scents of organ meats and bacon fat and beef bones? A food fight at the jam factory – heady gobs of blueberries lobbed into the glass, textures as squishy as a pachyderm’s tush?”

In fact, these questions are so well worded that it slices directly to the heart of the matter: Syrah in America is not just an intense, multifaceted wine, it comes in a fascinating variety of styles and choices. Hey, wait a sec: isn’t that what we love about, say, French and Italian wines, Bordeaux and Cabernet Sauvignons, or Burgundy and Pinot Noirs from around the world? Since when is sensory diversity a prob? As a wine aficionado, what wets your whistle more: perfect sameness, or unexpected surprise (or, to paraphrase Yogi Berra, when you come to a fork in a road, do you take it)?

Here’s my assessment, based upon thirty-plus years in the trenches (buying, selling, and reporting on wines, from Hawai`i to New York): America’s Syrah producers are doing the right thing, growing their category and making more exciting wines than ever, even if the market hasn’t quite caught up with them yet. It’s only a matter of time, and circumstances. It took, for instance, some twenty years for the market to catch up with Pinot Noir producers toiling in cold pockets of Oregon and California. It had taken over a century for the rest of the world to “discover” the fertile founts of Priorat, Bandol, Lodi, Mendoza, etc. The wine world once consumed German Rieslings like water; yet as we speak, we’re still waiting to it come back around to appreciating the rarified qualitatswein of the Rhine and Moselle.


Top notch Syrah can do several things at once: knock you off the proverbial feet, yet entice and seduce you with fine delineations of fruit, spice and textures. Like Pinot Noir without the delicacy, or Cabernet Sauvignon without the testosterone.

As such, the finest Syrahs make terrific food matches; but like all other great wines, they have their ideal time and place. For instance, I have one well travelled friend – a gourmet, intellectual and bon vivant – who swears by Syrah as the single best wine for the cuisines of China. While extremely varied, few would argue that Chinese cuisines are probably the most complex in the world; not just because they incorporate every foodstuff in the world, but also because they tend to touch every part of the tongue and olfactory, like well ordered cacophonies of sensations. Syrah has not only the complexity, but the stuffing to fit in places few other wines can.

When cooking for Syrah, some thoughts and guidelines:
  • Syrah is a quintessential “big red” calling for red fleshed foods – from beef and lamb to tuna, goose and game, or else fattier cuts of pork
  • It pays to play up to Syrah’s spice (suggestive of black pepper and smoky incense), a complexity that is more subtle that often assumed; and this can be done with use of aromatics like garlic and alliums, peppercorns and peppers (bells as well as chiles), cinnamon and clove, all mushrooms, mustards, ginger, bay, basil, mints, parsley, sage, rosemary, oregano, and thyme
  • The violet and floral qualities of Syrah can be highlighted with the use of plum, berries and cherries (fresh or dried)
  • Grilling and roasting are always good ideas, but bringing out the sweetly scented berry or plum qualities of Syrah by first marinating any number of ways is also good. We’ve had luck with soy sauces infused with ginger, garlic, scallions, star anise, lemon grass, and even chili pastes, balanced by sweeteners like palm sugar (i.e. the Chinese or Asian-Fusion friendly elements of Syrah).
  • Any variation of American barbecue marinades -- especially meatier beef ribs or chewy tips in vinegar (as in the Carolinas) or mustard laced sauces -- will play off the flowery fruit, peppery spice (connects with restrained chili spices, often with electrical results), and underlying acidity of classically complete Syrahs.
  • There is enough of a sweetly fruit forward quality in top drawer Syrah to be successful with stews and braises; classically in seasoned natural stocks (especially with quatre-epices), and innovatingly in Japanese, Chinese or Korean inspired stocks
And a few of our favorite culinary blasts from the past, incorporating the grape from around the world:
  • Twice cooked duck and mesclun salad with confit of garlic in a Syrah reduced balsamic vinaigrette with Chave’s sprightly, smoky, slightly gamey and smoothly rounded Saint-Joseph Offerus
  • Cracked peppercorn crusted tuna in a garlic thyme Syrah syrup with a moderately tannic, black peppery perfumed Bonny Doon Sir Rah Syrah.
  • Grilled quail and wild mushroom terrine in a spicy roasted red bell pepper sauce with a round and fruit driven Qupe Central Coast Syrah
  • Cassoulet of lamb, oxtail and pig’s ear with a classically huge, muscular Cornas by Allemand
  • Australian free-range lamb chop in a wild cherry Shiraz reduction with a powerfully sculpted, sinewy, scented Penfolds Grange-Hermitage
  • Hoisin marinated tenderloin of lamb in a tamarind plum ginger glaze with wasabi mash, matched by a massive yet sweetly concentrated Peter Lehmann Stonewell Shiraz
  • Most recently, a roasted ribeye of veal with hedgehog mushrooms and rosemary/oregano tinged mornay with a lush yet muscular, resiny herb spiced Shenandoah Valley Syrah by C.G. Di Arie.
Kris Curran


