Syrah: beyond the fruit bomb

While Merlot’s fall from grace can be traced to one line in the movie Sideways, the fall of Syrah has been more difficult to track. Australian wine, with Shiraz as the signature grape, has experienced a decline in sales over the past couple of years. Even more broadly, it’s still a tough sell: producers and retailers have repeatedly told me that save for a few appellations in the Northern Rhone, the homeland of the grape, Syrah remains a sluggish category.

I was happy to have the chance to check in with Syrah by organizing a small tasting at a private residence last week. In putting together the seven wines in the lineup, I wanted to be sure to include examples from Australia, the US and the Northern Rhone but had the usual constraint that the wines actually had to be available locally. I decided to spare the tasters the hot-climate, jammy style and the boring cheapie style since they were probably most familiar with those, especially the latter, which is poured with abandon at fundraisers and art gallery openings.

The Carlei, Heathcote Shiraz, Green Vineyards 2003 from Victoria opened our tasting. Unlike many Australian shirazes it was (a) from a cool climate, (b) older, and (c) 13.9% alcohol. It still is a big, flavorful wine but the moderate alcohol broadened the appeal of this one. The $16 price tag helped too.

Next we were off to Mendocino County, California with the multi-vineyard Tous Ensemble 2007 from Copain (about $20). The winemaker, Wells Guthrie, oversees organic viticulture and makes the wines with native yeasts. It was quite a bit lighter than the Carlei, with reticent aromas and higher acidity; some thought it a bit too light and straightforward.

Then we tried the J. L. Chave, St. Joseph, “Offerus” 2006 (about $28). Made by JL Chave Selections, the wine is from purchased fruit as opposed to estate vineyards (actually, it is often made from up to nine sources of purchased wine). There were lots of oohs and ahs over this one as it seemed to find a good balance of fruit, notes of black olives, fresh coffee grinds, good acidity, and moderate alcohol.

Next up was the Eric Texier, Cotes du Rhone, Brezeme 2007 (about $19). This 100% syrah was strikingly different for it’s restraint, especially weighing in at a scant 12% alcohol on the label. After working as a nuclear scientist, Texier turned to wine, making his first in Burgundy. It shows in this delicate, high-acid style with a dark floral lift. Some loved it while others wanted their syrah to pack more punch.

I poured the next wine blind for the group, asking them to determine if it was an old world wine or a new world one. However, the dark color and searing alcohol (15.5% on the label) made it easy for them to guess. We were back to California with a wine from Morgan Twain-Peterson, Old Lakeville Vineyard Syrah 2007 ($36). The 29-year-old’s new label, Bedrock Wine Co, has some interesting wines and I wanted to try one in this lineup. A few people liked it but most found it too overbearing. It’s worth noteing that his ’08 of the same wine has dropped the alcohol by over one percent.

Finally, we turned to two excellent and hard-to-find wines from the northern Rhone appellation of Cornas, where vines cling to steep hillsides. Our sixth wine was the excellent Cuvée Casimir 2007 ($35) by Franck Balthazar, another engineer who, in this case, came back to the family wine making fold in 2002. This cuvée comes from a parcel of 46-year-old, horse-plowed vines comes, fermented with whole clusters of grapes and then aged in 600-liter oak barrels called “demi-muids” for 18 months. This wine really showed beautifully, with notes of violets, black currants, and a grind of white pepper. It has fine balance between the acid and tannin, and even edged out the last wine in popularity.

Our final wine was the “Chaillot” 2006 (about $56) from the famed, rugged individualist Thierry Allemand. With notes of lavender, dark fruits and a certain meaty gravitas on the nose, this wine has gorgeous balance and integration of the components to make for a great texture. It was an elegant treat to top off this fun tasting.

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26 Responses to “Syrah: beyond the fruit bomb”

  1. Way to bring out the Bedrock Tyler!

  2. Washington State Syrah in your review? I think these are some of the most exciting wines being produced in the country right now (to quote Gaiter and Brecher)! If you excluded them because you cannot find them locally..then get to your local wine shop and request they carry Syrah from Washington State, you will be happy you did. For full disclosure I am the vintner and owner of Hard Row to Hoe Vineyards in North Central Washington.

