Class Recap: “Syrah & Their Cousins”

Syrah is a child of the Alps. It was born where the Rhône river begins, to parents dureza and mondeuse blanche.

Before it went international and became a prestige brand, it was just one part of an extended family straddling both sides of the mountains, from mondeuse noir in the Savoie to northern Italy’s teroldego and lagrein.

In other words, a grape variety, even a famous one that’s travelled all around the world, isn’t a solo act. For most of its history, syrah was the intensely prized local specialty of one of France’s smaller winegrowing areas. It clung to the vertigo-inducing slopes overlooking its home river, dug its feet into metamorphic rock, battled the named winds of its birthplace, shared space with its cousins and relatives and the region’s apricot trees, one variety among many.

It ended up other places, of course. In Australia, where cuttings labeled ‘Hermitage’ had arrived with grapes like grenache, mataro, riesling, and pedro ximenez in the early 1800s, the 1980s saw the country go all in on syrah. Specifically, a super-charged, hypermodern style of syrah they labeled shiraz, a name chosen based on a spurious myth of the grape’s Iranian origins. (It was supposed to have been brought back from the Crusades by a knight who, heartbroken, retired to an hermitage on the top of the hill that bears his name.) Even if the wines are a shade less “but ours goes to 11” these days, and even if there’s a growing recognition of the diversity of Australian wine, shiraz still makes up almost half of the reds planted in the country.

It’s in the ’90s that the Technicolor Cuisinart of stardom really starts spinning for our kid. Syrah became fashionable and ‘improving.’ It was recommended by France and the EU as just the thing to turn around Mediterranean bulk wine regions like the Languedoc and the Roussillon. (Rip out your centenarian carignan, plant something worthwhile!) It supplanted garnacha and cariñena in Priorat.

Math can help tell the story. In California, syrah’s planted area went from nothing—55 hectares in 1988—to almost 5,000 by the turn of the millennium. It became huge in South Africa (900 hectares in 1990, 10,000 today) and Argentina (1,000 hectares in 1990, 13,000 today) and, more recently, in Chile (up from just 20 hectares in 1996 to 7,400 today, double what it was ten years ago). Also in the throes of a syrah planting boom: Washington State.

(By comparison, the entire Northern Rhône is less than 3,000 hectares.)

Big players aside, you can drink credible examples of the grape from Tuscany, Hawke’s Bay, the Finger Lakes, Slavonija, the Bekaa Valley… it would be easier to list the places itisn’t grown than where it is.

All of which is to say, it wouldn’t be so hard to line up three syrahs from three places in the world and taste them side by side. But there are a lot of different ways to slice this cake. What if we took our superstar back to their origins? What can a vine’s relatives tell us about where a variety is from, and what it’s capable of? How much of genetics is destiny?

Class was on Saturday, 5 February 2022. Some questions to ask while you taste:

1. What associations does syrah have for you? Do you have expectations for what a bottle of it is ‘supposed’ to be like?

2. In class, participants talked about a variety of their own syrah associations: a certain weight or richness, a savory side to the aromatics. Some people said pepper, some said olive, some said flowers. Add in your own syrah expectations. Do the non-syrah wines in this flight remind you of any of them?

EXTRA CREDIT: The next time you find a bottle of teroldego, or mondeuse from the Savoie, think back to this tasting. Is there a family resemblance?

This is what we drank:

How it might look on a wine list
FRANCK BALTHAZAR, syrah/grenache, Côtes-du-Rhône VINSOBRES

In one sentence
Lipsmacking value from an icon of syrah’s heartland.

Who made it? Franck Balthazar. His grandfather began bottling wine from a miniscule 2-hectare property in 1980, and Franck took over in 2002. He’s a one-man show on a still-tiny domaine, and even if he’s young by Cornas standards at this point he’s been farming organically and working low-intervention (and occasionally zero-zero) for two decades and more than earned his laurels.
Out of what? Until 2016, Franck’s Côtes du Rhône was 100% syrah from his young vines in Cornas. Around then he started a small négoce business buying grapes, and started blending in a little grenache. As of 2018, he owns a couple of hectares down south in Vinsobre that he was previously buying from, and this wine comes from there. This is the first vintage it’s been grenache-dominant. (60/40 grenache/syrah.) Syrah is often used in dollops outside of the Rhône, and this gives a good idea of how much of its character shines through, even in a blend.
What’s Cornas? It’s a tiny wine place at just over 100 hectares planted to vine. The last refuge of ultra-traditional blood-and-iron syrah in the Northern Rhône, Cornas avoided the gloopy $$$ fancification that swallowed Côte-Rôtie. (And if you can afford Hermitage, we’re having a different conversation.) If I’m going to splash out, this is the place in the Northern Rhône I want to do it. Despite the retirement of some of the village’s icons (Robert Michel, Noël Verset, Marcel Juge) and the scarcity of its others (Thierry Allemand, Auguste Clape), and the general upward creep of pricing, you can still splash around under $100 retail with some of the younger generation: Mikaël Bourg, Matthieu Barret. Value’s a relative proposition in wine, but in Cornas it remains, faintly, within reach.

How it might look on a wine list

In one sentence
Unmistakable perfume and unexpected freshness from the lost land between the Savoie and the Rhône.

Who made it? Nicolas Gonin, ampelographer (a.k.a. grape scientist) extraordinaire. 
Out of what? Viognier, which is closely related to syrah and often interplanted with it in the vineyard. (Co-fermenting your reds with some gold grapes actually fixes and deepens color, as well as adding aromatic lift.) Believe it or not, viognier was a hyperlocal and nearly extinct cultivar by the middle of the 20th century, down to just a few dozen hectares around Condrieu. It rocketed to an improbable and very ’70s big-hair & disco international fame that led it to being planted almost anywhere you could imagine, with often tragic results. The aromatics are intense and unmistakable, the acidity is low, and if it’s planted in the wrong place it tastes like somebody dumped Chanel No. 5 in your corn chowder.
From where? Isère, named for the river that runs through it, the lost connective tissue between the Savoie and the Northern Rhône, a place that used to be wall to wall vines before phylloxera and has virtually disappeared since. (35,000 hectares of vines in the 19th century, down to less than 600, today.) A treasurehouse of rare cultivars like verdesse, persan, and etraire de la dhuï that Nicolas Gonin, as an ampelographer, was hugely influential in identifying and rescuing from extinction. (See this decade-old interview for more.)

How it might look on a wine list
IRUAI, mondeuse, “Oh-Mah”, SHASTA-CASCADES

In one sentence
Alpine lift and spice from the Savoie’s emblematic red, half a world away in the California wilderness.

Who made it? Chad and Michelle Westbrook Hinds, who started Methode Sauvage in 2013 and has since begun the transition from grape buyer to vine grower.
From where? The new name, Iruai, is the name of their valley in Shasta. (1% of their sales go to the Shasta Indian Nation.) It reflects wines that are rooted in the southern end of the Cascade mountains in northern California’s Sisikiyou Wilderness, currently a mix of purchased fruit, leased vines, and new own-rooted plantings in the middle of nowhere.
Out of what? This is the first year “Oh-Mah” has been primarily their own young mondeuse plantings, a high-elevation own-rooted mix of cuttings from Lagier Meredith and suitcase clones brought in from the Savoie by Pax Mahle, filled out with fruit from a vineyard in El Dorado county in the Sierra Foothills at 2,700ft elevation. 

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