Here’s a short list of recently tasted Syrahs that, if you truly dig the grape, you really need to sit up and pay attention to:


Alban Vineyards, Reva Syrah 2005 (Alban Estate, Edna Valley) - Goodness gracious, can Syrah from anywhere in the world can any more intense, sleek and balanced as this? Black-purplish ruby, followed by nose of smoked bacon and oak, and sweetly scented, concentrated, violet and framboise/berry aromas. Thick, full, unctuous impact; the luscious flavors unfolding in textured layers across the palate.

Curran, Black Oak Vineyard Reserve Syrah 2005 (Los Alamos) – Winemaker/proprietor Kris Curran’s credentials are impeccable (formerly of Cambria, Koehler, and Sea Smoke, and currently directing winemaking operations for Foley Estates Vineyard); plus, born, raised and schooled on the Central Coast, it’s safe to say that few vintners know the region as intimately as her. This bottling is masterful: black ruby; sweet, dense, thickly fruited nose exuding rosemary, smoke and pepper spices; rich, chewy, yet fleshy, expansive flavors of teasing, intertwining smoke, spice and fruit that hit the palate with a jolt, before finishing with a phenomenal length of long, lively, sweetly balanced sensations.

Baker Lane, Estate Vineyard Syrah 2007 (Sonoma Coast) - Shiny new star producer; the wines made by Steven Canter (who also works full-time for Quivira), and this wine co-fermented with 5% Viognier. Nose is violet/floral scented, with backdrop of smoked meats and crushed berries; juicy, round, thick and full-bodied on the palate; the crushed berry flavors mingling with dark roasted coffee and charred oak underpinnings.

Stolpman Vineyards, Estate Grown Syrah 2007 (Santa Ynez Valley) - Glass staining purplish ruby releasing a varietal perfume of sweet violet, lavender and blackberry; big, thick, densely layered body compacted by sturdy tannin, filled to the brim with meaty Syrah fruit sweetened by a glycerol viscosity, powering through the smoke and tannin.

Stolpman Vineyards, Estate Grown Syrah 2006 (Santa Ynez Valley) – Here, the ultra-luxurious, bright, flowery, sweet berry nose is tinged with lavender as well as vivid, exotic spices (dried herbs, black and red pepper); super-full, dense, muscular feel, encasing fleshy fruit of high viscosity and finely polished, thick textures.

Beckmen, Purisima Mountain Vineyard Syrah 2007 (Santa Ynez Valley; Biodynamic® grapes) - Black purple extraction; intense, wild blackberry concentration with a floral, violet-like perfume and smoky, chocolaty suggestions; on the palate, a gushy, almost sweet fruit-bomb character, notwithstanding a thick, muscular feel; the thick tannins and oak toast playing second fiddle to the plump, youthful fruitiness.

Beckmen, Purisima Mountain Vineyard Syrah 2006 (Santa Ynez Valley) - This vintage is filled with ripe, sweet blackberry aromas, fleshed out with more of a raw cacao complexity and sprigs of herby mint; thick, dense, full body, buttressed by muscular tannin overlain with the sweet, chocolaty fruit sensations.

