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Wednesday, April 4, 2012

California Syrah--What happened?

The Next Big Thing, oops

Syrah was going to be The Next Big Thing in California wines. Australia was making tons of money from Syrah--mostly in the lighter, fruity Shiraz style. Well, it never quite happened. This is really tough if you're a grape grower. It's not quite like growing corn one year and switching to soybeans the next. You have vines planted on a certain rootstock with a certain variety of grape vine grafted on. It's a very expensive undertaking to change over to The Next Big Thing after the one you planted five years ago doesn't work out.

Rhone varietals

Syrah originates in the Rhone region of France. Okay, the grape probably didn't originally come from Rhone, but that's its modern home. Syrah is the most important red grape in Rhone. Lesser known varieties include Grenache and Mourvedre. The primary white from Rhone is Viognier.

Now some are saying Grenache will be The Next Big Thing in California. Oh boy, here we go again!
Makers of some of the most
highly-rated CA Syrahs
Image from

What happened

A huge amount of Syrah was planted in the 1990s. According to The Wine Institute Califorina crushed 586 tons of Syrah in 1990 and well over 100,000 tons in 2002.

There's the one percent of Syrah that can be silky and sensual like a good Pinot Noir, but many seem heavy, dirty, tannic, oaky and undistinguished. The best ones will show black fruit and pepper spice. Some go for the Shiraz style usually resulting in higher alcohol levels. Most don't seem like particularly good food matches.

So it may be a stylistic problem or it may be a learning curve for growers and producers. Is it a cool climate or a warmer climate grape? Should it be light and fruity or more like a Cabernet?

In the light and fruity Shiraz style people generally expect to pay less than $20. Consumers may be confused just like the producers.
Considered by many to be one of
Sonoma County's best Syrahs
(and over 15% alcohol)
Image from

It took California growers and producers quite a few years to figure out Pinot Noir. We may still be in the same learning curve with Syrah. As long as it doesn't result in the same failure as with Gewurztraminer and Riesling where CA never really figured out how to grow it or what style to make it in (with a few exceptions like Navarro Vineyards).

Fixing Syrah

Syrah is a blending grape. It really isn't that exciting to drink as a straight 100% Syrah. Popular blends include Viognier (yes, a white wine), Grenache, and even Cabernet. Blends are almost always more interesting--and interest is something most CA Syrahs lack.

Don't make Syrah like Cabernet. Viognier failed in its first attempt in California because people made it like a Chardonnay--oaky and buttery. Syrah doesn't need to be over-ripe and soft. Nor should Syrah be drying and tannic. It doesn't need a lot of oak.

It seems like many people want to like Syrah. They just can't find one they'd choose to drink instead of a Cab or Pinot.