Wine & Spirits
Versatile Varietal Adds Bang to Your Buck
Sideways jabs aside, Merlot remains an enormously popular wine. In terms of cases sold, it’s the No. 2 varietal in the United States (after Chardonnay). I suspect that’s because there will always be consumers who want a soft, fruity red wine—sort of a “Cabernet lite.”
If that sounds like you, though, you should consider sidestepping Merlot, and take a close look at Syrah. This is particularly true if you rarely spend more than $15 on a bottle of wine.
The Merlot grape has always produced some world-class wine, like the famed Chateau Petrus from France’s Pomerol region, and even more pedestrian versions could be counted on to be easy to drink. But not anymore. Merlot has become a of victim of its own success. Vintners planted it everywhere and farmed for large crops rather than quality. This kept the price down, but all too often the wine was thin, vegetal and astringent. And even with more expensive versions, for customers used to finding something soft and fruity, it can be difficult to tell Merlot from a muscular, tannic Cabernet.
Syrah, by contrast, is much more versatile than either Merlot or Cab.
“For the bang for the buck, I think you get more complexity and a more food-friendly wine with Syrah,” says Jeff Cohn, owner/winemaker at JC Cellars in Oakland. Cohn was winemaker for 10 years at Rosenblum Cellars in Alameda, and he has made “every varietal under the sun.” He now concentrates on Zinfandel and Rhône grape varieties like Syrah.
“Syrah can be grown in many different kinds of environments,” says Cohn. And Jeff Porter, beverage director for Andronico’s Markets, adds, “It’s a grape that’s forgiving.” Proof of Syrah’s adaptability to a wide range of climates is evident on store shelves that contain Syrahs and Syrah-dominated blends from all over the world. There’s France’s Rhône Valley, of course, where Syrah finds perhaps its finest expression as the main grape in Hermitage and Côte-Rôtie. There’s Australia, where the grape is called Shiraz, and although some regions of Australia produce elegant, restrained Shiraz, the country is best known for its rich, fruity, chocolaty versions. Syrahs from South America and South Africa are showing up in increasing numbers, as well.
Domestically, Washington’s Columbia Valley is an up-and-coming Syrah producer. And the grape is grown all over California: Plantings nearly tripled from 1997 to 2005 (although three times as much Merlot is still planted). San Luis Obispo County leads the way in total acreage, especially around Paso Robles but in the county’s cooler areas, as well. Cohn notes that while at Rosenblum he made “really, really fascinating” Syrahs from places like Yolo and Solano counties.
Syrah’s geographic span yields diverse results. Grown in a cooler site, the grape produces a wine that is peppery and a little gamey. I find the spicy versions from Santa Barbara’s Santa Ynez Valley and from the cool Carneros region to be particularly interesting. In warmer surroundings, Syrah turns more opulent. Some California wineries, especially those producing more lush, Aussie-style Syrahs, are even calling their wines Shiraz. Although controlling the crop level is important for top-notch Syrah, even high-yielding vineyards will usually give wines that are at least pleasant to drink.
Add that to how well it pairs with the full-flavored, roasted cuisine that’s so popular these days, and you can understand why Andronico’s Jeff Porter “loves” this wine. He may be happy to sell Merlot to customers who want it, but if they really ask for his advice, he suggests Syrah.
—By Laurie Daniel