Paul Lato, Il Padrino Syrah 2007 (Bien Nacido Vineyard, Santa Maria Valley) – A tiny producer well worth the time and trouble to find: stunningly intense nose of sweet berries, violets, brown (cinnamon), black (peppercorn), and exotic (ginger) spices; the spiced fruit of immense concentration on the palate; big body and tannin smoothed over by silken, sweet sensations.

Paul Lato, Cinematique Syrah 2007 (Larner Vineyard, Santa Ynez Valley) - Compared to Lato’s Il Padrino, even more fragrant (violet, lavender and musk spices) and earthy (rosemary/raw meat) in the nose, specked with blackpepper; rounder, more finely finished, silken mouth-feel, with moderate tannin running beneath the sweet/spicy flavors.

Skylark, Rodgers Creek Vineyard Syrah 2006 (Sonoma Coast) - By the sommelier/winemaker team of John Lancaster and Robert Perkins (both still active at Boulevard in San Francisco). Black/purplish ruby; sweetly intense perfumes of crushed berries, dark roasted coffee, cracked pepper and pine needles. Big, thick, plush qualities of the same on the palate; an aggressive, let-it-all-hang-out approach to Syrah.

Larry Brooks

Tolosa, 1772 Syrah 2006 (Edna Valley) – Tolosa’s long respected winemaker, Larry Brooks (an architect of the wines of Acacia and the Chalone Group during their glory years), picks the cream of Tolosa's Central Coast Vineyard Team (i.e. CCVT) sustainable vineyards to make his “ultimate” Syrah, which for him means an “abundance of aromatics,” of which he is “obsessed with.” A purple tinged crimson color leads to Brooks’ idolatrous nose: exotic, fragrant spices of sandalwood, faintly of smoky incense, mingling with meaty berry flavors on a palate built on round yet muscular tannin, a little fruity baby fat, and velvet textured finish.

Morgan, Double L Vineyard Syrah 2006 (Santa Lucia Highlands) – There already is plenty of evidence, like this CCOF certified organic bottling, that the most complex, elegant Syrahs in the U.S. are bound to come from the colder climate regions such as the wind scrubbed slopes towards the north end of Santa Lucia Highlands. Vivid black/purplish color indicates concentrated extraction, but there’s nothing over-the-top about this finesseful wine: sweet violet-like varietal fragrance, compacted with peppery and roasted coffee-like spices, underscored by a mild, animal-like meatiness; thick, dense feel on the palate, enlivened by snappy acidity and unencumbered by heavy alcohol, finishing with focus on the smoky, luscious, violet perfumed notes.

Paraiso Vineyards, Wedding Hill Syrah 2004 (Santa Lucia Highlands) – Another top-notch, CCVT sustainable SLH growth, redolent of uplifted, flowery scented, sweet spiced Syrah fruit, coated in slightly aggressive, smoky/toasty oak (nothing wrong with that as long as the fruit rings true). The body is full, round, dense and velvety; and the smoked flavors, bright, sweet, almost chocolaty thick. Not a shy reading of the grape, but an immensely satisfying one.

Justin Vineyards, Savant 2006 (Paso Robles; 59% Syrah/41% Cabernet Sauvignon) - Not a pure Syrah, but dominated enough by the grape to bear mention: multi-faceted nose of sweet herbs (rosemary and pine needles), violets, hard spices (clove and star anise), and roasted meats; velvety entry leading to big, round, fleshy body, filled with the sweetly spiced flavors.

Justin Vineyards, Syrah 2007 (Paso Robles) – Fragrant floral nose underscored by soft leather glove and burnt leafy spices and oak nuances; gentle yet full on the palate, the rounded flavors sweetened by vanillin oak accentuated by the smoky spices.

C.G. Di Arie, Southern Exposure Syrah 2005 (Shenandoah Valley) – High quality Amador County Syrah has been long time coming. Certainly, the ingredients (2000 ft. elevations, and poor, porous, crushed granitic hillsides) have always been there, and new, quality focused wineries like C.G. Di Arie are turning things around. Adventurous Syrah lovers, take note: black purplish color followed by an intensely varietal nose of crushed violets and concentrated, baked berries, along with smoked bacon and distinctively wild, resiny rosemary bush-like spices. On the palate, firming muscular tannin wrapped around big, sweet flavors, finishing with a smack of leather and meat.

