Originating in Southeastern France, Syrah was cultivated during the Roman Rule. It is the child of two not so well know grapes, Dureza and Mondeuse Blanche.
Where it’s Grown
First grown in France, and found in particular in the Rhône Valley, it has spread globally and can now be found in Australia, where the call it Shiraz, as well as California, Washington, New Zealand, Argentina, Italy, South African, Spain, Switzerland, Chile and, as I just discovered, Tunisia.
(side note on Shiraz…the story goes that the grape was brought to Marseilles in 600BC by the Phocaeans from Shiraz, Persia. Another story has it coming from Sicily with the Roman Soldiers, but UC Davis DNA testing say it was born in Southeastern France)
Syrah thrives in warm climates where it’s canopies reach for the sky, but it can be grown in cooler climates where it will express itself differently in the glass. The canes on this vine grown long and will grow down, making it impossible to head train. It is the one Châteauneuf-du-Pape variety that is allowed to be trellised, otherwise the grapes would be on the ground. The leaves often need to be thinned to let the berries get some sun so they can ripen. In the vineyards it is said, “Syrah likes a view”. Because it is such a vigorous vine, planting it at the top of a hill with poor soils helps to concentrate the berries and temper the rigor of the vines.
Berries and Bunches
The grapes are typically small clusters with small dark (almost black) berries, but this vine produces them in abundance. The skins are typically thick. Because there are many small berries, when you crush the grape you have lots of skin contact, which can give you bold tannins, and pair that with thick skins and you have a very dark, sometimes almost opaque wine.
Home in the Rhône
Syrah is one of the noble grapes of the Rhône and is second only to Grenache in acres planted in the Southern Rhône. It is of course, the S in a GSM. You find it in the wines from Châteauneuf-du-Pape, and it is the only grape allowed in the famous Côte Rôtie & Hermitage wines in the Northern Rhone. In the Northern Rhone they co-ferment Syrah with small bits of Viognier, adding the beautiful Viognier aromatic and creating a rounder mouthfeel for the wine.
Syrah is often given an extended maceration, meaning it is often cold soaked for days or longer. This mitigates some of the harsh tannins from those thick skins. It also increases the color, due to the extra time with skin contact, and brings forward the fruit flavors while tempering the herbaceous notes.
Like most reds, Syrah is typically aged in oak. In American they lean toward French Oak for this, in France and Australia it is often American oak. In the Rhône, it is more often aged in larger Foudres so it has less oak contact, although sometimes blended with lots that have been aged in small oak barrels. Quite honestly, this is a beautiful wine and often doesn’t need much oak addition.
How long to hold a Syrah?
Typically you can hold a Syrah for up to 10 years. There are those who will tell you not to even look at the bottle for 5 years, and of course a well made Syrah from the Hermitage might age beautifully much longer, up to 30 or almost 40 years. And keep in mind that wines can go through closed phases as they age, opening up again later. This is where owning a Coravin comes in handy.
Adaptable as it is, this grape expresses itself differently depending on the climate. Cooler Climates produce Light-Bodied Syrahs that can have savory notes as well as Olive and Plum. Warmer Climate produce more Full-Bodied Syrahs and you get Cocoa, Licorice and Mint. But let’s break this tasting down a bit.
A Warmer Climate Syrah will be dark purple/black and almost opaque.
A Cooler Climate Syrah will be a deep purple burgundy with some translucency.
Here we have to break it down a little further.
Primary Aromas (those are the ones that come with the grape which include the terroir)
- Fruits like Blueberry, Blackberry, black currants or prunes.
- Spices like black pepper, clove, anise (black licorice) or thyme
- Floral notes like voilets, geraniums or roses.
- Herb notes like cedar, eucalyptus, sandalwood or green olive
Secondary Aromas (these come from the winemaking techniques)
- From Oak: Vanilla, tobacco, cocoa, smoke, coffee or coconut.
- From Fermentation: Rubber, tar, solvents or stem
Tertiary Aromas (these come from aging)
- Leather, cigar box, earth, spices and even truffle
Syrah is considered to be a full bodied wine and is supple. The tannins (that dryness that you get on your teeth) are medium and it has a medium acidity.
Warm Climate Syrah
- Dark fruits like blackberry or cherry, smoke, meat, leather, white pepper, licorice, earth.
Cool Climate Syrah
- Dark Fruits, green olives, black pepper and spice.
