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Syrah Becomes a Superstar

The 2001 vintage succeeds in both north and south

Per-Henrik Mansson
Posted: January 5, 2004

Rhône Valley patriarchs (from left) Auguste Clape, Marcel Guigal and Gérard Chave.
 
Syrah Around the Globe:
 
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California
 
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As the town's bell tower tolls 2 a.m., winemaker Jean-Michel Gerin gets behind the wheel of his car and gears up for another long day in the service of Syrah. Yet he's not up this early to tend his vines in Côte-Rôtie, above his winery in the Northern Rhône commune of Ampuis. He's driving to Priorat, Spain, for the day.

Gerin is making the 500-mile round trip to check on a vineyard project he created in 2000 with two other winemakers who grow Syrah in France. The three friends take turns at the wheel. By sunrise, they pass Barcelona and turn southwest toward Priorat.

By 8:30 a.m. they are at work on steep hillsides in the village of Torroja del Priorat, where they have planted 15 acres, half to Syrah. Their 37-acre property is close to vineyards owned by local star winemakers Álvaro Palacios and René Barbier. At the end of the day, Gerin and his friends, Frenchman Laurent Combier of Domaine Combier in Crozes-Hermitage and German Peter Fischer of Château Revelette in Coteaux d'Aix-en-Provence, drive back home.

"It's a hellish schedule. When the Spaniards saw our trio show up, work, and return home in the same day, they said, 'here come the infernales.' It stuck, and we have named our estate Trio Infernal," says Gerin, 42.

The energetic Gerin finds the endurance and motivation to make the 24-hour trek several times a year. "Not that I know all about Côte-Rôtie, but I felt I had gone full circle, and I needed a new challenge. I would love to make a 100 percent Syrah cuvée in Spain and compare it with [Syrah from] different regions," says Gerin, who was encouraged by the locals' warm reception. "When we told Barbier of our project, he said, 'We wait for you, you come to us and we will help you.' Their welcome was extraordinary."

Syrah is the world's hottest wine today, and Gerin belongs to a community of wine professionals who are expanding the frontiers of this red grape variety. Their increasing success at making wines across a wide spectrum of styles and price points has seduced consumers, who show a growing interest for the grape's appealing diversity of fruit, spices and textures.

The synergy between producers and consumers might pave the way for a global phenomenon in red wine: Syrah is shaping up as bigger than Pinot Noir, even bigger than the ubiquitous Cabernet Sauvignon or the popular Merlot.

Pioneers are expanding Syrah across myriad climates and soil types, conquering new terroirs in Australia and South Africa, Italy and California, New Zealand and Washington, Chile and Spain. And acreage is growing rapidly in France, the traditional home of the grape and the country that for many people still sets the standard for the most balanced Syrahs in the world.

Syrah is distinctive in the hands of a perfectionist such as Jean-Louis Chave, whose winery in the Hermitage district has been passed from father to son since 1481. The 1995 J.-L. Chave Ermitage Cathelin (98, $130 on release) embodies the character of the grape in a way that inspires winemakers around the world, marrying fresh acidity with voluptuous texture, delivering an ethereal complexity of earth, game, grilled meat and berry and floral aromas.

"We can feel the phenomenon: 15 years ago people went to Bordeaux or Burgundy, but now we have a lot of visitors in Côte-Rôtie," says Gerin. "There is a Syrah renaissance."

The Syrah revival is documented by the explosive growth in acreage around the world, spreading out from the rugged hills of Hermitage and Côte-Rôtie. In France, according to projections, Syrah will have come from behind to pass Cabernet Sauvignon in 2003. This shift seemed impossible a few years back, but the race has grown tighter as Syrah has invaded the undulating plains and arid côteaux in southern France from the Côtes du Rhône to Languedoc and Roussillon.

Back in 1968, Syrah covered 6,600 acres in France, a fifth of the figure for Cabernet Sauvignon. Syrah's exponential growth has closed the gap. By 2000, Syrah covered 133,424 acres, only 3,845 acres less than Cabernet Sauvignon, according to the Cadastre Viticole Français and the Casier Viticole Informatisé.

Syrah acreage has passed Cabernet because French winegrowers have planted more Syrah than Cabernet in the last few years, according to scientist Jean-Michel Boursiquot. Boursiquot, 45, director of Etablissement National Technique pour l'Amélioration de la Viticulture, collaborated with Carole Meredith at the University of California, Davis, on research that determined the origin of Syrah a few years ago.