Perry Creek Altitude: 2401, Dark Forest Syrah 2006 (Fairplay) – Gloss over this boutique sized El Dorado County winery at your own peril, because they’re making a Syrah as massively concentrated as any in the world, yet without that sense of alcoholic weight or overripe sweetness that (frankly) is more common than not in top drawer Californians. The luscious dark berry nose is tinged with floral fragrance and stony earth tones; thick tannins layered over by the juicy fruit and velvet texture.

Miraflores, Syrah 2005 (El Dorado) – Consulting winemaker Marco Cappelli escaped from Napa Valley (Swanson winemaker for sixteen years) to move to his own little paradise on an El Dorado hilltop, and he’s exerting elegant composures to the high elevation wines of the region: here, well defined violet, blue and black berry scented varietal aromas filling out a moderately full, densely structured body, impacting the palate with a rounded stoniness along with chocolaty rich fruit qualities, adding up to a Syrah with both guts and surprising restraint.

Klinker Brick, Farrah Syrah 2005 (Lodi) – Lodi produces underrated Syrahs in a style, while submerged in sweetly ripened fruit, is invitingly round and lush. The varietal character in the old-vine sourced Klinker Bricks takes on blueberry tones, with sweet, smoky French oak and bacon-like notes adding nuance; and on the palate, the full bodied flavors are plump, round and succulent.


Tyrus Evan, Del Rio Vineyards Syrah 2006 (Rogue Valley) – Oregon Pinot Noir god, Ken Wright, crafts this hummer carrying the names of his sons, sourced from a spectacular hillside site steeped in what he calls a “rockpile soil.” The results are truly special in the bottle as well: beginning with a nose of wild, earthy, almost animal-like (n.b. no hint of brett), organic aromas – lavender, violet, wild berries, dried kitchen herbs, and wood charred meats – and evolving into a full yet rounded, deftly scaled body braced by thickening tannin, and filled to the top with the dense, viscously textured fruit and spices. World class.

Tyrus Evan, Seven Hills Vineyard Syrah 2006 (Walla Walla Valley) - Seven Hills is known to many aficionados of Walla Walla Valley wines, although what’s often overlooked is that the vineyard lies at the south end of the AVA, in Oregon rather than in Washington St. Ken Wright's transparent approach to the grape is all over this wine, all but containing the explosively ripe, floral, blue and black berry nuanced Syrah perfume; big, thick, yet round and velvety on the palate.

Del Rio Vineyards, Syrah 2006 (Rogue Valley) – Super purplish color signaling a lusciously concentrated nose of the floral varietal fragrance, assiduous blueberry/framboise-like fruit, and smoky, scrubby notes of French oak merged with the kitchen herb spice of the grape. On the palate, a velvet texture wrapped around the concentrated fruit and sturdy tannin, taking on a sweet meatiness as it rounds off into a long, juicy finish. Textbook rendition of the emerging Southern Oregon style.

Spangler Vineyards, Sage’s Hill Estate Syrah 2007 (Southern Oregon) – I don’t know how this Umpqua Valley winery does it, but it’s there in spades: an intense pepper grinder spiciness, pervading the sweetly concentrated nose and thick, dense, sinewy textures and roped licorice flavors; yet both a faintly tart aged acidity and restrained alcohol (only 12.6%) definitely keep the wine from coming across as fat or heavy, as the peppery fruit rides into a long, zesty finish.

Spangler Vineyards, Syrah 2006 (Southern Oregon) – Winemaker/proprietor Pat Spangler says this is his “Barossa Valley style” Syrah, and in terms of structure – a big, round burliness – it is. But it also carries a cracked pepper grinder spice and floral Syrah perfume seldom found in Aussie Shiraz (where ultra-ripe fruitiness tends to bury varietal nuances). The palate sensations are thick and muscular, while avoiding that teetering high alcohol feel, allowing the spiced fruit qualities to predominate.

Penner-Ash, Syrah 2006 (Oregon) - Blending fruit from Rogue Valley's Del Rio Vineyard and the Lewis Vineyard in the Columbia Gorge, Penner-Ash exacts an exceedingly elegant demeanor to Oregon Syrah: purplish ruby followed by sweet raspberry liqueur-like fruit fragrance with wisps of smoke and white pepper; the spiced berries flowing in thick, surging layers, forged with finely finished textures.

