Que syrah, shiraz?

Rediscovering a mysterious, oft-maligned grape

Syrah grape clusters.

Syrah grape clusters.

Photo By chrisada sookdhis, via flickr

When Aimée Sunseri was still in winemaking school in 2003 at UC Davis, there was a great deal of talk among her peers and colleagues over a newcomer to the scene, a European-born immigrant with a seductive French accent and the feminine grace and voluptuousness of a queen.

“But syrah just tanked,” said Sunseri, now the winemaker at New Clairvaux Vineyard in Vina. “People were thinking it would be the next big thing and could even approach cabernet in sales.”

Syrah, after being overplanted and overhyped in California, never blossomed as perhaps it deserved to. The variety may ripen into a wide range of styles depending on where it is grown. A syrah might be the classic piney, gamey style often seen in its French homeland and on the California North Coast, or heavy in bacon and cured-meat scents, or markedly mocha-like with allspice and anise. But rather than make the wine enticing through mysteriousness, all these possibilities have made syrah intimidating—or simply untrustworthy—to many wine drinkers, who may be reluctant to pay for a wine if they don’t know what they’re getting.

“People will approach a pinot noir they don’t know, take a risk and buy it,” said Scot Covington, winemaker at Trione Vineyards in Sonoma County.

But not syrah, offered Covington, who says his own rendition—a velvety smooth French-style wine with strong scents of licorice—tends to be a sluggish seller on retail shelves but does well in the tasting room, where customers who taste it first may be convinced of its virtues.

The most confusing aspect of syrah, though, may be shiraz—the high-alcohol, fruity, loud-talking Australian rendition of the same grape that was so popular about a decade ago.

“People got confused by the whole Yellowtail thing,” said Bill Easton, winemaker at Terre Rouge in the Sierra Foothills. “The wine was fruity and sweet, and often cheap.”

Shiraz’s boisterous Aussie appeal didn’t take long to grow old, however, and soon overly fruity red wines with residual sugar and kangaroos on the bottle drew sneers from many wine consumers. Even syrah seems to have received some of the backlash, and sales for both wines dipped. In the Barossa Valley of South Australia, winemaker Michael Twelftree of Two Hands Wines recognizes the lingering reputation of shiraz as a clumsy fruit-bomb.

“Most producers just wanted to load up their U.S. importer with pretty much exactly the same style of wine—very ripe, sweet and with loads of new oak,” Twelftree said.

To teach consumers that Australian shiraz can be subtle, elegant and representative of place, Two Hands Wines recently introduced a six-pack varietal tasting package of shiraz from select vineyards around Australia.

Meanwhile, California winemakers are still trying to decide what a good California syrah should taste like. Hugh Chappelle, winemaker at Quivira Vineyards in Sonoma County’s Dry Creek Valley, believes Americans still prefer Australian-style syrah. Chappelle says, “Australians screwed up the category,” creating consumer “expectations of a fruit bomb for $5 or $6.” When making his own syrah, Chappelle instills some French finesse, which his region’s cool nights allow the grapes to develop. Meanwhile, hot days build up the fruit’s muscle and backbone.

Phil LaRocca, winemaker at LaRocca Vineyards in Forest Ranch, also believes many wine drinkers still have a secret crush on shiraz-style syrah.

“Americans like anything with some sweetness and sugar,” he said. “They don’t like to admit it, but they do.”

To appeal to this preference, LaRocca lets his syrah ripen to Aussie-like proportions and sends it to bottle bearing high alcohol and a thick-bodied, fruity profile. So does Sunseri at New Clairvaux—though with her first vintage in 2007 she made a scaled-down, more subtle Rhône Valley-style syrah. But customers just weren’t convinced, she says, “so we started making that riper, jammier Australian style.”

Syrah and shiraz represent a challenging category for winemakers. Sunseri notes that restaurants and retail shops are often reluctant to overstock the wine out of concern that it won’t sell—which calls to mind a wine nerd joke that can make anyone laugh: “What’s the difference between a case of syrah and a case of pneumonia? You can get rid of the pneumonia.”