Old World vs. New World Round Six: Syrah!

Syrah is the handsome actor who isn’t just a pretty face—he wows the world with his feisty dramatic turns. Dressed up, Syrah can play big city sophisticate, luxuriating in new French oak. Dressed down and with a berry jam-filled core, he can become a comedic pretty boy character, possibly named Shiraz, before shifting again, becoming a film noir hero, cloaked in cloud of smoke yet oozing sex appeal. What a hunk. I kind of picture Syrah as the Jon Hamm of grapes. A grape so good they would use it to “Hermitagé” Bordeaux. That’s right, Syrah was used to make the BDX better. It is a Mondeuse Blanche X Dureza crossing, so likely was born in the Rhône-Alpes region, a discovery that silenced a lot of rumors like that it came from Shiraz in Iran. Or Syracuse—the Italian place not New York. It has attitude all its own but is not a New Yorker. Something to remember: IT IS NOT PETITE SIRAH. That is another grape entirely. Phew. Had to get that out. As you were. Typical tasting notes for Syrah are deep purple-y things like blackberries, blueberries or violets and boysenberries. It can also be peppery, and then the most distinguishing factor: it gets meaty and olive-y, which are tasting notes I apparently mix up in my palate memory which makes sense as I consume neither one of those things ever. Reasonably high tannins and acid will carry all of these complexities into old age elegantly. Like our movie star, Syrah just gets better with time. Before its movie star days, when it grew a few gray hairs and a strong jawline, it was a silly boy who didn’t know how to use his words. It is a later budding variety in both the vineyard and the bottle. And once poured, its reductive nature sometimes means it needs yet more time to make friends with oxygen again. Like a kid with an old soul, it needs time to grow into its wisdom. Unlike a kid, it is filled with alcohol. So, I was in pursuit of the best Syrah. I tasted my way through the Northern Rhône, Australia, California, Washington, and surprise up and comer New Zealand. Who was the darling? Who won its way into my shower? Which yes, is bad behavior on my part, taking wine in the shower, but I mentioned the masculine sex appeal of Syrah right? ------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------ NEW ZEALAND Rather than start with the old venerable makers, I am going to hit you with the surprise region. The one that wowed my palate. How I love New Zealand wines, if nothing else then for the fact that they named a region Gimblett Gravels. Which is what the soil is. Gravelly. And that gravel is super important. It drains nicely so the grapes don’t get bloated, and the stones hold on to the heat needed to ripen a grape like Syrah. 2014 Smith and Sheth Cru Omahu Syrah New World ripeness and Old (World) Spice. Created by Brian Sheth and Steve Smith (a master of wine!), who are devoted to Hawke’s Bay. With good reason. They’ve created a very unique Syrah. It has all the elements of classic Syrah (see my basic Syrah tasting notes above) but they all have a unique vibrancy and energy that makes you know they come from somewhere special. CALIFORNIA 2005 Olabisi Suisun Valley Syrah Pitch black but a ruby going on garnet-ish rim. Smelling it alternated violently between bacon fat with a smidge of white pepper, red and black cherries and some dried herbs. And then back to fat. On the palate flowers roses and candied violet jumped in and then the bacon fat came back and I LOVE wine that is different with every sip. Complex is fun. At least in wine. In a person mostly but sometimes perplexing because unlike wine you need to commit longer than a bottle. Though both are worth it. Usually. 2016 TOP “Exert” Syrah Wow oh wow. First time I met Elena Martinez, who partners with her husband Stanley Barrios to make TOP Winery wines she spoke of the importance of balance in spinning tops, life…and wine. And they know how to do it. I’ve tasted quite a few of their wines over vintages and they have a way with acid and tannin balance in all their wines from Grenache Blanc (tricky to get right!) to GSM blends to Syrah. This wine will hold up for some time, but you will not be sorry if it is in your glass now. 2012 Martian Red Shift Syrah Lighter on the palate and wallet but it still packs a tasty punch. Like someone who has stuck their hand in Kool-Aid powder, pre-sugaring, then suckerpunches you. But without the pain. They may have been snacking on olives pre-Kool-Aid prep and if you are a blind tasting savant you will know all that. You will feel wise drinking this wine too as