It used to bug the heck out of me that the wine made with that old, noble syrah grape went by so many names: syrah in California, shiraz in Australia, and in France, la grand-mère of all confusion, by any of a billion place names, from Hermitage to Côte-Rôtie. (Oh, and petite sirah? Barely any relation, totally different wine, don't fret your pretty little head about it.)
I mean, I can order a Coke with a single syllable from here to the Andromeda Cluster, but with syrah I've suddenly got to be Little Miss International Geography and Vocabulary? Puh-leeze. I went to public schools. You're lucky I figgered out how to rite.
But as much as I fought it, maturity came. My heartfelt advice is that you get over it, too. Because syrah looks to be the biggest wine of the 21st Century. Why? Three reasons: It's cheap, it's good, and its popularity is spreading quicker than mono in a freshman dorm.
Popular? That's due mostly to the Australians. They've been fascinated by and enthusiastic about shiraz forever, and they've made wine with enough structure and fruit to bedazzle anyone shopping in the $10 range. Good? That's due to the grape itself: The "noblest" of the black grapes, syrah makes dark, concentrated wine that's full of tannin and sweet fruit and ages magically. And cheap? Well, cheap might be the most interesting part for forecasting what will be big in the 21st Century: Syrah is an incredibly vigorous grape that thrives in hot climates; keep it from overproducing and the world might be your oyster. A wine axiom of growing popularity is that syrah delivers what merlot merely promises: rich, round fruit and a nice weight in the mouth. But syrah does it with spine.
Think American winemakers haven't noticed that syrah produces better wine, cheaper, and with less headache than other varieties? Even as giant Australian wineries are buying up chunks of California, every American winery that hopes to have a thumb in the pie in 25 years is growing test plots of syrah and running up trial balloons. In fact, at a recent local tasting, wine colossus Geyser Peak was pouring samples of a 90-case experiment called GRB901--a blend of syrah and two other Rhone varietals, grenache and mourvèdre. And the wine was pretty good, appealingly fruity and dusky. Aside from the robot appellation, it seemed like an important glass of the future.
R.H. Phillips 1999 Syrah Dunnigan Hills ($9) A fierce little double-barrel of fruit that's made chocolaty and jammy with the ripe syrah, and tannic and broad with a shot of petite sirah. This wine seems perfect for really intense foods like herb-filled grilled sausages, roasted red peppers, or skewered lamb or beef with fresh sprigs of rosemary. Maybe somewhat strangely potent, but I've got to say I like it, and as it's only the second year the stuff is on the market I'm betting the price will soon start to rise. (www.rhphillips.com)
Cline 1999 Syrah California ($10) A well-made wine in which the potency of the syrah is cut with touches of four other grape varieties. That might seem like the recipe for a cloying grape carnival, but the result is attractively structured, nicely balanced, and weighty. All that fruit bubbles demurely with notes of blueberry, blackberry, and violets, but it does so along a solid backbone of acid and tannin and ends with a pleasantly plush grape-tannic finish. (www.clinecellars.com)
Snoqualmie Vineyards 1999 Syrah Columbia Valley ($11) Soft, dark, and drinkable to the point of being guzzleable, this Washington State syrah, with its sweet 16 percent edge of grenache (just like they add in the southern Rhône!), has a beautiful black-fruit color, deep roasted-nut aromas, and cherry and cola flavors with maybe a hint of black pepper. This may list at $11, but when I bought my bottle it was $8, and I've never seen it priced higher. I'm just saying.... (www.snoqualmie.com)
R.H. Phillips 1999 EXP Syrah Dunnigan Hills ($15) The Giguiere family holds the largest single-vineyard American syrah plantings, which is how they managed to get two wines into this top six. The EXP is 100 percent syrah and tastes intense and "extracted"--a wine word roughly approximating the difference between weak and strong coffee. This stuff is strong coffee, with gamy, chocolaty, dense black-cherry and iron flavors backed up by rock-solid tannins. (www.rhphillips.com)
Qupé 2000 Central Coast Syrah ($15) An American syrah made in the more subtle and elegant French style, Qupé syrah is dry and earthy, with notes of cedar, dried berry, spice, and white pepper. Perfect for those with Rhône tastes and recession pocketbooks.
Rosemount Estate 1998 Show Reserve Shiraz Langborne Creek McLaren Vale ($25) It's really hard staying under my self-imposed $20 limit. This stuff is so good I had to stick it in, just in case you win the lottery or are already well-off. The Show Reserve is a blend of spicy McLaren Vale and concentrated Langhorne Creek fruit, aged for two years in various sorts of oak, resulting in a wine of considerable depth and finesse. A tight core of focused dried-currant and blackberry flavors practically leaps from the glass with a perfume of black pepper and iron. Whatever muscle-bound clichés you'd care to fling about would fit this powerful fellow. Splurge! (www.rosemountestates.com)