Syrah: Local Characteristics Influence Grape Quality And Flavor



A review of some California and Australian Syrahs/Shiraz.


By Louis Marmon


Gazette Newspapers  August 19, 2004


Bonterra SyrahFew things are more important than location when creating wine. A distance of just a few hundred feet can have a profound effect on grape quality and flavors because of changes in the soil and weather conditions. The influence of climate, altitude, geology and sun exposure is called “terroir,” derived from the French word for “earth.” While the winemaker’s expertise is vital, many believe the terroir has the greatest influence on the characteristics of a wine.


An example is Syrah, which is grown in the Rhone Valley in France, parts of California, as well several areas in Australia, where it is known as Shiraz. Syrah is the only red grape permitted to be made into wine in the northern Rhone, where the vines are perched on steep slopes close to the river in slate and granite based soil. These wines are typically bold, spicy and age-worthy, with flavors of bacon fat, saddle leather and earth. In the southern Rhone, the weather is completely different and the Syrah grape is grown in clay, gravel or sandstone based soil spread out over miles extending away from the river. Here the Syrah is blended with up to 13 other grape varieties to produce wines that are raisiny, spicy, rich and just as powerful as the northern Rhone wines.


During the mid-1980s, a number of winemakers in California started planting grapes used in the Rhone. The Syrah produced here tends to be very fruit-forward, deep, dark and complex. It does not have to be aged for a long time to be enjoyed. Some of the best examples of Shiraz are produced in Australia, including the legendary “Penfold’s Grange” that can retail for more than $300 a bottle. Fortunately, many other excellent and much less expensive Australian Shiraz are available. Shiraz from the Hunter Valley is soft with cherry and blackberry flavors, while those from Langhorne Creek and McLaren Vale are more intense and fuller. The Barossa Valley produces wines that typically have jammy flavors of plum and chocolate.


During a recent tasting of Syrah and Shiraz from California and Australia, several notable wines were found. They tend to be very food friendly and good values.


From California, try the Tin House Edna Valley Syrah 2001, a good example of terroir since it is produced from a single vineyard. It has a smoky, slightly peppery taste with flavors of cherries and berries. Camelot Shiraz 2001 is medium bodied, spicy and has raspberry flavors. Bonterra Syrah 2000 is soft, fruity and slightly herbal with a nice pepper taste. La Crema Syrah 2001 has a bit more acid than most other Syrahs, balanced well with currant and berry flavors. Elyse Syrah 2000 is a well-structured wine that has a nice earthy flavor with plum and vanilla notes. The Pepi Shiraz 2002, which comes with an innovative screw top rather than a cork to assure freshness, is very fruity with slight chocolate and berry flavors.


From Australia, Peter Lehmann, The Barossa Shiraz 2001 is fruit-filled and lush with a deep purple color and plum and berry flavors. Yangarra Park Shiraz 2001 is well balanced and tastes of blackberry, anise and spice. The Limb Vineyards, Patterson Hill Shiraz 2001 is a gorgeous wine, also from the Barossa Valley. It is smooth, full and beautifully balanced with plum, cherry and slight chocolate flavors.



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