"Shame about syrah, really," I was thinking the other day while washing down a cheeseburger with a glass of 2003 Ojai Thompson Vineyard Syrah from California's Santa Barbara County. The wine was big, meaty even. Yet, it was balanced, in proportion, perfect with my dinner.
Syrah is a noble grape, grown for thousands of years. It powers many of the reds made in the Rhone region of France, and winemakers the world over incorporate it into their Rhone-style blends. Yet the poor grape seems to get no respect these days.
It's often overshadowed by cabernet sauvignon or pinot noir. Boatloads of cheap, colorfully labeled syrah from Down Under (dubbed "shiraz" there) have turned off many North American drinkers to all syrah. Sales stats tell the story: Both dollar sales and the number of bottles of syrah sold fell about 7 to 8 percent over a yearlong period ending May 1, according to The Nielsen Co.
Yet, the Ojai syrah was so, so good with that cheeseburger.
Sharing my syrah pain is Evan Goldstein, author of "Daring Pairings."
"I want to be more bullish on syrah,'' Goldstein wrote in an e-mail from his base in San Carlos, Calif. "It goes so well with food and has so many styles to go with so many foods (cool to warm climate, peppery to jammy, pure versus blended). It provides incredible range for consumers to find wines that are different and provide amazing pleasure."
Goldstein, president of a wine and spirits education company called Full Circle Wine Solutions, spoke last January at the New Zealand Syrah Symposium about the challenges syrah has to overcome to be more widely accepted in the United States.
In our e-mail chat, Goldstein pointed first at the Australians. Low-end Aussie wines have "made it challenging for premium producers in Oz (Australia) and elsewhere to get any traction as they have seemingly conditioned wine consuming people that they don't need to spend a lot on this grape."
Goldstein also thinks most California syrah producers have yet to demonstrate "any sense of a true regional terroir," which means sense of place or style, as has happened in France and, "when given a chance," Australia. There are very good syrah options in Washington, Chile and Argentina, he added, but they aren't "on the radar for most people outside the lunatic fringe of syrah-crazed drinkers."
But Goldstein did end on a hopeful note. If syrah can meet its challenges, he thinks the wine may pop with the public.
Do your part to make that happen. Pop open a bottle of syrah tonight — with or without a cheeseburger.
A bit of age matters
California syrahs from multiple vintages are available in most every price range and style. The tasting panel sampled 10 syrahs ranging in price from $11 to $65. In general, tasters preferred the older vintages, finding a little bit of age had given the wines more complexity and interest.
2005 Bridlewood Estate: A very handsome estate syrah from the Santa Ynez wine region. The nose is somewhat closed, subtle, with suggestions of tobacco, berries and spice. The flavor is mature, fully developed with notes of tobacco, cassis and coffee. Nice finish. $40
2006 Baileyana Grand Firepeak Cuvee: From the Edna Valley, this inky, plummy wine has a rich fragrance evoking notes of plums, spice and even a bit of mint. The flavor is smooth but sharp, with the berry fruit supported by plenty of oak and black pepper. $28
2006 Russian Hill Winery Estate Vineyards: Sonoma's Russian River Valley is the source for this big, mouth-filling wine. The nose is a mix of fruit and chocolate and so is the taste, with touches of black cherry, earth. Lots of black pepper on the finish. $28
2006 Adelaida Viking Estate Reserve: Another wine from California's Central Coast, this time the Paso Robles region. The nose has plenty of ripe berry fruit while the flavor runs from black pepper through lingonberry and tart plum to tobacco and spice. $65
2007 Fess Parker: The late actor turned winemaker made California's Santa Barbara County his base. This wine smells and tastes of currants and cherries with a touch of spice. Tannins give structure. $25
2007 Liberty School: A Central Coast of California wine, less inky than the others tasted, with notes of cherry, blackberry and nutmeg on the nose. The flavor starts out tight but develops body, filling out with notes of cherry, plum and a bit of vanilla. $15
2007 Beckmen Vineyards Block Six Purisima Vineyard: From Santa Ynez, an inky purple wine with a subtle if a bit stemmy nose of cherry. The flavor is dry but full, with ripe fruit, spice and a touch of chocolate. $54
2007 Hahn SLH Estate: SLH stands for Santa Lucia Highlands, a wine region in Monterey County along California's Central Coast. The nose is lightly fruity and a bit stemmy. The flavor is soft, think cherries touched with notes of earth, black pepper and leather. $27
2008 McManis Family Vineyards: A bright, spicy California red with lots of cherry flavor and touches of pepper and licorice. $11
2007 Frei Brothers Reserve: From Sonoma's Russian River Valley, a wine with a berry nose and berry and cherry flavors. A bit tart, tannic. $24
You want that wine. But your store or area distributor may not carry it. State law may prohibit you from ordering a wine online. What to do? Ask your wine retailer for a wine similar in flavor, style and price. Remember, too, prices vary.