I just finished tasting a flight of Syrah, and every sip was a journey all its own.
There was the unctuous, lusciously ripe style, loaded with stewed fruit, baking spice and smoked meat, with ample acid and tannin to balance the heft. There was the delicate, floral approach, light on its feet with elegant aromas of violet and lavender floating atop a chalky, chiseled frame. And then there was the more extreme expression, laced in iodine, bay leaf, olive tapenade and cracked peppercorn, those savory elements far outshining a backdrop of elderberry jam. I wasn’t surprised. Syrah flights are like that every time—sliding from hedonistic and rich to angular and intellectual, occasionally touching on all of those points in the same glass. No matter the style, they’re almost uniformly of a high quality, scoring consistently better than their red wine counterparts, at least on my scale. And that’s without any extended aging, but I’ve found Syrah to be the most interesting performer from the cellar, as time tends to add extra harmony to those distinctive flavors and aromas.
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Even though I taste an endless array of stunning Pinot Noirs from across the Central Coast as a wine reviewer for Wine Enthusiast, I still proclaim Syrah to be my favorite red grape. I’m not alone. Many wine experts, from other critics and winemakers to sommeliers and wine buyers, love Syrah just as intently. And yet, compared to other varieties, it continues to remain a part of the supporting cast, hidden behind the superstars Cab, Pinot and even Mr. Red Blend.
Or at least that’s what I thought, based on years of hearing the same thing. At first, I proposed this article as yet another argument as to why the American public should be paying more attention to the grape. But I soon found that my perception needed a recalibration.
I was right that Syrah is nowhere near challenging the big boys. But I was happy to learn that, after nearly two decades of overblown hope and resulting heartache, the grape is settling into a comfortable seat at the table. Sure, Syrah may be more like the quirky aunt than the barrel-chested grandfather of the global wine family, but producers are realizing that’s perfectly alright. She’s more interesting anyway, and finally enough modern wine lovers think so, too.
Kick Out the Jams
“At the very high end of the market, there’s always been demand for Syrah,” explains Keith Mabry, who’s imported and sold European wine for K&L Wine Merchants in Hollywood for 17 years. He’s referring to wines from the Northern Rhône, where vintners struggle to grow Syrah on steep, rocky slopes that are constantly eroding.
“It’s just a venue that does not allow for large production,” he says, “so they tend to be consistently more expensive.”
Finding entry-level Syrah from the Old World was almost impossible. “There wasn’t a lot of really good $12 Syrah on the shelf—you had to spend $30 to buy into the category to learn about it,” says Mabry. “That got in the way of the initial success of the category.”
There was one exception. “For decades, the only stuff that sold in huge volumes that was cheap and well reviewed was Australian Shiraz,” Mabry says. But that jammy style eventually caused confusion in the market, as consumers couldn’t tell whether the Syrah they were buying would be ripe or restrained.
That didn’t stop California vintners from thinking Syrah could be the next big thing, emboldened by the fact that the grape can grow anywhere. Plantings soared through the 1990s, often in hot regions where Syrah was productive but not particularly interesting. Then the film Sideways came out, exploding the popularity of Pinot Noir just when all that new Syrah was ready for market. Suddenly, there was a glut, the media took note, and people started saying that Syrah smelled like lost money.
No one clung to that roller coaster tighter than Bob Lindquist. In 1982, he founded Qupé Wine Cellars as a Syrah-based brand, but eventually lost the label to investors for good in 2019 after bringing on partners six years earlier, in part due to the financial woes that the grape presented over the decades.
“Syrah seemed like the natural path,” says Lindquist, who now makes Syrah and more under the Lindquist Family Wines label. “I loved the variety and there was so little being done with it in California. It just seemed like a good idea. I still think it was a good idea. But I laugh to think: If I had done Pinot Noir and Chardonnay and just stuck with those two—who knows where Qupé would have gone eventually?”
He always enjoyed support from influential retailers and restaurants but never saw the grape catch on with the broader market. “Nobody has done a Meiomi-style Syrah and had it take off, which would help the category,” says Lindquist.