  3. Tyler, Judy is absolutely correct. It’s time to shed the east coast blinders that presume that all good wine comes from California. At least one WA representative (Betz, Cayuse, K, Royal City, something!!!) should have been included if you intended to make this comprehensive. Sorry to be so strident, but…

  4. Hi Judy and Paul,

    I would have liked to include a Syrah from the Evergreen State. But, sadly, they are very hard to find at stores in Manhattan. (Paul, none of those four you suggest appears in wine-searcher query limiting results to Manhattan; Judy, neither is yours.) Maybe direct the strident tones to those who are closer to you to try to change this situation?

  5. We did a similar tasting in February, and published our findings at Check it out for a look at some other Syrahs.

  6. I am completely with Judy and Paul on the general high quality of Washington Syrah. However, it is also true that they are hard to find. I order mine direct from wineries I visited on a trip to Red Mountain-Columbia Gorge a couple of years ago. Look forward to discovering more on a trip to Walla Walla this fall. Having said that, most people just want to pick something up at their favorite wine store, which is unlikely to have small production Washington wine.

    On a side note, I’ve been enjoying rediscovering Merlot. It seems like Sideways narrowed the field back to people who like the grape and know how to grow it.

  7. Kudos on the Syrah tasting, but given that the tasting showed how good Syrah can be, why do you think it is such a tough sell these days?

  8. Hi El Jefe –

    I don’t exactly know. Some theories:

    1. The decline of Barossa/Aussie shiraz dragged down the whole category.

    2. Fatigue with the high alc fruit bomb style that has dominated New World syrah/shiraz.

    I’m open to others. Please let us know what you think! Oh, and also where we can find good syrah on closeout.

  9. I lean towards your #1. Plenty of other varieties (like Zin) are flush with fruit bombs, and that hasn’t destroyed their sale-ability.

    You can get good Syrah on my website, but it’s not on closeout 😉

  10. Dr. Vino,

    I was going to pile on with your omission of WA Syrah but given a quick internet search there wasn’t much for you to choose from.

    As for the tough sale I think it is a combo of your theories. While the fruit bomb/high alc is great in the beginning it eventually causes palate fatigue and is difficult to pair with food.

    Interestingly I have been able to ‘correct’ the lack of acidity in some of the monsters with a pinch of Cream of Tartar (Tartaric Acid) in the glass as long as the Alc is below about 15.5%. While not perfect it makes the wine enjoyable with food and beats dumping it.

  11. Dr. Vino,

    I want to note the increasing popularity of South African syrahs. Although the country has increasingly gained worldwide appreciation and support for its quality, it still remains an underappreciated region. Producers such as Rudi Schultz and Thelema have really made a name for themselves, and the region.


  12. I think Syraz is getting less popular because in the last few years, people like lighter reds better than the huge, heavy, dark, mean Syrazmachine. Nothing to do about it, but like the whole Anjou-rosé hype in the late 80’s, now it’s time for Gamay etc.

    I bet that in 10 years, Syraz is enjoying full fame again!

  13. Nice picks for this line-up. We carry some of them and are fans.

    I am not sure I agree completely on the decline of Syrah. I do believe that this belief is out there but I attribute demographics to some of that. In Los Angeles we have a very active and competitive market. I will admit that Syrah sales are mostly “handsell,” but I do find that when customers get a chance to try them, they look for more.

    Some of the trouble so far has been so many different styles to choose from, which confuses the buyer. But I have found that with a focused and a conscientious salesman, Syrah sales are just fine.

    The other big consideration is price. I sell a good amount of under $25 Syrah. Really any wine over $30 is tougher in today’s climate and Syrah at this price point is no different but to attribute a decline in Syrah by only looking at the higher pricepoints is not fair in this context.

    Some of our favorite domestic producers are Carlisle, Copain, Ojai, Holus Bolus, Novy, Arcadian, Qupe, Ramey… to name just a few. The quality of domestic Syrah is excellent and I think as more people discover them the Syrah market share will be fine.


    Jeff Zimmitti

  14. Tyler
    Very interesting tasting and thoughts on the market for syrah. I can give a New Zealand perspective as it is one of the varieities we are learning to make well. However, we have long struggled with the fact we are so very different to our neighbour, Australia. We long ago eschewed the name Shiraz for Syrah to reflect this. The New Zealand-style (or styles) are more peppery, as to be expected in a cooler climate, still pronounced fruit, more natural acidity. Quite different to most New World, in fact. However, Syrah is still a hard sell. I find it interesting, especially given a life time of lectures from France on terroir alongside criticisms of French non-varietal labels, that it is in grapes such as Syrah that French Rhone wines seem to hold up better in the market while the New World sinks.
    I suspect you are on the money with your picks as to the reasons for the decline of Syrah,to which I would just add a degree of consumer confusion as to styles and what to expect with different wines from different states/countries. This is a graoe that has many voices. Equally I suspect that this is the kind of wake up call that will force growers and winemakers passionate about Syrah to stop treating it as an unsubtle muscle wine and sort out the styles that will really show it to advantage.

