Syrah grapes is the red wine grape that rules the Northern Rhone Valley. Syrah Grapes are the only red grape allowable by AOC rules in the appellations. Syrah grapes are an offspring of two ancient varietals. It was created when Dureza, a dark skinned berry was crossed with Mondeuse Blance, a white skinned grape. The pairing is interesting as neither grape ever gained mass popularity before they were crossed. Both berries were planted not from the Northern Rhone Valley, which is the home of Syrah in the old world. Dureza and Mondeuse Blance remain obscure and seldom seen today. The discovery of the Syrah grape’s origins came from extensive research conducted at UC Davis. The research was headed by Carole Meredith, who owns Lagier Meredith wines in Napa, which produces wine from Rhone varieties like Syrah Grapes.
How long Syrah grapes have been in existence in not known. It’s quite possible the ancient Romans planted the fruit in Vienne, which we know as Cote Rotie. At the time, according to writings from Pliny the Elder, the vines were called Allobrogica. It’s also possible Syrah is even older than that. Some historians believe Syrah was cultivated by the Greeks 500 years earlier than the Romans! While we do not know how long the grape has been used for wine, today Syrah continues to gain in popularity. Today it the world’s 6th most planted grape. It’s popular all over the world reaching its best expression in Hermitage and Cote Rotie. In Cote Rotie, some producers blend it with Viognier to produce a heavily perfumed, opulent and exotic wine.
Wines from Syrah have been popular for centuries with collectors. Thomas Jefferson, the third president of the United States raved about the wines of Hermitage in his diary. In fact, in the early 1800′s, Hermitage was the most expensive wine in the world. An advertisement from the famous Nicolas merchants of Paris from 1821 offers both red and white Hermitage at prices higher than any Burgundy or Bordeaux wine!
During the 18th and 19th century, Bordeaux merchants would blend portions of Hermitage to give more backbone to Bordeaux wines. Some negociants offered this custom service to select clients. The wines were ordered as Bordeaux plus. As a homage to those wines from pervious centuries, Chateau Palmer produces a wine in certain vintages that blends about 15% Syrah with their Margaux wine.
The first plantings of Syrah in California took place in the Napa Valley in 1878. At the time, some growers mistakenly called the grape Petite Sirah due to the size of the small berries. Petite Sirah, also known as Durif was not imported into California until 1884. However, the majority of vines were destroyed during the 1890′s following a devastating attack of phylloxera. By 1898, growers were once again planting Syrah in the Golden State.
Syrah also produces great wine in America, Australia, Argentina, Chile, Italy and numerous other countries. In Australia, where the grape was imported from France in 1831 by James Busby. At the time, the berry was referred to as Hermitage, its place of origin. But due to the French protected designation of origin, the name was changed to Shiraz at some point in the 1980′s. The grape is also known as Shiraz in South Africa.
America enjoys a good relationship with Syrah. It is produced in Northern California as well as the Central Coast. Numerous American wineries make fine Syrah wine. However, the wines from Manfred Krankl at Sine Qua Non, remain the benchmark for the level of quality possible from California Syrah.
Syrah is one of the versatile wines to pair with food. With its fresh fruits, spice, rich character coupled with the wide variety of styles Syrah produces, it’s perfect for wine and food pairing. Syrah is the perfect wine for all times of game, duck and chicken. Syrah also makes a great wine and food match with braised dishes and stews. Syrah is for many people the only wine that works with winter dishes like cassoulet, grilled steaks and good old fashioned, American hamburgers.
While Syrah is usually associated with the Northern Rhone, there are plantings of it in Chateauneuf du Pape, Languedoc-Roussillon, Cotes du Rhone and other Rhone areas, where it’s used as a blending grape to give a wine structure.
Syrah is a dark skinned berry that produces deeply colored and concentrated, rich, red wines with the ability to age and evolve for years or multiple decades in the best cases. Typical scents and flavors include blackberries, plums, black cherries, flowers, spice, earth, chocolate, licorice, blueberry, pepper and truffles. Syrah grows well in a myriad of terroirs. It seems to perform best in the steep hillsides of the Rhone Valley which are filled with gravel, limestone, iron, granite and sandy soils.