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In this episode of “Wine 101,” VinePair tastings director Keith Beavers discusses all things Syrah. Though Syrah is a dominant red variety in Australia, Beavers explains that its has roots in the northern and southern Rhône regions of France.
Listeners will learn how Syrah got its unique name through a series of dialects, and why the variety has different names in different parts of the world. Beavers also explains that Syrah is now being made in our own backyard; Washington State has emerged as a competitive producer of Syrah in hopes that it will become a successful player in the global market.
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Keith Beavers: My name is Keith Beavers, and yes, I did relive my childhood fantasies watching “Cobra Kai,” Season 1. The last scene, it’s incredible.
What’s going on, wine lovers? Welcome to Episode 9 of VinePair’s “Wine 101” podcast, Season 2, of course. My name is Keith Beavers, I am the tasting director of VinePair. Hi!
What are your thoughts on Syrah? What do you know about Syrah? What are your relationships with Syrah? My relationship with this grape is insane. You guys, we got to talk about Syrah. I know it’s a thing and it’s in Australia. What is this?
Deep, dark, brutish, spicy, savory. What is it? That, wine lovers, is Syrah. I know those are a bunch of general terms.
In this season, we are going to have a whole episode on the Rhône and when we talk about the Rhône, the southern and the northern Rhône, we’re going to get real deep into that area. This is where Syrah is from.
It’s really hard to talk about Syrah and not talk about the Rhône. But we’re going to figure this out, because I want you guys to understand how wonderful this variety is and what it does to your brain when you sip it in a certain way.
Let me just clarify. I absolutely love wines made from the grape Syrah. This is the thing about Syrah: As of 2010, it was the sixth most planted variety on the planet. It’s always been that way with Syrah. I’m really bad with orchestral stuff, the first chair, the second chair, but Syrah’s is like the timpani drums. It’s all the way in the back just chilling, knowing how awesome it is, not needing all the attention that all the other varieties get. But when it’s done in a certain way and it’s in a lower yield, it commands your attention. It’s almost haunting how beautiful this variety is when it’s turned into a wine on the lower-yield side.
Syrah, for me, is like Han Solo: roguish, rough around the edges, scruffy like a nerf herder, lopsided grin. Among and around all that toughness is an absolute charm. That’s what Syrah is. It’s dark but charming.
The trick with Syrah, though, is the higher the production rate goes, the quicker you lose those characteristics. I know I’ve mentioned this already twice in this episode — low yields. When we were talking about Pinot Noir, we were talking about hectoliter per liter. At some point, if you harvest a lot of Pinot Noir, it starts to lose its subtlety. There are grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay, where you can harvest a lot of it and it still retains its character. Cabernet Sauvignon will always be Cabernet Sauvignon no matter what. You can always recognize it. But with Syrah, as the production level goes up, you begin to not recognize the subtleties of the variety. What it starts giving you instead is this soft, fruit-forward red wine.
We experienced this a lot when an ocean of Shiraz from Australia came onto our market. It started with Yellowtail. Of course, we all know Yellowtail and the Syrah or Shiraz — same grape, just different names — those were not the peppery, savory Syrah versions that I just talked about. But because of the popularity of Shiraz, that style became very popular and the New World started embracing that.
Where Syrah is from, its birthplace, where it thrives the most, where it expresses itself the most, it shows something completely different. The only issue is: The amount of wine that is made from the Syrah grape in the northern Rhône, in a little place called Hermitage, which we’ll get into in another episode, it’s a small place with small production. So you’re spending a ton of money on a wine that is absolutely going to blow your mind and change your life. The good news is: Surrounding that little area called Hermitage in the northern Rhône, which we’ll get into another episode, are other areas that show Syrah on a similar level but aren’t as expensive, in a really great way to get yourself into that realm of Syrah.
It’s in the northern Rhône, where Syrah was born. And the parents of Syrah are two varieties that we don’t really talk about. They’re out there on the market but not everywhere. The mother of Syrah is a grape called Mondeuse Blanche, which is around, but not a lot. The other grape is called Dureza. Now, these two varieties are actually related to Pinot Noir, making Pinot Noir the grandparent of Syrah. There’s a separation there. Syrah happened on its own, even though it has connections to Pinot Noir. And what it became was something completely different.