you are supporting a woman-run winery. FRANCE In the Northern Rhône, Syrah is your stud of grapes. The only red. It has its way with the winemakers (or is it the other way around?) and varying examples of its purple-y goodness are created from the peppery, more sprightly Côte Rotie in the north to the heartier (and sometimes angrier) Cornas of the south. Syrah also figures in the Southern Rhone, but there usually in the venerable GSM blend with its chums Grenache and Mourvedre. Clifford’s notes north to south: Côte Rotie is gonna be peppery and lighter. It can be blended with 20% Viognier these days that is rare. Skipping past the white wine appellations of Condrieu and Château Grillet you hit St. Joseph which can vary wildly. Same for Crozes-Hermitage. Those two can be great value for money or not quite worth the price. Hermitage proper will be big and bold, albeit potentially blended with up to 15% Marsanne and/or Roussanne. Lastly, at least in terms of red wine appellations, we come to Cornas. It is 100% Syrah wine made here. Some people find them unsophisticated, or at least a bit brutish but I like the pain. Here a couple of my Northern Rhône favorites. 2015 Domaine Clusel-Roch Côte-Rotie Classique It could use a few more years to age but damn it is still fantastique. If I close my eyes and drink it, I imagine that I am slamming/squishing blackberries on my face while taking notes with a pencil on rock, wearing a leather jacket I spilled pepper on last time I was eating steak which for me as a vegetarian is highly un-imaginable but that is…what I get. It is deep and spicy and old-fashioned with an edge. 2013 Domaine Jean-Louis Chave Selection Farconnet The wine I want to marry, perhaps. It is rough, but gentle enough to take care of me, plying me with toast, blackberry compote and an iced mocha in the morning. And its stubble may be rough now but it will age gracefully into a tender companion. AUSTRALIA And now to the land where they renamed the grape. It is tempting to sweep all Aussie Shiraz under one big fruity bombastic parasol but…oh hey did you know Australia is very big? And wines from Hunter Valley will be very different from Barossa will be very different from McLaren Vale. Even just between Eden Valley and Barossa Valley—subregions of the Barossa Zone—Shiraz can change from fuller with more robust tannins to more Eden’s more elegant taste on the beast. Australia is also fond of using American oak. 2016 Yangarra Estate PF McLaren Vale Blueberries and caramel with tannins that do not hurt, except in the good way. I dig this winemaker, with his biodynamic ways and devotion to only Rhône grapes. Is PF for Preservative Free? OR does PF stand for Peter Fraser, the winemaker? They say the former—and they aren’t lying. They don’t even sulphur. This is one of those “natural” wines that I want to make everyone drink so they learn that “natural” can also be perfect. Penfolds Bin 28 Kalimna Shiraz Deep and rich, rich and deep. The Bin 28 Kalimna Shiraz was fruit forward and (according to my boyfriend) was a great accompaniment to the pork chop he was eating. I was eating a chocolate protein bar (we have very different diets) and can report it did okay by that. Was it tasty? Yah. WASHINGTON 2016 Savage Grace Yakima Valley Red Willow Vineyard Syrah This beguiling gem is the wine that keeps evolving, surprising and enchanting you. It seems insanely light for a Syrah at first, then jettisons brawn at you before pulling back flirtatiously and sending you flowers. What fun. It has a dark soul and a light heart. 2016 Colombia Crest Grand Estates Columbia Valley Syrah This is your value for the dollar bills basic Syrah. It will not keep you in the throes of passion but it will wash down a steak (I imagine). I’d drink it again. Okay. Who was my favorite wine? It would likely be the Hermitage. That is a wine that can TAKE ME THERE. But in terms of something I can enjoy in the hot hot heat of the shower…I’m going for the appropriately named Savage Grace which I find mostly graceful but spirited enough to merit the savage bit too. Actually, savage grace is an excellent pair of words to describe Syrah in general. And John Hamm. ------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------ Want to read more from Ellen? Check out her recent articles: May Day! May Day! Emergency Drinks in Dire Straits Pink Wine, Pink Wine Everywhere Seder Sips Old World vs. New World Round Five: Zinfandel! But Is It Vegan? Classic Pairings for the Veggie Soul: Pairing Five You can also listen to Ellen's podcast with Shaughn Buchholz, The Wine Situation here .

