Excellent queries

Matt Kramer is as good as it gets in the wine-writing world. His latest masterwork includes questions I have asked before, either in conversation or in print. I’ll use this link, since I think the original, at Wine Spectator’s site, might be subscriber-only (can’t tell since I am a subscriber).

And since I can’t link to my 2008 column on syrah because a certain newspaper website’s search engine is amidst a desperately needed overhaul, I’ll reprint it here (especially since nothing has changed, and I am now, as I was then, just as flummoxed as Mr. Kramer):

Syrah still struggles to catch on, inexplicably

Que, syrah? In contemporary parlance, that translates as “what up, syrah?” and it’s a question that perplexes many wine lovers, present company included.

Wine folks have been saying that syrah was going to be “the next big thing” for, oh, about a decade. Hasn’t happened. And no one I talked to could explain why.

Stores don’t get behind the wines, a distributor would say. Customers just don’t seem to want it, or prefer a cheaper shiraz (the Australian name for this varietal), a merchant would counter. What they agreed upon was that it has nothing to do with the quality of the product, that there are some seriously tasty syrahs coming from California and Washington at sundry price points.

But a lot of them are gathering dust at local distributors’ warehouses. The Rocca Family syrah won universal raves at a recent wine symposium in Napa, Calif., and even has a local connection (Mary Rocca was once a dentist in Rochester). For several years, friends, family members and yours truly have been wowed by Spencer Roloson’s syrahs, especially La Herradura, at restaurants in San Francisco and Nashville.

But just try finding these wines at a local store or on a restaurant wine list. (Better yet, ask your favorite merchant to
get you some.) Both retail for about $50, which ain’t cheap. But most good Napa cabs sell for more than that, and while I’m quite fond of those wines, syrahs are vastly more interesting, varied and food-friendly.

Indeed, in the $25 to $50 range, West Coast syrah kicks the collective back ends of cabernets, merlots and pinot noirs. These wines are almost universally rich, deep, spicy, structured and nuanced. That’s one reason winemakers love this varietal and continue to plant and make it, even when their profit margins are much higher with cabernet.

Among brands well worth seeking out are Ojai, Qupe, Copain, JC Cellars and two Sonoma wineries owned by former Minnesotans, Bella and Duxoup. At a higher price point ($65 or so), the Cayuse from Washington and Shafer’s “Relentless” are superb.

And yes, there are less spendy syrahs — Cline, McManis, Cycles Gladiator — that provide a fitting introduction to this legendary grape.

How legendary? Well, the Aussies call the grape shiraz after the Persian town from whence it originated, according to some. That’s open to debate, but we do know that the world’s oldest wine sample — dating to 5000 B.C. — was found near Shiraz, now Iran’s fourth-largest city.

Whatever its origins, the grape found its way to southern France, where it has found profound expression in the northern Rhone region, most notably those labeled Cornas, Cote Rotie and Hermitage (not to be confused with Grange Hermitage, Australia’s foremost shiraz). In the southern Rhone, syrah is one of the blending grapes used in Chateauneuf-du-Pape.

Just over a century ago, a Rhone nursery wedded syrah and a grape called peloursin to create petit sirah, which is also known as dourif and … well, now I’m starting to understand why consumers might be confused about syrah. Thankfully, there’s nothing befuddling about what’s in the bottle.

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