Because Syrah is the word, and the wine, on everyone’s lips in 2001, we invited producers to submit their two best bottlings—one priced under $20, and one over $20. Our blind-tastings of more than 250 under-$20 Syrahs confirm that quantity and quality have never been higher.
World Cup of Syrah
Wines $20 and under
In today’s media-driven, high-velocity information society, fashion impacts everything—and wine is no exception. Like changing pop music styles and stars, hemlines, tie widths and “It girls,” wines come in and out of vogue, too.
Enthusiasts familiar with wine history know that 100 years ago Riesling—not Chardonnay—was the world’s premier white wine. In the 1990s, Merlot was the hot red grape—the name on all restaurants’ wine lists and in an unprecedented number of glasses. In 2001, there is no doubt that Syrah—or as some call it, Shiraz—is the ascendant red wine of this century’s first decade.
The proof is in the vineyards, the bottles and the glasses. In 1990, wineries in California crushed only 586 tons of Syrah from just 344 cultivated acres. By 1999, Syrah vineyards covered more than 10,000 acres. According to the latest California crush report, wineries processed a whopping 72,734 tons of Syrah in 2000—an increase of more than 12,000 percent in a single decade. And California is not the only U.S. region where Syrah is making great headway. In Washington, there was basically no Syrah a decade ago; now, there are 3,000 acres under cultivation, with about 1,500 currently bearing fruit.
Shiraz has also been leading Australia’s charge into the U.S. market, and is the number one variety Down Under. And among common wines sold in grocery and drug stores, Syrah sales in the year ending last April 22 were up 85.5 percent—versus 5.1 percent for red wine overall.
That the interest in Syrah has reached a fever pitch in the wine trade is evidenced by the success of a recent Vinitaly seminar I was invited to lead. The standing-room-only crowd of winemakers, industry professionals and journalists tasted 15 Syrahs from around the world and enthusiastically debated the future of this great grape.
Our World Cup of Syrah was originally envisioned as pitting Syrahs from all corners of the globe against each other in an effort to crown ultimate champions in two price tiers: $20 and under, $21 and over. But before we even began, we realized that the sheer number of wines meant we could not ever be comprehensive. So we asked the industry for help. Each brand was invited to submit a single bottling of their choice in each price category. In addition to those samples received from wineries and importers, we reserved the right to purchase additional brands to round out the competitive field.
The enormous response we received dictated spreading our coverage of the 2001 World Cup of Syrah across two issues, making this our largest tasting ever. For Part I alone, “Wines $20 and Under,” our panel tasted more than 250 wines.
Fiction and Fact:
A Short History of Syrah
Wine historians have disputed the precise origins of Syrah for years. Some sources trace it to the Persian city of Shiraz (hence the Australian version of the name…or not, depending whom you believe). Some sources claim the Greeks planted Syrah in Mediterranean France 2,500 years ago. According to others, it was the Romans who established the grape in the Rhône Valley. Still others contend that over centuries the grape made its way from Persia to the Near East and then was brought to southern France by knights (or even a specific knight, Gaspar de Sterimberg) returning from the Crusades around the turn of the first millennium. With so many intriguing stories, it is safe to say that no one knew for sure until very recently.
This June, positive identification of Syrah’s previously shrouded origin was announced by University of California at Davis grape sleuth Carole Meredith and Professor Jean-Michel Boursiquot of the French National Agricultural Institute at Montpellier, in France. The grape’s history is quite unexpected and interesting, if far less romantic than the histories mentioned above.
Using DNA marker identification, the researchers determined the source of this noble red grape to be a natural cross-fertilization of two lesser, relatively unknown French regional varieties: Dureza and Mondeuse Blanche. Dureza is from the Ardèche region and Mondeuse Blanche from Savoie, near Italy and Switzerland.
Parentage notwithstanding, no one disputes the vigor of this vine or the strength of the wine it is capable of producing. Rhône Syrah is possessed of legendary power and longevity. Syrah wine was regularly shipped to Bordeaux and Burgundy to be blended into even the top wines of those provinces to provide color, texture and flavor, especially in lighter years.
Where It’s At
Syrah is the red grape of France’s northern Rhône Valley. There, its reputation was established as the source of Hermitage and Côte-Rôtie, which are among the world’s greatest reds—substantial, complex, long-lived wines equivalent in quality to France’s other esteemed red wines from Bordeaux and Burgundy. But Hermitage and Côte-Rôtie are wines of extremely limited production. The total output of all Hermitage producers is roughly equivalent to that of just one good-sized Bordeaux chateau.
