The Spicy Side of Life
February 22, 2008
It is often considered that the "noble grapes" of the world are Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Riesling. While it is certainly hard to deny the nobility of these fine varieties, it is hard, indeed, not to include Syrah. And, with prices of such regions as Bordeaux, Napa, and Burgundy soaring through the roof, it is in this grape that I think has the best value for the dollar.
Syrah is, of course, the same variety as Shiraz, but due to the source of the dialect, these two will often differ in style. Syrah is initially from the Rhone Valley in France and is still grown and vinified in the Northern Rhone. In the southern part of the area, it is used as a blending grape along with Grenache, Cinsault, Mourvedre, and a host of other grapes, but it seems that wherever this grape rears its spicy head, the result has the potential to taste powerful, strong, and most of all peppery. The 2005 Joncier Lirac from the Southern Rhone among my favorite wines around $20.
Syrah is a grape that is incredibly resilient to drought and loves ample sunlight. It is this fact that has made this grape a favorite of the Australians. It feels perfectly at home in Australia, and its wines are characteristically fruit bombs of stunning weight and careful balance. It is often the case that these wines hold a relatively high alcohol content sometimes pushing 16 percent. The wines the grape produces is also a bargain hunter’s dreamland, where the wines tend to pack a lot for their dollar. However, it seems that this fact may have shot them in the foot. The perception is that Australia produces mass quantities of alright wine at great value. While this is true, they also produce many wines by hand that express the terroir of Australia just as clearly as Burgundy. The ’04 D’Arenburg Shiraz Grenache blend is an absolute steal at ($19) packed to the gills with black cherry and pepper.
Another holy land for Syrah is Washington State. Though the general perception of Washington is its dampness, its moisture-filled climate resides primarily on the eastern side of the Cascade Mountains, it is a whole different story where the climate is extremely dry and sunlight is abundant. Here the Syrah-based wines seem to lean more toward a French tradition in terms of production nodding toward a more spicy and peppery style. The ’03 L’Ecole No. 41 7 Hills Syrah is an absolute knockout at $33. This one truly reminded me and a top Northern Rhone wine for half the price. Along with its pepper and spice this wine expressed a stunningly seductive palate of ripe black fruits.
So, peruse the wine store aisle for Syrah. There’s a ton of value to be found in one of the world’s most noble grape varieties.
Zev Rovine is the sommelier and resident cheese monger at the Spotted Frog Bookstore Cafe and Wine Bar where he teaches weekly wine classes. His wine education comes from the American Sommelier Association in New York City. He tries his very best not to spill the pinot on the bestseller section. If you have any wine queries or comments, he is easily contacted via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org .