Like any grape throughout history, it’s had a few names. The word Syrah comes from the multiple writings throughout the history of this variety. It was called Serine. Basically what happened is: When it was born, as it arrived and was starting to be worked within the northern region of Rhône and spread down to the southern Rhône, it got different names based on the dialects of the different areas in which the vine was grown. This comes back to the story of Syrah versus Shiraz. In Australia, they call Syrah Shiraz, and it is the Syrah grape. The thing is, when James Busby, back in the 1830s, brought a bunch of vine cuttings from Europe to Australia to begin the Australian wine industry, one of those cuttings was a Syrah vine. There’s not a lot of documentation about this, but it is mentioned and it said that this is the way it was, so I will give it to you. I said it in the Australia episode that when he grabbed that Syrah vine from the Rhône and brought it to Australia, the name of the grape at the time was Scryas. The Australian accent in New South Wales where this all began, the Scryas became Shiraz or Shiraz.
And not only did the name change but because of the climate in the sun exposures and the complete different geography of this part of Australia than in the northern Rhône, the grape itself became something different. Because the yield for Syrah is one thing. Another thing is sun exposure. The more sun it gets, the fatter it gets, the more sugar it produces, and the softer the wine is. Australia created a different style of Syrah. It was a natural progression to call it Shiraz, but it’s kind of cool how the name is different and the style is different based on the natural elements the variety there has to work with. Does that make sense? I think that made sense.
I know this is going to be a general statement, and people might get mad at me in the industry, but that defines the two styles of Syrah in general. You have that dark charm that I was talking about, and then you had that soft, fruit-forward style. And sometimes you have somewhere in between.
Let me generally talk about where these are in the world so you can go out there and try these wines and get a sense of this. Again, I’m going to mention Rhône stuff, but we’re going to get deeper into that when we get into the Rhône episode. For the dark and brooding stuff — that cool, savory stuff, obviously where it was born is the best. There’s a big granite hill called Hermitage, and that is it. That is literally the heart of Syrah. In the surrounding areas, you have a place called Saint-Joseph or St. Joseph, also gets towards those dark, charmed vibes. Then, surrounding Hermitage is a larger appellation called Crozes-Hermitage that will also give you those savory vibes. It goes from the hill of Hermitage, out a little bit. That is the heart, the beating heart of Syrah.
Now, there are some places outside of this area of the world where you still can get that sort of dark, savory charm of Syrah. The closest to that area is a very large wine-growing region in southern France called Languedoc. It’s called the Languedoc-Roussillon. There are appellations throughout that area that just do beautiful Syrah. They often blend it with Grenache and Mourvèdre, but it still gives that nice, savory vibe. There’s actually a really awesome wine-growing region down there called Pic Saint-Loup, and wow, the winds are awesome. You’re going to see them around, but they’re still not as prevalent on the market.
The place that I think is very exciting for Syrah that the United States needs to recognize is Washington State. Washington State can produce Syrah on that dark charm, savory level. The thing is: Washington state was very popular for Riesling for a long time, and then it became popular for Cabernet Sauvignon, and now, it’s really killing it with the red blends. Quietly, I’ve talked to some winemakers in Washington and they’re very excited about Syrah. We just don’t see a lot of it out on our market, and we have to go to Washington to get it. I have tasted some Syrahs from Washington State that really gives me that dark, savory vibe. It’s very cool, and I’m really hoping that more Syrah of that style comes out onto the market because I think it would be awesome for us as a wine-drinking culture.
Now, the Syrah coming out of California doesn’t often reach the savory level. It’s often more on that fruit-forward vibe, and it can be blended with Merlot. There are places in California that have small production levels of Syrah that are very meaty. You guys know what I mean. It has that peppery, rosemary thing going on as well. And it’s not really a specific place or region in California or even the United States. It’s just when you see a Syrah from the United States, outside of Washington State, if it’s a more expensive Syrah, it’s probably going to be lower production and have those savory vibes to them. I think Syrah came to California in the late 1800s, so it’s been there for a long time.
