THE NEXT BIG THING

Syrah is the word, and the wine, on everyone's lips in 2001. We rate 250 Syrahs under $20.


Published:

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
Part One
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.


Australia's Barossa Valley, known for its sheep farming, is now being recognized as one of the
world's best Syrah-growing regions.

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.

 

UNITED STATES
  - BEST BUY - CELLAR SELECTION - EDITORS' CHOICE
 
89 Bonterra 1998 Syrah (Mendocino)
$19
89 Bridlewood 1999 Syrah (Central Coast)
$20
89 Daniel Gehrs 1999 Syrah (Paso Robles)
$20
89 Kendall-Jackson 1999 Vintner's Reserve Syrah (California)
$16
89 Lava Cap 1998 Reserve Syrah (El Dorado)
$20
89 Preston of Dry Creek 1999 Estate Syrah (Dry Creek Valley)
$20
89 Simi 1999 Shiraz (Alexander Valley)
$20
89 Stefan Daniels 1999 Lockeford Syrah (Lodi)
$20
88 Anapamu 1999 Syrah (Paso Robles)
$16
88 Chatom 1999 Syrah (Calaveras County)
$18
88 Consilience 1998 Syrah (Santa Barbara County)
$19
88 E.B. Foote 2000 Syrah (Columbia Valley)
$18
88 Edgefield 1998 Chukar Ridge Vineyard Syrah (Columbia Valley)
$11
88 Edna Valley 1999 Paragon Syrah (Central Coast)
$17
88 Frey 1999 Butow Vineyards Syrah (Redwood Valley)
$11
88 Jekel 1998 Winemaker's Collection Syrah (Monterey)
$16
88 Terra d'Oro 1999 Syrah (Amador County)
$18
88 Valley of the Moon 1998 Syrah (Sonoma County)
$17
87 Alexander Valley Vineyards 1999 Syrah (Alexander Valley)
$18
87 Baileyana 1999 Syrah (Paso Robles)
$18
87 Barnwood 1999 Syrah (Central Coast)
$20
87 Castoro 1999 Reserve Syrah (Paso Robles)
$18
87 Columbia Winery 1999 Syrah (Columbia Valley)
$18
87 Curtis 1998 Ambassador's Vineyard Syrah (Santa Barbara County)
$20
87 Delicato 2000 Shiraz (California)
$8
87 J. Lohr 1999 South Ridge Syrah (Paso Robles)
$15
87 Lonetree 1998 Eaglepoint Ranch Syrah (Mendocino)
$20
87 Maricopa 1999 Shiraz (California)
$8
87 Meridian 1998 Syrah (Paso Robles)
$15
87 Phillips 1999 Syrah (Lodi)
$16
87 San Simeon 1998 Syrah (Monterey)
$15
87 Seven Hills 1999 Syrah (Columbia Valley)
$20
87 Seven Peaks 1999 Shiraz (Paso Robles)
$20
87 Snoqualmie 1999 Syrah (Columbia Valley)
$11
87 Terra Blanca 1999 Syrah (Red Mountain)
$20
87 Windsor 1998 Private Reserve Syrah (Sonoma County)
$16
86 Acorn 1999 Axiom-Alegría Vineyards Syrah (Russian River Valley)
$16
86 Beringer 1999 Founder's Estate Shiraz (California)
$11
86 Château Souverain 1999 Syrah (Alexander Valley)
$20
86 Concannon 1997 Syrah (Livermore Valley)
$20
86 Echelon 1999 Syrah (California)
$14
86 Francis Coppola 1999 Diamond Series Green Label Syrah (California)
$17
86 Hidden Cellars 1998 Syrah (Mendocino)
$15
86 Hogue 1999 Vineyard Selection Syrah (Columbia Valley)
$18
86 Indian Springs 1999 Syrah (Nevada County)
$16
86 Kunde 1998 Estate Bottled Syrah (Sonoma Valley)
$20
86 Michel-Schlumberger 1999 Benchland Wine Syrah (North Coast)
$20
86 Montpellier 1999 Syrah (California)
$7
86 Powers 1999 Syrah (Columbia Valley)
$16
86 Silver Ridge 1999 Barrel Select Syrah (California)
$10
86 Sobon Estate 1999 Syrah (Shenandoah Valley of California)
$15
86 Stevenot 1999 Canterbury Vineyard Syrah (Calaveras County)
$16
86 Stonehedge 1999 Syrah (California)
$10
86 Tefft Cellars 1999 Bottled Syrah (Yakima Valley)
$20
86 Willow Crest 1999 Syrah (Yakima Valley)
$15