  15. Tyler,

    You gonna be out at Rhone Rangers this weekend in San Francisco!??!? You’ll have plenty of great domestic syrahs from around the country to try, as well as all other rhone varieties . . .

    I’ll be pouring my tercero wines, so if you do make it out, please make sure and drop by and sa hi!


  16. Not sure your assertion about Merlot’s “fall from grace” is supported by the facts. Nielsen says, among other things: “Merlot sales, measured in both dollars and volume, have grown steadily since “Sideways” was released in 2004”

    Pinot sales are certainly up (from a low base) since 2004, and the result of that has been things like the alleged Red Bicyclette fraud and probably some unwise planting of the grape.

    Here’s where I got the Nielsen quote:,1161415.shtml#ixzz0j6dNSHKr

  17. We need some kind of exchange program between Washington and New York so that we can get some of your icewines and we can send you what some (including Paul G.)say could someday become Washington’s signature black grape, Syrah.

    I do have to admit though, that what you tasted was a good representation of styles in Syrah.

  18. It’s interesting to hear that Syrah seems to be declining, at least in terms of retail sales, because I keep reading that it is becoming a popular addition to the vineyards in many of the New World wine regions, i.e. Chile, Argentina, New Zealand. Given that a lot of these are new plantings, it may take some time for them to gain interest and favor with consumers.

  19. Retailers in Manhattan that carry K Vintners’ wines:
    Chelsea Wine Vault
    Whole Foods
    September Wines
    Bottle and Soul
    Green Grape
    Alphabet City Wine Co
    Donna Divine
    Grand Cru
    Gnarly Vines
    Big Nose Full Body
    Vestry Wines

  20. Syrahs decline is a direct correlation to three factors:

    1. Too many are overbearing fruitbombs, both California and Aussie. These are difficult to drink, much less pair with food.

    2. Price: yes you can get some of the low cost Aussie varieties, but most stuff is $30 and up and in these times forget it. Not that I though these wines were worth it anyway.

    3. Well made Syrah needs some patience to develop. I typically like to wait at least 4 years, but with early opening and decanting they can show pretty well in their youth.

    To attract buyers, the whole concept of Syrah needs to be changed and must take on more of an “Old World” balanced style. The differences in how Syrah grows and its flavor profile from the different regions (Fr/Cali/Aus) etc.. needs to be in the wine to give the interest.

    This coupled with a completely re-pricing structure is the only way to go. While the best examples of N. Rhone Syrah are ridiculous in price, there are well made examples that can be found in the under $30 category, and a few under $20. This would attract buyers.

  21. Larry Schaffer’s Syrah/Petite Sirah combo poured at the Rhone Ranger festival was killer; maybe even best of show to this always humble palate. The 2006 Syrah was also a standout.

  22. I really like Syrah however I really LOVE the rone wines from the Cornas region. Especially Auguste Clape’s wines. They are complex and layered but dont have the fruitbomb overbearing aspect that some Shirazs have…

  23. If you love Washington Syrah you must try Walter Dacon Wines. They are lovely Rhone style Syrahs from different vineyards so you can experience the terroir difference and some are done in French oak, some in American as well. No, not representing the winery…. just thoroughly enjoy the wines from this boutique winery in Shelton, WA.

  24. I use to fish Skookum Inlet quite a bit back in the 80s and 90s and am very familiar with Walter Dacon’s wines from a couple of years ago.

    Very well made wines using grapes from some of the best vineyards in the state.

  25. Wow! This is a surprise! It’s my first time in the USA in 17 yrs, so I have no idea about what people are drinking here, but I have to say that I don’t think Syrah has ever gone out of favour in Australia/Europe. The Coonawarra, one of Australia’s finest regions, produces some of the world’s best, and most delicious (peppery, berry-heavy) Syrahs. We like our wine big in Australia – full-bodied, rounded – we eat a lot of meat and Syrah is the perfect match.

  26. Twitter Comment

    Nice recap of a Syrah wine tasting by Dr. Vino – Syrah: beyond the fruit bomb [link to post] #wine

    – Posted using Chat Catcher


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