Vidal Estate

Gimblet Gravels Legacy Syrah 2014

Very very well done once again on the Syrah, New Zealand. This is a bowl of berries and someone cracked pepper on them put them in the sun. You’re eating them on a chilly sunny day. You’re hungry. The wine is doing a good job filling that void. — 4 years ago

Bill, Daniel and 19 others liked this


@Ellen Clifford Ellen nice article on Syrah Cheers 🍷
Ellen Clifford

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@P A thank you!!! Cheers:)

Covenant Wines

Syrah 2016

Took this down last night with the bf and we both give it a thumbs up. It is purple-y fruity flowered and I believe was friends with an oak barrel at some point in its life. Seder-friendly, I’d think. All these kosher wines are making me crave haroset. — 4 years ago

Shawn, Trixie and 12 others liked this

Smith & Sheth

Cru Omahu Syrah 2014

More seriously CRU seriously...meaty. Another what worllllldddd?! This wine will give you a turn but in the old it has new world ripeness but old world zest. Zest being peppered meat preferably pounded by someone who you cannot communicate unless you learn another language or...well I was about to come up with something odd but won’t. Blue and red fruit. Peppered bacon. Fresh acid but fatty texture. Somewhere I have way to humanize this. All over though get in I like and you probably will too. — 4 years ago

Trixie, Serge and 12 others liked this

Martian Ranch & Vineyard

Red Shift Santa Barbara County Syrah 2012

Yes! Yes! Yes! How thee to Martian. Plum, spice, leather, medium body, smooth without overly coating the tongue. Sublime. — 8 years ago

Judith liked this

Columbia Crest

Grand Estates Columbia Valley Syrah 2016

Rich, simple. Basic Syrah and good value for money. Chocolate-y and meaty so I guess those of y’all into bacon brownies would dig it. — 4 years ago

Trixie, Mark and 11 others liked this

Domaine Jean-Louis Chave

J.L. Chave Sélection Farconnet Hermitage Syrah 2013

Rad already. It’s baby’s first Hermitage and baby is no longer in the corner! She’s dancing in the...well her home. To Sia. I adore Syrah and although I bet in a few years this will take on some meatier old leather notes and maybe the tannins will knit together more I like it a little rough. This wine is sexy stubble. It’s roughing me a little at the same time as handing me toast with blackberry jam and an iced mocha. Meow Hermitage. — 4 years ago

Stanley, Eric and 24 others liked this
Ron R

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I find that at the superficial level, metaphor is funny, but at a deeper level, there is often a kernel of truth...
Ellen Clifford

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@Ron R that’s why it’s funny I guess—I strongly believe: in truth, comedy!
Tyler Martinelli

Tyler Martinelli

Sexy stubble you say?? I need this!!!!😍

Yangarra Estate

PF Preservative Free McLaren Vale Shiraz 2016

And onwards with wines I don’t try enough. Ugh studying. I’ve decided blueberries are my “tell” for Syrah/Shiraz is and ripeness/caramel tells me it’s Australia. Plus tannins no matter where made. I remain a Francophile though Eight Arms Cellars makes some cool Syrah blends (the Tentacle not the octopod) but I can’t say I dig Shiraz. Tho I respect this. Could be good with chocolate covered caramel bites. But I have no werthers alas. — 5 years ago

Paul, Chris and 15 others liked this

Savage Grace

Yakima Valley Red Willow Vineyard Syrah 2016

Fascinating. If I were blinded on it I might think it was a Grenache. It’s silky and elegant and just when you think it’s all fruit and flowers you swirl your glass one more time and a black olive catapults out. Not because you utilized physics to get an object out of a glass without inverting it. Sorry. But the smell of olives is like the chaser to the bouquet. So essentially if syrah were a goth martini (black olive garnish) it would be this but one the higher vermouth percentage scale. Please try it. — 4 years ago

David, Ira and 19 others liked this


Côte-Rôtie Syrah 1915

Needs time but already pretty damn wise. It’s the first year grad student already in tweed with a pipe. Sexy and old and young all at once. Oh and also you two are picking blackberries illegally on campus at midnight. — 4 years ago

Aaron, Bill and 24 others liked this
Ellen Clifford

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@Jay Kline haha, long live the Syrah...
MaJ CappS

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Oh, hells yeah.


Exert Syrah Blend

The fruit. The tannins. The acid. The balance. CANNOT drink enough TOP. Chocolate and blueberries on the nose. Deeper berries and plums and straight up velvet tannins. The perfect tannins. Hit you when you sip. Elena Martinez and Stanley Barrios are the genius. — 5 years ago

Severn, Jake and 17 others liked this


Hrm. They said decant 4 hours of serving now. Ain’t nobody got time for that!
Bill Bender

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@Eric Shanks was kind enough to send me a bottle of the Rousanne. I need to open it pronto!
Ellen Clifford

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@Bill Bender oh my gosh you are in for a treat