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Syrah is the primary (sometimes sole) grape variety used to make the famous red Rhône wines of Côte Rotie and Hermitage and also the component that gives backbone and structure to most Rhône blends, including Chateauneuf du Pape.

Syrah leaf photo.Syrah cluster photo.Although cultivated since antiquity, competing claims to the origin of this variety have it either being transplanted from Persia, near the similarly-titled city of Shiraz, or to being a native vine of France. Starting in 1998, combined research of the University of California at Davis and the French National Agronomy Archives in Montpellier proved syrah is indeed indigenous to France. DNA profiling proved syrah to be a genetic cross of two relatively obscure grapes, the white mondeuse blanc and the black dureza.

More than half the world's total Syrah acreage is planted in France, but it is also a successful grape in Australia (called Shiraz or Hermitage), South Africa, California and, increasingly, Washington state. The syrah vine does well within a fairly wide range of seasonal average temperatures on the warmer side, between 60° and 68° F.

Syrah first came to California in 1878, imported by J.H. Drummond. After a couple of decades during which a few producers made these grapes into wine labeled "Hermitage", most of the state's syrah was destroyed by phylloxera before 1900. There was no further mention of syrah in California until the University of California at Davis advised growers against planting it mid-20th Century.

The Christian Brothers winery planted four acres in 1959. Joseph Phelps purchased the fruit and was impressed enough by the results to plant six acres of his own, from which he produced a 1974 vintage. Gary Eberle planted syrah in Paso Robles at his family's Estrella River Vineyard in 1975. McDowell Valley Vineyards discovered a patch of old vines syrah on their Mendocino property in 1979.

Gradually, more growers and wineries around California added syrah to their portfolios. Although slow to cross the threshold of popular acceptance, syrah became one of California's most planted varieties around the cusp of the millennial transition. In 1984, there were less than 100 acres, but by 2010, over 19,000 vineyard acres in the state were growing syrah.

Some of California's Syrah was propagated from Hermitage in the Rhône Valley and some from Australian cuttings. Plantings range over all of the Golden State's temperature zones, from the coolest to the warmest, with San Luis Obispo, San Joaquin, Sonoma, Monterey, Madera and Santa Barbara together accounting for more than half the total acreage.

Syrah vines are relatively productive, yet not too vigorous. Like Merlot, it is sensitive to coulure, and although Syrah buds fairly late, it is a mid-season ripener. Syrah requires heat to get fully ripe, but can lose varietal character when even slightly overripe. The berry is thick-skinned and dark, almost black.

Syrah forms intense wines, with deep violet, nearly black color, chewy texture and richness, and often alcoholic strength, with aromas that tend to be more spicy than fruity. Although plainly impacted by vineyard and appellation temperature, Syrah style, even from cooler climates, is typically sumptuous and lavish, sometimes described as "voluptuous"; one famous maker even says "slutty".

Although many New World producers make stand-alone bottlings, Syrah often provides color, richness, and tannin to Rhône-styled blends with Grenache, Mourvédre, and, as more plantings become available, Counoise and Cinsault.

*Typical Syrah Smell and/or Flavor Descriptors
*Typicity depends upon individual tasting ability and experience and is also affected by terroir and seasonal conditions, as well as viticultural and enological techniques, so this list is neither comprehensive nor exclusive, merely suggestive.

Varietal Aromas/Flavors:

Processing Bouquets/Flavors:

FRUIT: black currant, blackberry

TERROIR: musk, civet, truffle, earth

FLORAL: grass

OAK (light): vanilla, coconut, sweet wood

SPICE: black pepper, licorice, clove, thyme, bay leaf

OAK (heavy): oak, smoke, toast, tar

HERBAL: sandalwood, cedar

BOTTLE AGE: cedar, cigar box, earth, leather

Although the popularity of Syrah has grown, it has not yet reached the levels of acceptance for Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot, in spite of frequent industry predictions of Syrah being the next big thing. Our own tasting panel's Pinot Noir partisanship belies the fact that each time we review Syrahs we conclude that, for both sensual appeal and great value, we should drink this varietal more often.

by Jim LaMar

The first meeting of an annually-planned Syrah Symposium was held on California's Central Coast in May, 2007.

1. Jancis Robinson (ed), Oxford Companion to Wine, 3rd Edition, (Oxford University Press: London) 2006

2. Benjamin Lewin, Wine Myths and Reality, (Vendage Press: Dover, DE) 2010

3. Gerald Asher, Vineyard Tales - Reflections on Wine, (Chronicle Books: San Francisco) 1996

4. Jancis Robinson (ed), Jancis Robinson's Guide to Wine Grapes, (Oxford University Press: New York) 1996

5. L. Peter Christensen, Nick K. Dokoozlian, M. Andrew Walker, James A Wolpert, et all. Wine Grape Varieties in California (University of California, Agricultural and Natural Resources Publications: Oakland) 2003

6. Julia Harding, Jancis Robinson and José Vouillamoz. Wine Grapes: A Complete Guide to 1,368 Vine Varieties, Including Their Origins and Flavours. London: Allen Lane/Penguin and New York: Ecco/Harper-Collins, 2012

7. Steven Spurrier & Michel Dovaz, Academie du Vin, Complete Wine Course (G.P. Putnam & Sons, New York) 1983

8. Charles Sullivan, A Companion to California Wine: An Encyclopedia of Wine and Winemaking from the Mission Period to the Present (University of California Press: Berkeley) 1998

9. Harvey Steiman, Wine Spectator's: The Essentials Of Wine, (Wine Spectator Press: New York) 2000

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Page created April 8, 2003; last updated December 3, 2015
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