As of 2003, Syrah vineyards amount to more than 287,000 acres globally, divided between France (140,000 acres), Australia (103,000 acres), South Africa (20,000 acres), California (16,000 acres), Chile (5,400 acres), Washington (3,000 acres) and Italy (2,500 acres and counting). Syrah also grows in Spain and Switzerland's Valais region.

In California, no other red grape has come even close to Syrah in growth over the recent decade, during which Syrah went from about 1,200 acres to 16,054 acres in 2002, a 13-fold jump. During the same time, hot red varieties of the day such as Merlot, Zinfandel and Pinot Noir saw slower growth, according to California Agricultural Statistics Service.

In Australia, a dramatic turnaround led to Syrah becoming the country's most important grape. Twenty years ago, the Australians had lost faith in Shiraz and were uprooting the vineyards. Between 1980 and 1990, Shiraz acreage dropped by almost half, to 12,775 acres. But as Shiraz made from the country's sun-drenched, gnarled old vines became a hot item, the Australian's switched strategy. By 2003, Shiraz acreage had expanded eight-fold according to Australian Wine and Brandy Commission.

It's not just that Syrah enjoys strong growth within the frontiers of the world's leading wine regions -- international winemakers are tying the variety's various strongholds closer together as they cross borders to make Syrah or embark on joint ventures.

Michel Chapoutier, a Northern Rhône vintner admired for his white and red Hermitages, produces Shiraz at three estates in Australia: Tournon in Mount Benson; Cambrien in Heathcote; and Faa in Pyrenees. Australian winemaker Brian Croser, who recently sold his Petaluma wine group to Lion-Nathan, has a deal with Stimson Lane to make Syrah in Washington.

Syrah plays a major role in joint ventures involving Robert Mondavi and Rosemount, one of Southcorp's Australian wineries. Ian Shepherd makes Talomas in California and Kirralaa in Australia. Their best wine so far is Kirralaa Shiraz Indelible Reserve 2001 (91, $50). Frenchman Stéphan Asseo, 43, left a 20-year career in Bordeaux to settle in the windswept hills of Paso Robles, on California's Central Coast, where he founded L'Aventure winery in 1998 and sells Syrah.

Also in Paso Robles, the Perrin family of Château Beaucastel in Châteauneuf-du-Pape created Tablas Creek in the late 1980s with their U.S. importer, Robert Haas. The Syrah trail also loops back to France: Longtime Napa winemaker and Frenchman Bernard Portet is now making Syrah-based reds at Domaine de Nizas in the Languedoc.

Many factors have driven growers to boost acreage at home or plant Syrah in uncharted territory -- love for the wine, a pioneer spirit, a taste for risk and adventure. For many the gamble was worth taking because Syrah became a lifeline economically or emotionally.

Massimo d'Alessandro, 62, an architect from Rome, credits Syrah for giving him a new lease on life. Back in the 1980s, d'Alessandro felt depressed about his profession. Then he started to experiment with Syrah in Tuscany.

He convinced his father, Luigi, a businessman, now deceased, who owned a 345-acre farm in Tuscany, to experiment with quality wine. The estate lies a few miles outside the hillside town of Cortona, in southern Tuscany, where mixed agriculture was the rule and rustic wines were produced for local consumption. But d'Alessandro hoped he would find a fine wine variety that would excel in the area's dry and hot summer and moisture-retaining clay soils.

D'Alessandro and his brother Francesco planted an experimental 12-acre vineyard in 1988. In it, they cultivated 25 varieties and clones, including Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Sangiovese, Mourvèdre, Grenache, Gamay and Syrah. "It was hard to know where all of this would lead us. Tuscany equals Sangiovese, so I thought it would be that," says d'Alessandro.

They didn't have to wait long for the answer: The first vintages demonstrated that Syrah was the better partner with the microclimate and terroir.

"I was so surprised by the refined quality of 3-year-old vines," says d'Alessandro. "The wine was dark and violetlike in color, and it had spices and rich fruit." The winery, Tenimenti Luigi d'Alessandro, produced just a few hundred bottles of its first commercial Syrah, from the experimental vineyard, in 1992.

Encouraged by the wines, and the critics' reviews, d'Alessandro did what Syrah trailblazers all over the world tend to do when they believe that their place is the recipient of the holy grail -- he threw caution to the wind and went for broke.

