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Volume 34, Issue 9: July 2010

Syrah

The so-called “Rhône Revolution” is running into its third decade here in California, and the star of the show is still Syrah, the red grape that makes the wines from the northern Rhône region of France. Wine collectors know and admire bottlings from such well-regarded places as Côte Rotie, Hermitage and their lesser known but important neighbors in the area south of Lyon. It is there that Syrah is king and makes lots of complex, dramatic long-aging wines. That we did not have Syrah here in California in any meaningful way owes more to the confusion about varieties that has only been set right in the last couple of decades through a variety of techniques, most recently and definitively through DNA analysis.

But we do now have plenty of Syrah. Indeed, we have more Syrah than can be sold, and the grape is finding its way into all kinds of unusual blends. It is true that Syrah did once exist in Bordeaux and that the Aussies have long blended their Syrah, which they call Shiraz for no apparent good reason, with Cabernet Sauvignon. Seeing Syrah show up as a lesser but supportive portion of Cabernet here may not emulate current-day Bordelais practices, but it is neither a surprise nor a problem. Finding Syrah in Pinot Noir is a bit more bothersome, if only because the common wisdom is that Pinot should stand on its own.

It turns out that the Rhône river exits the northern region and runs south through another wine district about two hours drive, and that district is, not surprisingly called, the southern Rhône. Grenache is the leading variety there, and while Syrah is allowed in the blends that predominate in the southern Rhône in such famous areas as Chateauneuf-du-Pape, Gigondas and Vacqueyras, among others, it has traditionally been a minor or even ignored part of those blends. Yet those blends and the grapes that make them, along with the whites (excepting Viognier which we covered earlier in the year) of both north and south Rhône areas are the collective stars of the Rhône Revolution, and their appearance together in this Issue is not accidental. Nor is the appearance of Petite Sirah, a grape created in France a century and a half ago but not much planted there. It is planted here where it makes extra sturdy red wines. It turns out that Syrah is its daddy, and, more interestingly, that for the longest time, California vintners thought that Petite Sirah was actually Syrah itself.

There are short essays about those other grapes in the following pages, yet, aside from Petite Sirah, none of those others has as yet emerged in real stardom. We think we see glimmers of greatness for Grenache and Marsanne, but the sample size is still quite small. Time may see them emerge in their own rights, and thus, the wines reviewed in those sections can be thought of as possible precursors to the future. Finally, speaking of the future, our Centerfold has an essay by Associate Editor Steve Eliot about the visionary winemaker, Randall Grahm. Now too old to be called a “boy genius”, Grahm remains one of the California wine scene’s most intellectual, forward-thinking vintners.