Que? Sirah!

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Que? Sirah!

By Greg Horton

Syrah has always suffered an identity crisis. In the middle of the “Shiraz” boom a decade ago, traditional Syrah producers were forced to wring their hands and watch the grape they loved be repackaged as a high-alcohol fruit bomb. Australia suffered the consequences of relying too heavily on a particular version of Syrah (Shiraz) when they were forced to reduce production after the boom went bust.

American and French producers continued to produce Syrah with the same restraint required of this aggressive grape as they had for decades, or, in the case of France, centuries. Syrah produces huge, bold, tannic, dry wines, so subtlety in winemaking is required to produce wines with appropriate restraint. Under the best of conditions, Syrah will still be big and dense, but it’s possible to combine those two traits with elegance and complexity.

Cornas is a region in the Northern Rhone Valley of France that has produced wine for more than a millennium. For the past near century, they have produced wines that are 100 percent Syrah. These wines rely on terroir (the French idea of place) to give the wines different flavor profiles, based on geography, soil, exposure to sunlight, weather and winemaking techniques. Cornas wines score extraordinarily well with critics and wine lovers alike, and that is primarily because the traditional winemaking techniques in this
region of France produce consistently excellent wines.

Thiérry Allemand is one of the rockstar winemakers of the Northern Rhone. His story is one of a man who struggles against great odds to succeed, but it’s also one of a man who understands how to make wines with subtlety and complexity in spite of the grape he’s working with. The Cornas Reynard from Allemand might be the best Syrah available in Oklahoma. It’s layered and dense, and it rewards decanting for several hours. Syrah usually shows graphite and smoke, as well as dark fruit and minerality. The Reynard is no exception, and with grilled red meat, olives, or a charcuterie, it’s a perfect wine.

California makes Syrah in a distinctive style as well, and one of the best, most affordable choices for excellent Syrah is Qupé, a Chumash word for California’s state flower, the poppy. Bob Lindquist, the owner and winemaker, moved to California 50 years ago, and he’s been in the wine business for 40 years. Qupé Syrah avoids the imbalanced, ostentatious style of older California Syrah (too much bacon, too much smoke, etc.) and goes for a lovely balance of fruit, acidity, and tannic structure. They are remarkably affordable, especially given that they taste like a wine at two or three times the price you would expect.

Moving up the West Coast, Oregon does not produce as much Syrah as its two winemaking neighbors, but the Rockblock Syrah from Domaine Serene is an excellent example of Oregon Syrah. Good acidity from the cooler climate is combined with rich dark fruits, smoke and cocoa.

Washington is one of the most ideal climates in the world for Syrah production. The wines coming from Walla Walla and Columbia Valley are some of the best quality to price ratio wines available anywhere. The Gordon Estate Syrah will run about $20, and it is an excellent introduction to the wines of Columbia Valley. Rich, dense, and fruity (without being jammy), the Gordon will continue to open for a few hours, revealing more dark fruit, lavender, cocoa, and spices.

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