FRANCE
  - BEST BUY - CELLAR SELECTION - EDITORS' CHOICE    
89 Alain Graillot 1999 Crozes-Hermitage
$20
89 Gilles Robin 1999 Cuvée Albéric Bouvet (Crozes-Hermitage)
$20
88 Abbotts 1998 Cumulus Shiraz (Minervois)
$12
88 Delas Frères 1998 Les Launes (Crozes-Hermitage)
$15
88 Eric Texier 1999 Mise Tardive (Côtes-du-Rhône Brézème)
$15
87 Château Russol Gardey 1999 Grande Réserve (Minervois)
$20
87 Domaine de la Boissière 1999 Costières de Nimes
$19
87 Domaine des Murettes 1998 Le Clos de l'Olivier (Minervois)
$12
86 Jean-Luc Colombo 1999 Le Prieuré (St.-Joseph)
$20
86 M. Chapoutier 1999 Petite Ruche (Crozes-Hermitage)
$19
86 Paul Jaboulet Aîné 1999 Les Jalets (Crozes-Hermitage)
$14


AUSTRALIA
  - BEST BUY - CELLAR SELECTION - EDITORS' CHOICE    
89 Alkoomi 1999 Frankland River Shiraz (Western Australia)
$20
89 Bleasdale 1999 Bremerview Shiraz (Langhorne Creek)
$15
89 Paringa 2000 Individual Vineyard Shiraz (South Australia)
$10
89 Rosemount 1999 Hill of Gold Shiraz (Mudgee)
$18
89 Salena Estate 1999 Syrah (Riverland)
$12
88 Callahan 1998 Shiraz (Murray River Valley)
$11
88 Cape Mentelle 1999 Shiraz (Margaret River)
$19
88 Cimicky 1999 Daylight Chamber Shiraz (Barossa Valley)
$19
88 McPherson 2000 Shiraz (South Eastern Australia)
$8
88 Perrini 1999 Meadows Shiraz (McLaren Vale)
$18
88 Peter Lehmann 1999 The Barossa Shiraz (Barossa Valley)
$17
88 St. Hallett 1999 Faith Shiraz (Barossa Valley)
$18
87 Banrock Station 2000 Shiraz (South Eastern Australia)
$8
87 Blue Pyrenees 1999 Shiraz (Victoria)
$15
87 Callahan Hill 2000 Shiraz (Murray River Valley)
$9
87 Donnelly River 1997 Currency Creek Shiraz (Western Australia)
$16
87 Frankland Estate 1999 Isolation Ridge Vyd. Shiraz (Western Australia)
$20
87 Ghost Gum 1998 Shiraz (South Eastern Australia)
$9
87 Hardy's 1999 Tintara Shiraz (South Australia)
$18
87 Lindemans 1998 Padthaway Shiraz (Padthaway)
$16
87 Pirramimma 1998 Shiraz (McLaren Vale)
$20
87 Salisbury 1999 Shiraz (South Eastern Australia)
$8
87 St. Marys 1999 Shiraz (Coonawarra)
$19
87 Tyrrell's 2000 The Long Flat Vineyard Shiraz (Hunter Valley)
$9
87 Yalumba 1999 Shiraz (Barossa Valley)
$16
86 Alice White 2000 Shiraz (South Eastern Australia)
$8
86 Australian Domaine Wines 1999 Alliance Shiraz (South Eastern Australia)
$18
86 Barossa Valley Estate 2000 Shiraz (South Australia)
$10
86 Beckett's Flat 2000 Shiraz (Margaret River)
$17
86 Bremerton 1999 Young Vine Shiraz (Langhorne Creek)
$20
86 Callara Estate 2000 Reserve Bin Shiraz (South Eastern Australia)
$8
86 Deakin Estate 2000 Shiraz (Australia)
$11
86 Deen De Bortoli 1999 Vat 8 Shiraz (South Eastern Australia)
$10
86 Flinder's Bay 1999 Shiraz (Margaret River)
$18
86 Grant Burge 1999 Barossa Vines Shiraz (Barossa Valley)
$11
86 Hugh Hamilton 1998 Shiraz (McLaren Vale)
$16
86 Hunter Valley Elements 1999 Shiraz (Hunter Valley)
$20
86 Marienberg 1997 Reserve Shiraz (South Australia)
$20
86 McGuigan 2000 Bin 2000 Shiraz (Murray River Valley)
$10

 

