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Don't Count Out Syrah

Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Apr 11, 2008 12:58pm ET

I keep hearing that Syrah is "dead in the water," that American enophiles are no longer excited about the wines made from this grape. Washington wineries, by all rights, should be ramping up production because their Syrahs are so good, but several vintners told me recently that they are staying the course because, "Syrah isn't selling."

Retailers I checked with echoed this perception, and data from UPC scanners confirms that Syrah is no longer increasing its share of the market. But it's holding its own. Which ought to be a relief for Australian vintners. Shiraz, their name for the grape, is their calling card.

So what gives?

"There has been a revolt of sorts to Syrah," writes Christian Navarro, a partner in Wally's, a retail shop in Los Angeles, "but I really believe that Syrah is a scapegoat for alcohol. I have many customers who are saying 'no' to Syrah because their only experience is with one of the number of over-extracted high-alcohol wines."

Navarro argues that the anti-Syrah crowd mainly has a beef with California and some (but not all) highly touted Australian wines, which can indeed creep up high on the alcohol scale.

That perception is one reason I am convinced that Washington ultimately will be known as the home of Syrah in America. The climate seems to produce vibrant wines that show rich flavors at alcohol levels around 14 percent, a degree or so lower than the highest-rated California wines.

And yet, Washington seems to have quit planting Syrah. Cabernet and Merlot still dominate the red grape vineyards. At the new Mercer Estates winery, for example, a couple of savvy old hands (Mike Hogue and Bud Mercer, who planted what is now Champoux Vineyard) pointedly told me that were not focusing on Syrah. "No, said Hogue. "Syrah's dead in the water." There's that phrase again. "We'll have one, but the market doesn't want it as much as Cabernet and Merlot."

That, in the long run, will be a mistake. Why? Look at Pinot Noir. California and Oregon have had a phenomenal run with Pinot Noir in the past decade, and it started just when everybody was writing the grape off. Now it's popular, even though many of the wines are riper and richer than most Pinot Noirs used to be. More like Syrah (or at least Syrah in Washington). Hmmm.

"I do agree that Syrah in Washington will be a great match," Navarro adds. "When customers actually see the balance and depth of what Syrah can give, done correctly, we get them back. Unfortunately, it is a bottle by bottle fight."

The same is true of Australia, by the way. As more Americans come to understand that reds from Victoria and Western Australia generally have less alcohol and more vibrancy than what they may think of as Australian Shiraz, and as the current trend away from over-the-top styles toward something silkier and more elegant takes hold in Oz, we will discover just how varied and remarkable Australia's Shiraz can be.

So Syrah ain't dead yet. It's just gathering momentum for another surge.

David W Voss
Elkhorn, Wi —  April 11, 2008 2:56pm ET
As a wine drinker in the midwest who goes to wine tastings weekly, its refreshing to hear Harvey go against one of the well-known old hands. Merlot? If anything is dead in the water its merlot. At several (over 100 bottle) red tastings this winter Syrah outnumbered Merlot by at least 8 to 1. I can now eliminate at least winemaker's wine from consideration.
Troy Peterson
Burbank, CA —  April 11, 2008 7:56pm ET
Syrah will share dominance with Cab Sauv on average, everywhere. It's not as fussy as PN or Merlot, and it just takes on whatever you give it. It's amazing. Long live Syrah!
Lorenzo Erlic
victoria canada —  April 12, 2008 8:38pm ET
I find Shiraz/Syrah to be an approachable, food -friendly wine which generally isn't bracing or astringent. A good wine for catering, especially the Australian wines which are still bargains to me.
Don Rauba
Schaumburg, IL —  April 12, 2008 9:13pm ET
I continue to recoil every time Shiraz and Syrah are compared in the same breath. Yes I know they're the same grape, so I don't require a lecture on that fact. But when you read the reviews and taste the wine you realize: the flavor profiles are, most often, completely different. (When's the last time you remember reading about bacon in a Shiraz note?) Hence the two style names.

Leave the high alcohol Australian Shiraz be! They're awesome, powerhouse wines, and have their fanbase, me among them. That might make me less trendsetting at the moment, but it doesn't make me wrong. Syrah doesn't fit my new world palate as well, so I don't have an opinion to share on either Cali or Wash Syrah.

As Harvey points out, there are plenty of producers catering to the moderate alcohol level wines, and plenty of cooler regions which produce them more or less naturally, if you will. So those who seek moderation in alcohol should check the regions on the bottling, the alcohol %, and buy accordingly. Quit buying Mollydooker (just because it's high-scoring by some critics) and complaining that it's too high in alcohol, cuz all you have to do is read the label (or a review) to know the style. Don't try to change the high alcohol styles that many of us find so compelling. Just buy what you like, and the market will adjust. Supply & demand.
Chris Hilliard
Minnesota —  April 13, 2008 9:11am ET
I know this is off topic but I have been hearing a little about Zinfandel being produced in Australia, is this true? Being the Zin freek I am, I would like to find some but have not been very "fruitful" Any suggestions? Thanks .
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco, CA —  April 13, 2008 11:30am ET
Don, you're right that the big, plush-textured Australian Shiraz can be fantastic wines. And they can be balanced and elegant, the way a 7-foot basketball center can dazzle you with footwork before slamming down the dunk. My point was that this is only one of several styles Australia makes with this grape variety. It's pretty amazing once you get into it, and unfair (and untrue) for others to pigeonhole the whole country's wines.