Quady North, The Flagship Syrah 2007 (Applegate Valley) – Fashioned by Herb Quady (a former Bonny Doon cellar rat, and son of California fortified wine specialist, Andrew Quady), who also is the full-time winemaker of the Applegate Valley’s Troon Vineyard. The nose here is sweet, floral, and studded with almost equal doses dried plum, lavendery dried herbs and cracked peppercorn spice. Fully, round and fleshy on the palate; the fat fruitiness hardened just beneath the outer core by solidly packed tannin. This is big, serious stuff, even if, like a tree falling in the woods, you aren’t yet cognizant of what’s going on in this rarely covered part of the West Coast.

Quady North, 4-2, A Syrah 2006 (Rogue Valley) – A sweet berry liqueur aroma is enhanced by bacon fat and white peppery floral fragrances; and while big, tight and steely with tannin, the sweetly spiced flavors penetrate the palate, even as it works it way through a somewhat awkward adolescent stage.

Quady North, 4-2, A Syrah 2007 (Rogue Valley) – You never want to say this, but I find the lot of top drawer Southern Oregon Syrahs to have delineated qualities that are more strikingly reminiscent of what you find on slopes of the Northern Rhône rather than in Washington or California. Here, the floral varietal perfume is embroidered with anise/licorice-like spice, gunflint and the smoke of oak; these organic qualities carrying through into a sturdy medium-full body, its plump qualities filled out by rounded tannins tucked into the effusive fruitiness.

Weisinger’s, Syrah 2005 (Rogue Valley) – Like that of other Southern Oregon Syrahs, an unerringly varietal violet and lavendery perfume, embellished with smoky oak and wild berry qualities; big, thick, sturdy structure, brimming with the floral fruit running unimpeded by even the full throttled tannin.

Washington State:

Amavi, Les Collines Vineyard Syrah 2006 (Walla Walla Valley) – One of Washington’s current cream of the crop for this grape: black purplish color unveils a powerful, plummy, violet scented nose nuanced with gunflint black tea, garrigue-like rosemary, and smoked meat aromas; big and round on the palate, the thick tannins smoothed over by the delicious preponderance of varietal fruit.

Long Shadows, Sequel Syrah 2006 (Columbia Valley) – A collaboration of Long Shadows founder Allen Shoup (former longtime Chateau Ste. Michelle exec) and consulting winemaker/partner John Duval (famed for his years at the helm of Australia’s Penfolds, crafting wines like the famous Grange), as executed by Long Shadows winemaker Gilles Nicault. While you would expect an Aussiefied taste, the Sequel actually ends up more of a typical Washington style Syrah: a big, vivid, smoky, broad, unsubtle fruit-bomb of a wine, loaded with toasty, charred oak, with the slightly overripe, sweet berry qualities embedded in thick, dense, tannin thickened textures. Yet, there are finesseful highlights in this wine; particularly in the layering of the oak upon the fruit, transluscent enough to let the sweetness and chewing tobacco-like spice to shine through and make for a nimble, polished finish.

Sleight of Hand, Levitation Syrah 2007 (Columbia Valley) – Winemaker/proprietor Trey Busch might be a new kid on the block (2006 was the winery’s first vintage), but he is already showing a (shall we say) magical touch with Washington’s intense, oft-times severely tannin laden fruit. Nothing like that here: bright, beautiful strawberry nose, veering towards framboise-like richness; on the palate, a moderately scaled body loaded with lush, fruit forward qualities, yet as densely textured as any of these blockbusters from the Northwest.

Saviah Cellars, Syrah 2006 (Walla Walla Valley) – Winemaker/proprietor Rich Funk represents a new breed of Washington winemakers, intensely attuned to both contemporary tastes and the nuances of his surrounding terroir: out of a haze purple color, blackberry liqueur and cloved cherry compote aromas condensed into compact nose; on the palate, a dense, tannin lined, vanilla laced fruitiness with youthful, primary qualities – piquant, chewy, sweet.
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