The Wine Whisperer: Let's talk about Syrah and what is happening with this noble red grape.

Last week I wrote about some of the famous white wine varietals: Pinot Gris, Gewerztraminer and Riesling. This week I thought we would visit a few of the red wine grapes that have become superstars over the last 10 years or so. There is much misinformation on so many grape varieties in the wine drinking world that I think it is best to clear the air and take a fresh look at what is happening in the world of vino.

Let's talk about Syrah and what is happening with this noble red grape.

Syrah is a grape variety that has come into its own for American consumers really within the last 15 years. Prior to this, Syrah was consumed mainly by those folks who knew the Rhone Valley in France.

Most of the buyers who I have been selling wine to were first attracted to and initiated to the grape from sojourns in France. This was in the late 1960s. Venerable wines coming from northern and southern France, such as the great Hermitage and Cotes du Rhone, were Syrah-based and consumers were really enjoying the headiness of the bouquet, palate grip and long, white pepper finish associated with the varietal. At this time there were a few plantings in California and those that were planted just did not seem to take hold or were shadows of the power and finesse of their French cousins. At just about this time, plantings began to show up in Australia and in Washington state.

Today, after 40 some years retailing wine, I find it astonishing that Syrah has left the Rhone Valley in such a large and successful way and spread its wings to viticultural areas unheard of in the '60s. Australia is making profound Syrah (Shiraz), as are parts of Washington state and California. We are seeing amazing efforts in the Columbia Valley and Walla Walla, with world-class wines with profound elegance and breeding. This is now happening in the southern part of our state, as well, with great efforts such as Roxyann, Slagle Creek and Abacela, to just name a few.

Syrah is characterized by its palate weight, long, warm finish, deep purple tones and hint of white pepper. Petite Sirah, not to be confused with the more noble and complex Syrah, (according to many wine professionals) is associated with a more rustic and coarse black pepper nuance.

Syrah, unlike its finicky friend Pinot Noir, can be grown in very diverse soils and temperature ranges and can be treated with newer oak, higher alcohol levels and longer age in the cellar. Once, while visiting the Rhone Valley, I had the occasion to taste a 50-year-old Hermitage. The wine was an infant! It was still massive, generous and had a finish that went on seemingly forever.

It is also a fact that Hermitage wines (Syrah) were traditionally used to bolster the wines of Bordeaux. This bolstering was the inclusion of intense coloring, tannin and higher alcohol and was used to firm up weaker vintages in Bordeaux. After a while, the good folks in Bordeaux decided that this natural inclusion of Hermitage wines was a very nice thing to do regardless of vintage and was used quite often in the production of Bordeaux wines. This was many years ago and the laws were changed (tightened) to make only the traditional grape varieties of the region of Bordeaux available in the process.

When we look at the New World, where this traditional variety is thriving beyond anyone's imagination, we are seeing different styles, nuances and wonderful innovation in winemaking and viticultural practices. Vineyard management is doing wonderful things to this grape, as are the folks in the cellar. It is my opinion that the New World is as good at making this fine red wine variety as the Old World and time will tell who will carry the banner in the next 10 to 15 years! Can't wait!

See you next week!