D'Alessandro uprooted 148 acres of vines planted to Trebbiano and Sangiovese that made "terrible" wines. Between 1990 and 2002, he planted 123 acres of high-density vineyards, mostly Syrah (with some Viognier and Chardonnay for a white blend). The investments total $8 million in 15 years, he says. Profits are years away, he adds.

"We were the first family in Italy to gamble all on Syrah," he says. The winery now grows more than 100 acres of Syrah and produces a regular Syrah and the flagship Il Bosco Cortona; the 2001 Il Bosco (92, $40) is a full-bodied, dark-colored Syrah with flint, blackberries, black pepper and game.

Today, other winemakers are interested in making Syrah in the Cortona DOC, where 330 acres are now planted to this grape, almost two-thirds of which belong to Antinori, which bought land in the area in the 1990s and is releasing a new Syrah.

"It's important for an architect to see his design activity lead to concrete results," says d'Alessandro. "Now, I can see how our vineyards have changed the landscape of Cortona. My passion for wine gave me harmony; Syrah has changed my life."

According to legend, the Syrah grape originated in the city of Shiraz, in ancient Persia (now Iran), suggesting the grape had some relation to a sophisticated civilization. There were other romantic tales about how Syrah had arrived in the Rhône Valley. Some believed it had been introduced into France from Cyprus by Crusaders returning home from the Middle East in the 13th century, or that it was carried by Roman legions from Egypt, via Syracuse.

But none of these trajectories held up in a scientific study that tested the DNA of 300 very ancient vine varieties that had been grown in a Montpellier nursery owned by France's respected national research institute INRA.

"We didn't go looking for Syrah, but we were absolutely aware of breaking mythology," says retired professor Meredith, 55, who led the research at UC, Davis' viticulture and enology department in association with Boursiquot and other French scientists.

"Syrah has rustic origins, but that's OK," says Meredith, who has retired from academia to make Syrah from a 4-acre vineyard on Napa's Mount Veeder. "It's not unusual for two really rustic parents to produce noble grapes."

The researchers discovered that Syrah had ordinary origins, with two rustic parents. Syrah originated from Mondeuse Blanche -- a simple mountain wine grape and the lesser-known cousin of Mondeuse Noire, a mainstay of wines from France's Savoie region. Syrah's other parent was Dureza -- a traditional variety from France's northern Ardèche region that was spicy and colored but never in the forefront.

Ardèche and Savoie are in eastern France on either side of the Rhône River, and growers may have brought seeds to plant in the Rhône Valley, something that was possible (a practice that was relatively risk free before phylloxera); pollination then led to the genetic hybrid, Syrah, speculates Boursiquot. "But we don't have proof one way or another," he adds.

Syrah was widely planted in the Northern Rhône before phylloxera almost wiped it out in the 19th century and factory work lured growers from their vineyards in the 20th. But leading winemakers in Hermitage and Côte-Rôtie helped engineer a Syrah comeback. In recent decades, Syrah spread outside its birthplace as converts latched on to Rhône wines with the conviction of disciples spreading the Gospel.

It helps that Syrah is a food-friendly red that matches nicely the styles of cuisine now popular in the United States, including Pan-Asian and Mediterranean diets. "Rhône varieties are just more suited to the foods people are eating," says Mat Garretson, who makes several different Syrah cuvées at Garretson Wine Co. in Paso Robles, Calif.

Syrah's popularity also stems from winemakers' solid batting average at making balanced reds that have dark color, good fruit, fresh finishes and pleasant tannins even when young. "Syrah produces the sort of rich and colored wines that are in fashion now," says vintner François Perrin of Beaucastel and Tablas Creek.

This consistency is partly due to Syrah's ability to adapt to diverse terroirs and microclimates. "Syrah is less sensitive to dilution from rain or rot. It's rather homogenous," says Chapoutier, 39. He owns 540 acres in France and farms 250 acres in Australia.

Not all Syrahs are wonderful, far from it; good terroirs and strict selection are prerequisites for quality, but the Syrah grape is more forgiving of imperfect growing conditions than many, more fickle, grapes. "Pinot Noir will taste like tomato juice in a warm climate, and Cabernet like bell pepper in a cool one," says Garretson. "But Syrah is so versatile. It can express its region in cool or warm weather and in sandy, clay or limestone soils."

Peter Gago, chief winemaker of Penfolds, is an expert on Syrah's versatility because he has access to an almost limitless supply of Shiraz in Australia. Fruit for the dozen or so Shirazes and Shiraz blends he makes comes from many sources at Penfolds, a subsidiary of Southcorp Wines, which is reportedly the largest producer of premium wines in Australia.

