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.