As for Zinfandel in Oz, most of what I've tasted has been pretty weak compared with the best Zins from CA, but I'd give Smidge, Kangarilla Farm or Hentley Farm a try if you're curious. They won't rock your world, but they're excellent wines.
Chris Hilliard
Minnesota —  April 13, 2008 1:18pm ET
MR. Steiman, Thank you for the reply. I will do some looking, and hopefully some tasting.
Hubbard Ogden Page
Illinois —  April 15, 2008 1:22am ET
Last week we had a blind tasting of 7 Syrah/Shiraz and 7 Pinot Noir.Our guests were equally divided Male/Female. The top wines were: #1 a Syrah from Washington, #2&3 Shiraz from Australia, #4 a Pinot Noir from Oregon, #5 a Pinot Noir from Central Otago, NZ. All others received much lower ratings by our group. I too feel that Syrah & Shiraz are on the upswing, at least to our group of tasters who, generally preferred Pinot Noir prior to our tasting. Comments?
Jonathon Wagner
San Francisco, CA —  April 15, 2008 1:41am ET
Wineries that started with creativity and vision, are now playing slave to their customer's desires and/or trying to tailor wine to a certain critic's palate preferences. We don't need more homogenized cab. and merlot. The wine world is better off with creativity and varietal selectivity coming from what the winery thinks they can do best, and putting out the best wine it wants to represent. The customers can follow the leader. Not the other way around. It's sad to think that a certain site in Washington maybe be perfectly suited for Sryah, but the winery won't grow it because they want to pump out more opiate Cab./Merlot for the masses.
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco, CA —  April 15, 2008 2:53am ET
In all fairness, Washington does extremely well with Cabernet and other Bordeaux varieties, often in the same place that Syrah grows well there. And wineries, after all, are in business to sell wine. If they don't perceive a healthy market for Syrah, why should they take a chance on it if they can grow and make excellent Cab?

Syrah is the third most widely planted red grape in WA. I think a lot of Washington wineries are wondering if they planted too much of it. I do, however, think that the market exists for good Syrah, and it will only get stronger. The time will come, and soon, that they'll have to plant more Syrah to meet the demand.
Jon C Martinez
Overland —  April 15, 2008 3:29pm ET
Dear Mr. Steiman,I must say that I have been influenced by the softening of the Syrah market and do not have plans on making it this year. I could have received some of the best Syrah in the coolest place in the Yakima Valley. But, I see so many other Syrah's in other tasting rooms as well as on the shelves. If you were to make a different style of Syrah, selling it will come down to marketing and educating people about the differences found in Syrah from cool, warm & hot climates. Which obviously are all very different. Instead I have decided to focus on predominately Grenache based blends. As for the whites, I will turn my attention to Marsanne, Roussanne, Viognier & Albarino. All will be vineyard designates and in my opinion all from appropriate sites suitable for the different varieties. There maybe a lot of Syrah planted in Washington, but so much is planted in very warm sites. It is very hard for the consumer to distinguish it from a California or Australian Syrah sometimes. As a new winemaker, I not only want to make wines I enjoy, but ones that can find a niche (sell well). I love Syrah though and someday I will probably make some for myself.
Peter Lehmann Wines Ltd
Australia —  April 18, 2008 3:09am ET
Well in the Barossa after 150+ years of growing shiraz, some still on own roots; The interest hasn't faltered. Instead winemakers are drillig down further into sub-districts, viticulture and winemaking continuing to find different ways to express this great variety. The Barossa has a wonderful capacity to create something unique out of Shiraz. Its a long way from dead, i think its just learnt to crawl.Hang in there Shiraz lovers!!!Ian HongellPeter Lehmann Wines
Bob Betz
Woodinville, WA —  April 20, 2008 12:45am ET
Hi Harvey et al,I just caught this thread and have heard both sides of the discussion, but from clearly different segments of US winemakers. I've heard concern from large wineries, in Washington and California, that they aren't moving Syrah the way they thought they would, and are pulling back. But a lot of small wineries are blowing Syrah out the door. This impressive list of small wineries focuses on specific sites and cellar techniques to produce wines of character and can't keep it in stock (Alban, SQN, Saxum, Pax, Cayuse, ...) We started as a Bordeaux variety-based winery, but over the years the majority of our growth has come from Syrah; it sells out faster than our Bordeaux-based wines. Bob Betz, Betz Family Winery.
Sandy Fitzgerald
Centennial, CO —  April 21, 2008 11:01am ET
I'm a bit late in this blog, but here is the problem with syrah in the market. For many of the styles made, it is difficult to drink without food, except for those lovers of 16+% alcohol zin. The alcohol too often gets in the way. For food wine it often competes with cabs, that sytlisticly may go better with foods Americans eat. I like syrahs and drink syrahs, but it maybe comprises 2% of my wine cellar. At the same price breaks, most people would buy a brunello or a pinot anyday.
Dwight Dively
Seattle, WA —  April 21, 2008 11:08pm ET
Our wine cellar must be as diversified as our investment portfolio. We need wines that last for 20 years and wines to drink in 2 years. Wines that cost a hundred dollars, tens of dollars, and $10.00. We need a collection that will provide us with wine for whatever the chef, that's me, might decide to cook, be it French, Italian, New American, etc. Washington Syrah has become a larger percentage of our cellar due to the availability of quality wines at a reasonable price. Many of our favorite Oregon Pinots are becoming over-priced; supply and demand. California and Washington cabs don't represent the same value for dollar as syrah. Since half of our cellar consists of Pinot Noir we're trying to balance the "wine portfolio" with syrah from Washington. Steak, Garlic, Balsamic Vinegar will always lead us to a young syrah rather than one of our older Washington cabs. As the price point reaches $30. per bottle for syrah consumers will decide who will get the next "case" sale. I'm always looking for a balance between cost/availability/price. I can buy and drink lots of Tyrus Evan Syrah; I can't do that with Cayuse. The hunt for these wines is half the fun.

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