Penfolds' Shiraz South Australia Grange is Australia's most collectible red. It has a track record for improving for decades, but it couldn't be more different from the great Rhônes, which are made from a single region. Grange has included up to 10 percent Cabernet Sauvignon in all but three vintages, and has been made from "many, many" regions and vineyards in certain vintages, although always from Penfolds' very best cuvées, says Gago.

"In Australia, we have single-vineyard expression of Syrah and we have multiregional blends of the highest order, like Grange," he adds. "It's like music. There isn't one 'correct' style.

Frenchmen, who are used to uncertain climate, marvel at the dry, hot, consistent weather they meet in the New World. "In Australia, we have almost an ideal climate," says Chapoutier. "If the grapes aren't ripe at harvest time and you need 15 more days, you just wait 15 more days. Here in the Rhône, if the grapes aren't ripe, you may still have to pick because you don't want to lose your crop [to rain or rot]."

Phylloxera devastated vineyards in the Australian state of Victoria in the late 19th century, but not those in the state of South Australia. As a result, South Australia boasts some of the oldest Syrah vines in the world; some date to the mid-1880s. South Australia is today protected under a quarantine and produces most of the country's high-profile Shiraz bottlings.

In France, a few centennial parcels exist in the Rhône Valley, but most growers are lucky if they own 50-year-old vieilles vignes. "You can find ancestral Hermitage vines in Australia that we don't have here anymore," says Chapoutier, who has imported Australian cuttings he's now propagating in his French vineyards.

Syrah was introduced in California in the mid- to late-1800s when California growers and entrepreneurs of French and British descent traveled to France and brought the major European grape varieties back to the United States. Some fine plant material was also introduced in the 20th century, and this tradition of bringing vines from France lives on with the Perrins. In the 1980s, they imported prime vine specimens from their Beaucastel vineyards in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, propagated them in a greenhouse in Paso Robles and, after the winery had satisfied its own needs, sold baby rootstocks to other growers.

Now Paso Robles is a hotbed for Syrah. Typical for an emerging wine region, the winemakers are growing more confident as they adjust to the uniqueness of their coastal climate and soils.

Justin Smith, owner of Saxum Estate in Paso Robles, decided to retool the vineyard his parents had planted in 1980 to Pinot Noir and Chardonnay by replacing those varieties with Syrah and other Rhône grapes. With the 2000 vintage he made his first commercial wine, Saxum Estate Syrah (TK, $TK), from the 6-acre, 13-year-old James Berry Vineyard.

"The timing was really wonderful when we started Saxum," says Smith, 33, who reports strong demand for Syrah in California. "In a few years, the change that has come over the consumers here in California is huge."

It's an article of faith among French winemakers that older vines make better wine. Old vines have deep root systems, which weather France's climatic excesses better than do young vines' shallow roots. But Syrah confounds this basic tenet in some of the new vineyards in dry and hot climates like that of Tuscany or California, according to vintners.

The young vineyards might benefit from an unusually long hang-time, or growing cycle, which can improve complexity in the grapes. In Paso Robles, for instance, Tablas Creek harvested later in 2003 than did the Perrins' in Châteauneuf-du-Pape. "Syrah is more elegant in Paso Robles than it can be in the Southern Rhône because the cool nights preserve the acidity," says Perrin. "In Châteauneuf-du-Pape, you could never do so well with such young vines as you do in California," he adds.

The praise embodies the open mind that Syrah winemakers display toward other regions and producers. Says Chapoutier, "Of course Shiraz can rival L'Ermite," which is his finest Hermitage, made partly with pre-phylloxera vines.

Tenimenti Luigi d'Alessandro assigned a Harvard graduate to organize a symposium gathering Syrah winemakers from around the world to create a global "Syrah club." "I feel there is a Syrah community even if people are spread out all over the world," says Clémentine Igou, 27, the American organizer. "There is a collective jointure among them all and we wanted to celebrate their dedication."

Syrah seems to bring out the best in people, a refreshing departure from the past. Where France had been the model, others had set themselves in opposition; Napa Cabernets wanted to beat Bordeaux. France responded in kind; Burgundy felt others couldn't measure up.

But Syrah winemakers aren't guarding their secrets and building little fiefdoms; they share and cooperate. As their ideas and experiences cross-pollinate, they are building a community that's winning converts with distinctive and delicious Syrahs.

Senior editor Per-Henrik Mansson is Wine Spectator's lead taster on the wines of the Rhône Valley.


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