He’s intimately aware of Syrah’s inherent dilemma: The obscure sensory qualities that appease experts are a major reason why it fails to attract a wider audience. “In an extreme cool climate, Syrah can be a little weird,” admits Lindquist. “I love that character, but Joe Consumer doesn’t necessarily appreciate the exotic Syrah. They tend to prefer the fruit-forward side.”
Sommelier-turned-winemaker Hayden Felice never had trouble selling Syrah during his years of running restaurants in New York City, Los Angeles and Santa Barbara. “Maybe that black olive and bacon fat and smoky, gamy quality doesn’t appeal to everyone,” says Felice. “But there’s so much more character to the grape itself that I never felt it to be that hard of a sell.”
Yet as a producer who makes Syrah as well as Pinot Noir and Chardonnay for his brand Trippers & Askers, Felice is facing the challenge firsthand. “Pinot is a lot easier to sell than Syrah for us,” says Felice. Yet the prices for his Sta. Rita Hills fruit are rising. “When I started, Syrah was a safer investment, because you could sell a little cheaper,” he says. “But now you are competing with single-vineyard Pinot prices, which is harder to do with Syrah.”
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Another notable newcomer to making Syrah is Maayan Koschitzky, who built his career making Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon for Screaming Eagle and numerous Phillippe Melka projects. But Syrah was his “first love,” so he added a bottling from Bien Nacido Vineyard in the Santa Maria Valley to his La Pelle Wines lineup. (He also makes some at his winery in Israel, where he’s from.)
“I always loved the diversity of Syrah, and how it can really showcase where it’s grown and the style of the winemaking,” says Koschitzky. “Each wine is such a showcase of the varietal, the place and the people.”
Syrah is indeed more variable than Cab, and remains a bit harder to sell to a wide audience because of that, even as it penetrates into the more expert market. “It’s a young industry in California,” says Koschitzky, who’s optimistic about the grape’s future. “It makes sense that it takes more time to identify the areas and educate the consumer about different wine regions.”
Niche is Nice
One such region is Ballard Canyon, where Peter Stolpman’s family gambled on Syrah when planting their vineyard in the 1990s and then spearheaded the creation of this appellation, the first in the country dedicated to Syrah and other Rhônes. They endured the leaner years, but now can’t keep up with the Syrah demand, even though they’re producing seven different bottlings each year, with three more in development.
“This is our third vintage in a row with price increases and there’s no hesitation from our distributors,” said Stolpman. “It continues to sell to the point that we’re not really making enough of it. As a niche variety, I feel like it’s super healthy.” Stolpman is seeing the steady interest nationwide and into Asia and Europe, where even Paris accounts reorder multiple times per year.
He credits younger generations of wine lovers. “They’re bored with what their parents drank,” he says. “The current generation of restaurant diners and wine buyers is much more open to varieties other than the fighting few. It feels like less of a battle than it’s ever been. They want geeky, unfiltered Sauv Blanc, and Mondeuse and Chenin Blanc. It’s important for them to drink different and to introduce friends to something that they might not know about.”
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Stolpman is doubling down on Syrah by planting “preclonal material,” old-vine cuttings that are becoming popular in France as well. Yields are shockingly low, but that only confirms the resulting Syrahs will be special. Says Stolpman, “We’re betting that consumers will want $100 bottles of Syrah.”
With ties to Château Beaucastel in the Southern Rhône, where Grenache and blends are king, Tablas Creek doesn’t make much standalone Syrah. But proprietor Jason Haas believes that the grape is in a much healthier place, in large part because of those tough years.
“Because of the difficulties 10 to 15 years ago, if you see a Syrah out in the market, it is about as close to a guarantee of it being high-quality as you could possibly ask for,” explains Haas, noting that acreage has steadily declined and focused on cooler areas, as evidenced by the many Pinot Noir producers who also make Syrah. “Anybody who has been persistent in making Syrah at this point is doing it because they love it, and they’re loving it despite the fact that they’ve been told at every level, from their wholesaler to the brand manager to their retailers, that Syrah is a hard sell. Anybody who’s doing Syrah is doing it because they believe in it.”
Perhaps the grape’s funkier side may never make it mainstream, but that’s okay. “Maybe Syrah was never meant to be a massmarket grape,” says Haas. “Maybe it was meant to be established, but still niche. Not every wine needs to be the next big thing.”
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Last Updated: October 2, 2023