Californian Terroir: Syrah


There's a joke in California: What's the difference between a case of Syrah and a case of venereal disease? You can get rid of the V.D.

It’s funny, in a cruel way. Distributors will tell you that they can’t sell Syrah no matter what they do. Growers are budding Syrah vines over to A.B.S.–anything but Syrah. Sommeliers seem to shun it. One of the great questions is, Why don’t more people like Syrah?

On the surface, it has everything going for it. It has a lovely French name, easy to pronounce and, from an American’s point of view, fancy, like Merlot or Pinot Noir. Americans profess some resentment toward Old Europe, with France frequently taking a beating especially in conservative circles. But if a product has a French-sounding name, the public will tend to assume it is luxurious.

Part of the problem, some say, is a confusion with two other kinds of wines: Shiraz and Petite Sirah. To many people, Shiraz means cheap Aussie plonk, hardly the ideal image to come to mind. Then there’s Petite Sirah, which actually is experiencing a burst of popularity. But it is not rubbing off on Syrah.

Twenty years ago, California winemaking circles were thrilled with Syrah’s prospects. They were looking for “the next big red,” a candidate to follow up on Cabernet Sauvignon’s astounding success over the previous 20 years. I recall the excitement surrounding a three day Rhône symposium, held at Bill Harlan’s Meadowood Resort in the Napa Valley, that brought together many of the top names from the Rhône Valley along with the “Rhône Rangers” of California and Washington State.

But for all the energy, Syrah did not achieve the success its proponents had hoped for. I, personally, have tried to be supportive of Syrah, at least at its highest levels. Such wineries as Qupe, Donelan, Bien Nacido, Sanguis, Bonaccorsi, Babcock, Andrew Murray, Ojai, Pax, Jaffurs, Zaca Mesa, Samsara, Arkenstone and Failla do a fine job with it, vinifying the grapes more or less like Cabernet, with oak barrel aging, and sometimes some co-fermentation with Viognier, Côte-Rotie style. These are voluptuous wines, softer and rounder than Cabernet, and spicier in black pepper. They are not necessarily ageworthy, but one can hardly imagine richer red wines to drink with something like a ragout, short ribs of beef or Santa Barbara-style barbecue.

Those with sharp eyes will notice that most of the wineries I mentioned in the preceding paragraph come from Santa Barbara County. That this region, just north of Los Angeles, should do so well with Syrah is well known, but precisely why this is so is a bit of a puzzle. Certainly, the terroir is supportive. The growing season is long and dry, and Syrah thrives in both the warmer eastern portions of the Santa Ynez Valley and in the cooler Santa Rita Hills.

I think another reason why Syrah does so well there is because most vintners long ago decided not to try and compete against Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, which is a losing proposition. Many of course devote themselves exclusively to Pinot Noir, but those who decided to produce a full-bodied wine went with Syrah. Indeed, it’s no exaggeration to say that the best California Syrahs hail from Santa Barbara County.

The greatest Syrah I have tasted this year, and one of the best ever, was Qupé’s 2006 25th Anniversary Bien Nacido Vineyard X Block, which proprietor Bob Lindquist calls (on the label) “The Good Nacido.” The vineyard is, of course, in the Santa Maria Valley of Santa Barbara County. One would expect a winemaker to choose the finest lots he can in order to celebrate an occasion as significant as a quarter-century in business, and Lindquist did. Although the wine retails for $100 US, and is rare and hard to find, with fewer that 200 cases produced, it is worth a search, although I suspect very little of it will ever find its way into Europe.

Written by Steve Heimoff

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