While the Rhône, Australia and California are the leaders when it comes to Syrah production, the grape has carved out impressive niches around the world. Other areas are showing dramatic improvements in quality along with startling increases in vineyard plantings.
South Africa has a long history with Syrah, and may be one of the most promising regions for the variety. "It works well in a hot climate and can also produce interesting wines in a cooler climate," says David Trafford, owner and winemaker of de Trafford, referring to the grape's versatility. De Trafford's Shiraz Stellenbosch 2000 (93, $40) is a compelling example of what the grape can do in South Africa. South Africa had less than 3,400 acres of Syrah planted in 1997; today there are nearly 20,000 acres. The typical South African Syrah is in between the ripe, full-blown Aussie style and the more elegant, mineral- and meat-driven Rhône style.
"A lot of wineries produce their flagship wine now from Shiraz along with Cabernet and Merlot, whereas in the past they were strictly Bordeaux [variety] driven," notes Charles Back, owner of Fairview Estate, who has been producing wine since 1978. "And it's the main grape in our portfolio."
Fairview's portfolio of Syrah is ambitious, with several different bottlings. Led by the Shiraz Paarl Solitude 2001 (92, $30) and Shiraz Paarl Beacon 2001 (91, $30), Fairview is proving that South Africa has plenty of terroir for Syrah.
South Africa's top Syrahs come primarily from Stellenbosch along with the nearby Paarl region. In addition to de Trafford and Fairview, producers such as Neil Ellis, Rust en Vrede, Spice Route (also owned by Back) and Glen Carlou are having success with the grape. As South African producers gear up for a run at the U.S. market, plantings are on the rise, and consumers can expect a growing number of Syrahs coming their way from the Cape. Washington state initially made its name among consumers with Merlot, and its history with Syrah is relatively short. David Lake of Columbia Winery made the first Washington Syrah in 1988 from vines he convinced Mike Sauer to grow in Yakima Valley's Red Willow Vineyard.
Today, our latest tasting report on the region (see "Washington's Sleek Reds," Oct. 15) counts as many Syrahs scoring 90 points or better as it does Merlots. Plantings are on the rise here too, with more than 3,000 acres in the ground; in 1997, all of 280 acres were bearing.
Cayuse Vineyards makes some of Washington's best Syrahs, and French-born winemaker Christophe Baron is symbolic of its progressive image. After winemaking stints in Oregon, New Zealand and Australia, Baron came upon a site in Washington's Walla Walla Valley. "It looked just like [the soil of] Châteauneuf," says Baron of its similarity to the famous Southern Rhône appellation, with "small stones the size of fists. I knew it would be perfect for Syrah."
Baron's hunch is being borne out -- the Cayuse Syrah Walla Walla Valley En Cerise Vineyard 2000 (94, $45) and Syrah Walla Walla Valley Cailloux Vineyard 2000 (92, $45) have achieved cult status, with the winery's entire production selling out to its mailing list.
Washington Syrahs have common threads. Most bottlings are fruit-forward, with bright acidity; the flavors cover a wide spectrum, from blackberry and plum to pomegranate, black pepper, olive, floral and mineral notes.
Meanwhile, in the Southern Hemisphere, Aurelio Montes, one of Chile's most respected and experienced winemakers, used some of the best parts of his Apalta vineyard in the Colchagua region to plant a few acres of Syrah vines in 1995. "The wines were so generous, and the ripeness came so naturally," says Montes about the initial results. "I was really impressed."
The move was noteworthy, since the area is a prime spot for high-end Cabernet production. The move also paid off -- the Vi-a Montes Folly Santa Cruz 2001 (93, $78) is a small-production Syrah which, like South Africa's de Trafford, provides an impressive benchmark for the region.
Other wineries are taking notice. Casa Lapostolle, which initially made a name for itself with its Cuvée Alexandre Merlot and Chardonnay bottlings, debuted its first Syrah this past year -- the Casa Lapostolle Syrah Rapel Valley Cuvée Alexandre 2001 (91, $20). Made from vines that were grafted over to Syrah just a few years ago, the initial release was fewer than 1,000 cases, with plans to ramp up production quickly.
As elsewhere, Chile has seen a dramatic increase in vineyard plantings of Syrah -- from 496 acres in 1997 to more than 5,400 today. Chile's Syrah profile is taking shape, with wines that offer plush textures and intriguing notes of spice, meat, blackberry and herbs.
New World regions with burgeoning industries aren't the only ones that are jumping on the Syrah bandwagon. Old World regions with long histories of their own are also looking to the grape more and more.
Carlos Falcó, Marqués de Griñon, is generally credited with bringing attention to Syrah in Spain, a country with stubborn wine traditions grounded in the Rioja and Ribera del Duero reds made from the Tempranillo grape. Falcó planted Syrah in 1991 on his Dominio de Valdepusa outside of Madrid and claims to have made the first varietal bottling in 1993. His Syrah Vi-o de Mesa de Toledo Dominio de Valdepusa 1999 (92, $33) represents his best effort to date. It has inspired others; the Osborne family of Sherry fame has bought land near Falcó's Valdepusa estate and planted 1,200 acres of vines, one-third of them to Syrah.
In Jumilla, a small area in the southeast corner of the country, Syrah delivers gutsy versions that are solid values. The Casa Castillo Jumilla Valtosca 2001 (89, $19) and Agapito Rico Syrah Jumilla Carchelo 2001 (83, $12) are examples. In Tarragona, the Joan d'Anguera bodega features Syrah prominently in its blends, which also include Cabernet Sauvignon and other grapes.
In France, Syrah is expanding beyond its traditional home in the Rhône Valley into the region known as Languedoc, which encompasses a broad arc of territory in south-central France from Nîmes to Perpignan.
Today, most of the region's best wines come primarily from the Coteaux du Languedoc appellation, and are blends of Syrah, Mourvèdre and Grenache. The Languedoc's best Syrahs show Rhône-like firmness and concentration of flavors at a fraction of the price. The Château de Flaugergues Coteaux du Languedoc La Méjanelle Cuvée Sommelière 2000 (92, $13), is a blend of mostly Syrah (with some Grenache) that receives no oak treatment. It presents pure black fruit flavors with the meaty element that distinguishes Old World Syrahs.
Syrah has also found a home in the vineyards of Italy. Italy's Mediterranean climate allows Syrah to perform well from Sicily up through Tuscany. The Planeta Syrah Sicilia 2000 (88, $40) and Tenimenti Luigi d'Alessandro Syrah Cortona Il Bosco 2001 (92, $40) are examples.
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