Grapes of the Rhone Valley: Syrah
October 07, 2010
Syrah, also known as Shiraz in Australia, is one of the most noble grapes of the Rhône Valley, and by far the most widely planted Rhone variety in California. It is a key component in both our Grenache-based Cotes de Tablas and Mourvedre-based Esprit de Beaucastel blends (typically 20-35% of each, depending on vintage) and makes a wonderfully dark, spicy varietal wine, which we've made each year since 2002.
Syrah is one of the oldest established grape varietals in the Côtes du Rhône region of southern France, and competing stories abound about its origin.
One legend attributes its arrival in France to the Phocaeans of Asia Minor, who brought the grape from Shiraz, Persia when they established Marseilles around 600 BC. Another story claims that Romans brought the varietal from Syracuse, in Sicily, to the Rhône in the 3rd century AD. Despite these claims, DNA evidence from Dr. Carole Meredith at UC Davis showed that Syrah is a native French grape, the chance offspring of two grapes (Dureza and Mondeuse) from southeastern France. Syrah was well established in the vineyards surrounding the Rhône village of Tain-l’Hermitage by the 13th century.
Syrah Around the World
Syrah is most closely associated with the Northern Rhône appellations of Hermitage and Côte-Rotie, where it produces wines of phenomenal elegance and longevity. It is tremendously flexible, and can make elegant and restrained wines as well as wines bursting with fruit and oak, in locations as diverse as France, California, South Africa, and Australia. In the 1650s, South Africa was the first country outside France to plant Syrah, and it has assumed a significant role there. In Australia, however, where it arrived at the end of the 18th Century, it has become the most widely planted grape in that country.
In the northern Rhone, Syrah is typically made as a varietal wine, at times co-fermented or blended with small amounts of Viognier. In the southern Rhone, Syrah is an important blending varietal, and second only to Grenache in acreage. It partners lends to Grenache-based blends darker color, structure, tannin and ageability.
The first records of Syrah in the United States show it arriving in California in 1878, but it remained scarce until quite recently, with only 1,200 tons harvested in 1992. As California winemakers recognize its potential, the acreage increased nearly one hundredfold in ten years, and 101,500 tons of Syrah were harvested in California in 2002. Syrah is now the most widely planted Rhône varietal in California, with 19,226 acres planted in 2009. Although it is occasionally confused with the California varietal Petite Sirah, they are separate varietals (most experts believe most of what is called Petite Sirah is a cross of the varietals Peloursin and Durif).
Syrah at Tablas Creek
When we began Tablas Creek Vineyard in 1990, we were not completely satisfied with the variety of clonal selections of California Syrah vines. So, when we brought our other Rhone varieties from france, we included four different clones of Syrah. These clones were propagated in the Tablas Creek nursery, and we planted our first Beaucastel-clone Syrah blocks in 1994.
Syrah in the Vineyard and Cellar
Syrah is quite vigorous and thrives when given warm days, poor soils, and sun. Because it is so vigorous, it requires extra canopy management (to expose the fruit to the sun for ripening) and aggressive crop thinning. Unlike most other varietals, its canes extend down toward the ground rather than up toward the sun, and therefore it is the one varietal permitted to be trellised instead of head-pruned in Châteauneuf-du-Pape. It ripens earlier than any of the other red Rhône varietals, and we typically harvest it throughout the month of September.
Syrah's small clusters and small berries produce juice with concentrated flavors and significant tannin. During vinification, we ferment Syrah in large open-top tanks, a process that exposes the juice to more oxygen and thereby softens the tannins and compensates for Syrah’s tendency toward reduction. Currently, we have approximately 13 acres of Syrah planted at Tablas Creek, which represents about 25% of our red Rhône production.
Flavors and Aromas
The Syrah grape itself is thick-skinned and dark, almost black. Wines made from Syrah are intense with a dark purple-black color. The wines taste of blackberry and black raspberry fruit, smoke, tar and black pepper, and have a smooth supple texture. Syrah reflects minerality well, and the chalky character of the tannins provides a wonderful backbone to softer, fruitier varietals such as Grenache and Counoise.
In our Mourvèdre-based Esprit de Beaucstel, Syrah provides a deep blackish-purple color, minerality, spice, longevity and back-palate tannins. In our Grenache-based Côtes de Tablas, Syrah cuts the apparent sweetness of Grenache and produces wines that are more balanced between sweet and savory notes, with more mineral and spice.
Beginning in 2002, we have bottled Syrah as a single varietal in limited quantities. In some vintages this is blended with a small quantity of Grenache, whose higher acidity opens up Syrah and focuses its fruit.
Pneumonia's Last Syrah
Despite its many appealing characteristics, sales of Syrah have faced well-publicized challenges in the American market. The Rhone Rangers have launched a plan in conjunction with several major health organizations to encourage the sales of Syrah while providing money for vaccinations against pneumonia, the world's largest killer of children. You can read more about Pneumonia's Last Syrah.