Don’t get confused if you see a wine that has the Petite Sirah. It’s different, and it’s not the original spelling of Syrah. That’s a completely different grape. It’s actually a grape called Durif. Yes, it has a relationship to Syrah, but it is not Syrah. There’s actually a bunch of grapes that were brought over to California at one point, and they were all called Durif. The DNA profiling through UC Davis found that there’s a bunch of these Durif grapes that are actually different varieties. If you see Petite Sirah, it’s a grape and it makes wine, but it’s not the Syrah grape. It doesn’t have those vibes.
One thing you will not see in California or in the United States, in general, is you will not see Syrah be called Shiraz in the United States. Somebody might do it as an ironic sort of thing, but it’s generally just Syrah.
We got an episode of South Africa coming up that I’m very excited about. In South Africa, it’s both. It’s really wild. Sometimes they call their Syrah Syrah, and sometimes they call their Syrah Shiraz. I’m not sure if they use those two terms based on style. I’ve tasted Syrah from certain areas of South Africa towards the coast, and I’ve tasted Shiraz that’s made further inland. And the Syrah that I tasted had more of a peppery vibe to it, and as I drank the Shiraz from a little more inland, it was more fruit-forward. So there might be something there. I’m not sure, but I think it’s very cool how they are like, “You know what, we’re going to decide what we want to do, you guys figure it out.” We gotta talk about South Africa because it’s a really great place, with some great wines coming out of there.
So there’s something to be said about both of these styles. The fruit-forward style is soft, juicy, and awesome. It’s great with burgers and pizza. It also takes on this new style that is very interesting that started in the northern Rhône in a place called Côte-Rôtie, where they would blend a white wine grape called Viognier into the Syrah to soften it a little bit. In Victoria, Australia, they do that as well. It is just awesome. It’s different from Côte-Rôtie. We can get into that when we talk about the Rhône. That place is crazy. The Viognier-Shiraz blends in Victoria are on that awesome level. You can actually chill those wines down for about 30 minutes, drink them cold with pizza, burgers, all the stuff. It is just awesome.
Often in the wine world or in education, when we talk about age-worthy wines — especially about red wines — we talk mostly about Cabernet Sauvignon or Bordeaux. We talk about Barolo, we talk about Burgundy. The thing is, Syrah can age 20 to 30 years, and it can just evolve and get better and better. Even after it peaks, it’s still really awesome. I actually read somewhere in the “Oxford Wine Companion” where Jancis Robinson tasted a 1961 Hermitage. I think at that point it was 30 years old, and it tasted like a Claret but had depth. Basically, what she was saying was that it was on the level of a fine Bordeaux, but with more depth. That’s cool, that’s what Syrah does.
Actually, here’s a fun, historical fact. The 18th- and 19th-century Bordeaux winemakers put Hermitage into their wine to give it more depth.
If you want to get into Syrah, I would say, wine lovers, you got some work to do. Because there are these two major expressions of Syrah, from the fruit-forward, to the savory craziness. And it can be anywhere in between. So depending on where you’re grabbing the Syrah from, it’s going to be different.
The cool thing about this is if you dig everything you’ve heard me say about Syrah, you can go out there and try to find different ones and taste the different styles. You can even indicate to the wine merchant what style of Syrah you would like. You can say “I want a savory, peppery-style Syrah, but I don’t want to buy a Hermitage.” They’ll know where to direct you. If you’re like, “I want a soft, more fruit-forward Syrah, just not an Australian Shiraz,” they’ll know how to direct you. Or “I want a nice, focused Australian Shiraz that’ll blow my mind” and they’ll know where to focus. Get into it. Syrah.
@VinePairKeith is my Insta. Rate and review this podcast wherever you get your podcasts from. It really helps get the word out there. And now, for some totally awesome credits. “Wine 101” was produced, recorded, and edited by yours truly, Keith Beavers, at the VinePair headquarters in New York City. I want to give a big ‘ol shout out to co-founders Adam Teeter and Josh Malin for creating VinePair. And I mean, a big shout-out to Danielle Grinberg, the art director of VinePair, for creating the most awesome logo for this podcast. Also, Darby Cicci for the theme song. Listen to this. And I want to thank the entire VinePair staff for helping me learn something new every day. See you next week.