Most grape varieties, regardless of where they are grown around the world, produce wines that have a defining aroma or taste that are universally recognizable. Take Cabernet Sauvignon, for example. Cabernet, produced in such geographically diverse regions as the Napa Valley in California, Bordeaux or the Barossa Valley in Australia, share varietal characteristics with which most wine drinkers can identify.
The same is true of Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc’s sensory attributes. Sauvignon Blanc produced in New Zealand seems to emphasize more of a melon or ripe fruit component while those made in California can exhibit more of a citrus nuance, yet both seem to share an herbal or grassy quality
WINE TERMS: ‘Varietal’ –(in U.S. winemaking) designating a wine made entirely or chiefly from one variety of grape. (from dictionary.com)
Zinfandel is another wine that is pretty easy to identify if you drink the wine on a regular basis. I am a “zin-fanatic” so I tend to obsess over the variety and I can usually identify (in a blind tasting) not only that the wine is indeed zinfandel, but sometimes the area of California where the grapes were grown.The list could go on and on with the majority of wines – at least the ones we seem to consume on a regular basis – sharing one or more common characteristics regardless of their viticultural appellation. However, there is one wine that, for me anyway, proves the exception to the rule.
Shiraz, which is the name the Aussies have given to Syrah, shares no common bond with the wine produced in the most famous place the grape is grown – which is the Rhone Valley of France. Ditto, the Syrah produced in the US: it bears no resemblance to French wine made from the same grape.
Australia has been making Shiraz for over a hundred years. As a matter of fact, one of the greatest wines of Australia, Penfold’s Grange Hermitage, is made from Syrah and pays homage to the Rhone by its very name. But that’s where the similarities end.
In the Rhone, Syrah is the most highly valued of all the red varietals. The most famous wine of the Rhone is Chateauneuf Du Pape. Grown in the very southern area of the Rhone, this wine is a blend of as many as 13 grape varieties with Syrah added to give it character and aging potential.
Surprisingly, the most sought after Syrah is produced in the northern Rhone and particularly around the towns of Cote Rotie, Hermitage and Cornas. The wine produced here is a tannic “full throttle” whopper with black pepper, tar and leather aromas and ripe plum and other dark fruit taste characteristics.
Nowhere on the label will you see the word Syrah, but any red wine from the above-mentioned villages will be predominately made from the grape. Some of the best producers are E. Guigal, Paul Jaboulet Aine, M. Chapoutier, J. Vidal-Fleury and Delas Freres.
So how do Syrah from the Rhone and the Shiraz from Australia differ? While the Rhone can be a backward and very tannic wine in its youth, Shiraz is full-bodied, but usually very forward and easy to drink when it is young. With rich, ripe berry flavors, Shiraz, to me at least, has more in common with zinfandel than the Syrah grown in France. The best of these wines are grown and produced in the Barossa Valley of southeastern Australia. Some of my favorite Shiraz producers are: Longview, Clarendon Hills, D’Arenberg’s Laughing Magpie, Greg Norman’s Limestone Coast, Torbreck Woodcutter’s Red, Elderton; Fox Creek Reserve; Kay Brothers Hillside and Rosemount Balmoral.
Syrah produced in California is just as rich and unctuous as the stuff made Down Under. As a matter of fact, these wines can be “fruit bombs” with sometimes stratospheric alcohol levels. Many of the most sought after are produced along California’s central coastal areas such as the Santa Maria Valley and Santa Barbara County. These latter two wine regions were featured in the movie “Sideways.”
To be sure, California Syrahs share more common taste components with the Aussies than with the French, yet there are still some differences. Here are some of my California favorites: Melville, Qupe; Babcock; Blackjack Ranch; Sanford; Fess Parker; RH Phillips; Alexander Valley Vineyards; Beckman; Frei Brothers; and, locally owned, Falcor.
I guess you’ll just have to pick your favorites. As the French say: “Que Syrah, Syrah…”