Typical finishes are medium to long in length (that’s how long you can still taste the wine in your mouth)
Pairing Syrah with food
Most often when I have Syrah, I crave bacon. Salty pork just loves this wine. Want to have it with desert? I paired a Syrah with dark chocolate bark with fresh rosemary, bacon and a coffee infused sea salt and it was heaven! Pork barbeque is a good bet and if it is a bold Syrah, don’t be shy with the pepper. Stews and braised meats are good if you are drinking Syrah in a blend like a Rhone blend or a GSM.
If you have a lighter Syrah, like one from Washington or Santa Barbara’s Sta. Rita Hills or Santa Maria Valley (where yes it grows very well), think a little lighter. The wine will likely have a bit more acid and can pair with lamb or grilled eggplant.
Need a cheese platter?
With a full bodied Syrah look to harder cheeses or stinky cheeses. Bleu cheeses like Gorgonzola, or Stilton and hard cheeses like Parmesan or asiago. Smoked Gouda is one of my favorites with this wine, since the smoke in the cheese often is great with the smoke on the wine. And then charcuterie…well Bacon, and then all sorts of smoked meats. If you are drinking a Cool Climate Syrah, you might pull out the olives if you get a little of that on the wine’s nose.
Quick summary for pairing…
- Red meats, things that are grilled, mushrooms, onions, tomatoes, peppers, black pepper and hard or stinky cheeses!
Syrah is a perfect winter wine, as fellow wine lovers will attest. The kind of wine that you can curl up with. Maybe a nice rich stew, while curled up in a comfy chair, under a blanket with a fire in the fireplace, and a nice book to read. Of course you can enjoy Syrah all year, in the summer with Barbeque is divine, but I love having my nose in a glass, and quietly contemplating it over the course of an evening all by myself.
If you are looking for a Syrah:
- In France, look to the Rhône: Côte Rôtie, Hermitage, Châteauneuf du Pape, Languedoc-Roussillon
- In Washington State, look to Walla Walla, Yakima and the Columbia Gorge
- In Oregon check out the Rogue Valley
- In California check out the Russian River Valley, the Santa Lucia Highlands, Paso Robles, and then Santa Barbara from the Santa Maria Valley to the Santa Ynez Valley and Ballard Canyon where it is the flagship wine.
- In Australia you’ll find it in the Barossa Valley and McLaren Vale.
- In Spain in La Mancha
- In Italy in the Basilicata Region in Southern Italy
- In Chile try Elqui and San Antonia for Cool Climate Syrah and The Colchagua Valley for a mild climate Syrah.
- In New Zealand on Waiheke Island near Auckland then on the Coast in Hawke’s Bay and a little further south in Wairarapa and Martinsborough.
- In South Africa you will find it in Paarl, Stellenbosch, Swartland and Robertson.
- And in Switzerland in Valais.
Collage of Maps
There are tons of wines out there, but just with this one variety you can explore much of the world. It’s on my list to do this year. Check back with us for more information on wine and grapes as we continue our journey, learning and chronicling the journey of the grape from dirt to glass!
Want to know more about Syrah? Try some of the links below. We attended a Seminar on Syrah in Santa Barbara County and listened to wine makers from across the area (and climates) speak.
- Syrah Clones at Larner Vineyard
- Syrah in Santa Barbara County
- Santa Barbara Syrah Seminar Episode 1 with Wendy Theis Sell and Peter Stolpman
- Santa Barbara Syrah Seminar Episode 2 with Michael Larner
- Santa Barbara Syrah Seminar Episode 3 with Chris Hammel of Bien Nacido
- Santa Barbara Syrah Seminar Episode 4 with Larry Schaffer of Tercero on White Hawk Vineyard
- Santa Barbara Syrah Seminar Episode 5 with Scott Sampler of CCGP
- Santa Barbara Syrah Seminar Episode 6 with Mark Horvath of Crawford Family Wines on Sta. Rita Hills Syrah
- Santa Barbara Syrah Seminar Episode 7 with Chad Melville on Sta. Rita Hills Syrah
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Great article Robin! We love a good Syrah/Shiraz and so interesting as to its origin. We’ve heard different stories too — amazing how DNA testing has finally solved the issue. Thanks for inspiring on the food pairings as well, think we’ll be drinking Syrah tonight with our lamb ;). Cheers!
Thanks Allison. I was amazed at how many different regions this grape thrives in. We had attended the Syrah Seminar in Santa Barbara a while back and it was amazing to taste through the wines from Sta. Rita Hills, to Ballard Canyon to Happy Canyon and see the differences climate had between each. I look forward to continued exploration and tastings between other regions, like Washington and South Africa, or New Zealand and Tunisia! Time for me to search and order some fascinating wines!