Other Syrah-based Northern Rhône wines include Crozes-Hermitage (a larger area surrounding the tightly delimited slopes of Hermitage), Cornas and Saint-Joseph, also small appellations. In fact, the total production of all Northern Rhône appellations is less than that of Châteauneuf-du-Pape. In recent years, cultivation of Syrah has spread westward from the Rhône region across the south of France, where it is now an important grape in many Languedoc appellations.
|Brought to Australia in the mid-1800s, Syrah (broadly known as Shiraz in Australia) quickly became the most important red grape Down Under. Although for years it produced mainly workaday reds, in the 1950s Penfold’s Max Schubert created Grange Hermitage (now simply Grange, in deference to EU-mandated name restrictions). Finally, the wine world, not just Australia, took serious notice of Syrah’s potential for greatness. Today Shiraz is Australia’s dominant red, accounting for 40 percent of that nation’s red wine production.|
The recent growth of Syrah in California has been exponential. Syrah pioneers include Joseph Phelps in Napa, John Alban in the Central Coast and Bob Lindquist in Santa Barbara County. In the 1970s, and more so in the 1980s, they established an early Golden State beachhead for this and other Rhône grapes. During the 1990s, while Americans were learning to love Merlot, California wineries were pulling out phylloxera-damaged vines and replanting with Syrah, while at the same time cultivating huge new areas, especially in the vast Central Coast.
Winemaker Daniel Gehrs has logged nearly 10 years working with Central Coast Syrah. “Even in the early 1990s, when I moved to Santa Barbara, Syrah was still very much a fringe variety,” he says. “Now, it seems, this is the grape of destiny. It grows well all over California, and makes a wine for every pocketbook and in many styles. Of course, the cool versus warm climate debate will go on a long time. But there’s a lot out there—plantings in the Central Coast have grown enormously, many of which have not yet even yielded fruit for wine.”
Washington vintners see Syrah as an important part of the identity of the nation’s second-largest wine-producing state. While cultivation of Syrah in Washington is still signficantly less than that of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, the state’s winemakers have taken to this grape in a big way. “Syrah is a big part of our future,” says winemaker Joy Anderson of Snoqualmie Winery. “Our Syrah production has grown dramatically, from 3,000 to 24,000 cases in just three years, and as the vines age, quality as well as quantity is increasing.”
All around the world, interest in Syrah is blossoming. South African vintners, like those in Washington, see Syrah as an important component of their emerging presence on the world wine scene. Cultivation and production is up in Argentina, New Zealand (where France’s Michel Chapoutier has just announced a joint venture), Chile and Italy, too—where Syrah may now legally be blended into Chianti.
Many of the Syrahs from these regions are made from young-vine fruit, and many winemakers are still learning to work with the grape. Most merited good or acceptable ratings, but as compensation many are inexpensive. We expect the future to yield better wines as vines mature and vintners gain experience. Most importantly, they are all in what is the hot red-wine game of the decade.
Style and Quality
In the vast amount of wine tasted for Part One of this World Cup, our editors found three general styles of Syrah. Most wines we tasted fell into one of two larger categories: either jammy, easy-drinking, fruit-in-your-face wines, or darker, berry-and-earth, herb-and-leather-accented Syrahs. The third style is a more reserved, structured Syrah, one that demands a little time for its elements to come together. This was a smaller group of wines, as would be expected in this price tier, where most bottles are meant for immediate consumption.
No single region had a monopoly on a particular style. With perhaps one exception, the manner in which this versatile grape is rendered seems to depend more on winemaker intent than on the influence of a particular climate or terroir. The three most widely-represented countries in our survey—Australia, France and the United States—all offered wines in each of the three styles from various regions.
The exception is Crozes-Hermitage. France’s Crozes-Hermitage not only placed three wines in the top 20, but also received two Cellar Selections and one Editors’ Choice qualification. Their subtlety and structure, aging potential and unique flavors give them a distinctive character seen in few wines from other regions. This is the one place that displayed a consistency of style, what the French call typicité, perhaps derived from a combination of terroir and tradition.
With respect to overall quality, however, no single country or region was dominant. A quick look at the top 20 wines shows the presence of eight American, seven Australian, and three French wines. This is diverse, but it is worth noting that we received far fewer French than either American or Australian wine submissions.
Surprisingly, no two of the top eight American wines bear the same AVA, an atypical finding when compared to previous tasting features. In an amazingly parallel performance, none of the top seven wines from Down Under bear the same GI (geographic indication, Australia’s equivalent to AVA). The only single region to place multiple candidates in the top 20 was Crozes-Hermitage, with three top-rated wines.
Our Buying Guide reviews provide insight into individual wines and allow readers to make comparisons between wines of the same or similar ratings. That the top wines received scores of 89 (Very Good) should in no way be seen as a negative comment on the quality we found. Although no wine merited an excellent rating from our tasting panel, we mean what we say—an 89-point wine is very good, one that any of our tasters would be happy to sit down with over dinner.
There is a lot of very good Syrah to be had for $20 and under, with the quantity and quality certain to increase as we move deeper into this decade. But what price excellence? Next month, we’ll report our findings in Part Two of the 2001 World Cup of Syrah: Wines $21 and Over.
Meanwhile, there’s a wealth of delicious, affordable Syrah for consumers to explore.
Want to read about the 200+ wines we tasted for this feature? Go to www.winemag.com/buying guide.