BEST BUYS FROM AROUND THE WORLD
89 Bleasdale 1999 Bremerview Shiraz (Langhorne Creek) Australia
$15
89 Kendall-Jackson 1999 Vintner's Reserve Syrah(California) U.S.
$16
89 Paringa 2000 Individual Vineyard Shiraz (South Australia)
$10
89 Salena Estate 1999 Shiraz (Riverland) Australia
$12
88 Abbotts 1998 Cumulus Shiraz (Minervois) France
$12
88 Callahan 1998 Shiraz (Murray River Valley) Australia
$11
88 Edgefield 1998 Chukar Ridge Vineyard Syrah (Columbia Valley) U.S.
$11
88 Frey 1999 Butow Vineyards Syrah (Redwood Valley) U.S.
$11
88 McPherson 2000 Shiraz (South Eastern Australia)
$8
87 Banrock Station 200 Shiraz (South Eastern Australia)
$8
87 Callahan Hill 2000 Shiraz (Murray River Valley) Australia
$9
87 Delicato 2000 Shiraz (California) U.S.
$8
87 Domaine des Murettes 1998 Le Clos de l'Olivier (Minervois)
$12
87 Ghost Gum 1998 Shiraz (South Eastern Australia)
$9
87 Maricopa 1999 Shiraz (California) U.S.
$8
87 Salisbury 1999 Shiraz (South Eastern Australia)
$8
87 Snoqualmie 1999 Syrah (Columbia Valley) U.S.
$11
87 Tyrrell's 2000 The Long Flat Vineyard Shiraz (Hunter Valley) Australia
$9
86 Alice White 2000 Shiraz (South Eastern Australia)
$8
86 Balbi 1998 Syrah (Mendoza)Argentina
$8
86 Callara Estate 2000 Reserve Bin Shiraz (South Eastern Australia)
$8
86 Helderberg 1999 Shiraz (Stellenbosch) South Africa
$9
86 Montpellier 1999 Syrah (California) U.S.
$7
85 Billabong 1999 Shiraz (South Eastern Australia)
$8
85 Crucero 2000 Syrah (Colchagua) Chile
$8
85 Hacienda 1999 Clair de Lune Shiraz (California) U.S.
$7
85 Lewinsbrook Creek 2000 Shiraz (South Eastern Australia)
$8

Shiraz from France?
Aussie
Expatriates'
Languedoc Adventure

What do you get when you mix two talented Australians, Syrah—okay, Shiraz—and other Rhône varieties, and the south of France? You get great juice. Nerida Abbott and Nigel Sneyd, husband and wife, set out to make great wines in France's Languedoc, an area they believe has great potential. Nerida is the grape specialist, Nigel the winemaker. Bringing their New World approach to viticulture and winemaking, they sought out select growers in desirable locations and pursued their vision of producing wines of character and quality.

"We have been working with bought fruit—tough going at first, but easier once the growers saw what we were able to make when they gave us the fruit we wanted," observes Abbott. "Last February we bought a domaine in Marseillette in the Minervois for storage and maturation of our wines in tanks, as well as a fabulous barrel hall. Now we are really starting to feel grounded."

Abbotts wines are uniquely named—after types of clouds, wind gods and fossils. Still, with a touch of Down-Under cockiness they use the grape name Shiraz, rather than the native Syrah. "It does accentuate both the wine, and who we are, a bit more than if we just made another Syrah," says Abbott. "Notwithstanding that, plus the fact that we are foreigners, and that our back labels are printed in English, our wines really have been quite well received in France—despite a generally acknowledged Gallic reluctance to embrace things not French."

How have Abbot and Sneyd succeeded so far? Abbotts 1998 Cumulus Shiraz from Minervois, 88 points, is a Best Buy, among the least expensive of the top-rated wines in Part I of our World Cup of Syrah. Ripe and full, yet not overly sweet, it has a supple texture that makes it approachable now, yet enough structure for a year or two of aging. Other wines include the excellent 1998 Cumulo Nimbus Shiraz from Minervois (91 points, $35), the 1999 Caurus Languedoc, a refreshing white Rhône blend (88, $17), and the 1998 Boreas, also from Languedoc, a well-structured pseudo-Châteauneuf-du-Pape (88, $17). Some of the wine names may be in the clouds, but Abbott and Sneyd show they have their feet planted firmly on the ground when it comes to delivering quality and value.

Related Articles

Argentina’s Alternative Top-Rated Wine

Malbec is Argentina’s defining wine, but a growing number of ­top-quality Cabernet Sauvignons—and a few Cabernet Francs—prove that the country is no one-trick pony.

Germany’s Best Pinot Noirs

Though cultivated locally for centuries, today’s elegant expressions are fast becoming global darlings.

Your Guide to Top-Rated 2010 Barolos

The 2010 vintage in Barolo is one of the best in recent history. The time to buy is now.

40 Under 40: America's Tastemakers 2014

Our second annual 40 Under 40 list salutes the leaders of a new generation of drinkers.

Subscribe

You can unsubscribe at any time. View an example of our newsletter.

Shop

>

Related Web Articles