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Aussies Excel in Syrah Taste-Off
The Vintners Club first began to focus on California Syrah in late 1996, when there were finally enough producers of this then-esoteric-for-California varietal to justify comparative tastings. Even then, we linked California efforts with Australian Shiraz (what they call Syrah Down Under) in order to wind up with our traditional 12-wine flight for panel analysis. Coincidentally with the emergence of Syrah in California, the Aussies were intensifying their market presence in the States, touting for
this push their leading red wine.
In that first in-depth look at six California Syrahs versus six Aussie Shirazs, the 1994 Bedford-Thompson Syrah from Santa Barbara County took first place, followed by 1993 Rosemount Balmoral Shiraz, 1991 Penfolds Grange, 1994 Mount Langi Ghiran Shiraz, 1993 Joseph Phelps Syrah and 6th place 1993 St. Hallett "Old Block" Shiraz.
The 1996 tasting was my personal introduction to Mount Langi Shiraz from the cool-climate Victoria appellation in the south of Australia. To this day, it's one wine I buy every vintage for my cellar.
In the years since then, these New World renditions of the greatest wine of the Rhone Valley in France have grown increasingly popular with Club panelists, just as consumers have discovered their many charms. Today, Syrah is unquestionably among the top three Vintners Club red favorites -- the other two being Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel.
Where will Syrah-Shiraz be in 5 years' time in the buying habits of American consumers? I predict great things, maybe even a tussle with today's champ Cabernet Sauvignon. Syrah is an eminently likeable red wine whose bright blackberry-black cherry aromas can be more appealing on release than those of Cabernet. Syrah's balance, depth and structure impress red-wine fans more so than can most Merlots. Syrah's roundness and silky smooth texture appeal to those who love the same qualities in Pinot Noir. Perhaps only Zinfandel offers the closest competition, yet
the varietal is often plagued by palate-searing alcohol.
And between the two, there's enough distinction to offer a choice for distinguishing palates. Syrahs tend to offer spicy components, often leading with notes of freshly cracked black pepper. Shirazs tend to be fruitier wines, offering blackberries and black plums along with chocolatey richness. Both are absolutely delicious and satisfying in their own way.
So, following the last in a series of elimination tastings, when it comes time to select the best Syrah or Shiraz out of 12 finalists in a Vintners Club taste-off, it's always a much anticipated tasting opportunity. Each of the wines must have been one of the top three finishers in its elimination tasting. Revisiting these great examples of terroir and winemaking is
heady pleasure, to be sure.
This year, with eight California Syrahs matched against four Australian Shirazs, the Aussies took top honors, capturing first, second and sixth place.
1996 Wolf Blass Shiraz, President's Selection, South Australia
Intense, very appealing, somewhat smoky nose of ripe black
berries and plum, cracked black pepper, tobacco leaf, chocolate,
cedar and vanillin oak. Rich, luscious and enormously
concentrated in the mouth with opulent, plummy black fruit
accented by cedar and vanilla. Wonderfully complex with good
prospects for aging, although its medium tannins make it
accessible now. A great value at $18.
1996 Rosemount Estate Balmoral Syrah, McLaren Vale ($45)
Forward, enticing nose of black raspberries and cassis, tar
and hints of green herbs, along with a chocolatey note and nicely
seasoned oak. Bright and lively in the mouth, exhibiting
excellent acidity along with depth and concentration promising a
long future, offering succulent blackberry-black cherry fruit,
chocolate and clove notes along with some intriguing gaminess.
Generous, full, silky smooth and irresistibly delicious.
1997 Kathryn Kennedy Syrah, Maridon Vineyard, Santa Cruz
Offering the largest dose of freshly cracked black pepper of
the bunch -- both in the nose and on the palate -- this
distinctive Syrah delights with smoky scents that incorporate
deep blackberry fruit and rose petals. Lush and expansive on the
palate with good depth and extract exhibiting lots of ripe berry
fruit and all that wonderful black pepper spice.
1997 Stags' Leap Winery Syrah, Napa Valley ($25)
Better known up to now for its flagship Petite Sirah, this
Syrah signals a successful launch of a Rhone varietal program for
Stags' Leap Winery. Winemaker Robert Brittan blended five percent
petite sirah into the estate syrah to arrive at this classic
Rhone-like expression of Syrah, fairly bursting with ripe black
raspberry-cherry-cassis fruit accented by appealing meaty notes,
white pepper, dried rose petals and a hint of tar. Rich and
luscious in the mouth with succulent black raspberry fruit tinged
with peppery spice and meaty-earthy notes. Complex, with medium
1997 Lewis Cellars Syrah, Napa County ($40)
Powerful aromas of cedar, dried lavender, smoky oak, spice
and blackberry fruit are replicated on the rich palate, enhanced
by blueberries, violets, vanilla and a shy black pepper note. A
bold and muscular Syrah with medium-full tannins and evident oak
that will require a few years of cellaring.
1996 Black Opal Shiraz, Tolley's Vineyard, Barossa Valley ($16)
Forward, fruity, almost jammy nose of black raspberries,
black cherries and peppery spice. Quite ripe and extracted on the
showy palate where boysenberries join the fruit profile and
chocolate notes appear as well. Medium tannins; lingering finish.
1997 Foxen Syrah, Moorehouse Vineyard, Santa Ynez Valley ($35)
Leathery, smoky nose offers blackberry-raspberry fruit and
hints of dried herbs. Big and chewy in the mouth, exhibiting lots
of oak balanced by deep, ripe black fruit, vanilla and tar. A
generous, expansive, almost rustic Syrah that demands the
heartiest of foods.
1997 Robert Craig Syrah, Paso Robles ($24)
Wonderfully fragrant and appealing aromas of varietal berry
fruit, smoky oak and a good dose of vanilla, which appears
prominently on the palate along with rich, plummy fruit. The
round, smooth and seamless texture is especially elegant, and the
mouthfeel is enhanced by easy acidity and ripe, medium tannins.
More elegant than powerful, this Syrah puts Paso Robles in the
top ranks of growing areas for red Rhone varieties.
1998 Echelon Syrah, California ($9)
This is the debut Syrah for this Chalone Wine Estate brand.
Combining grapes from Chalone's vineyard sources with fruit
purchased from independent growers, this bargain-priced wine is a
spicy, sassy red that's 75 percent Syrah blended with 20 percent
Grenache and a 5 percent dollop mixture of Cinsault, Alicante,
Petite Sirah and Viognier. All of this results in intriguing
aromas of white pepper, strawberry-raspberry fruit, toasty oak
and vanilla. Rich and smooth in the mouth with copious bright
strawberry fruit, lively black pepper and brown spice. An
1997 Meridian Syrah, Paso Robles ($16)
Unusual honeysuckle note in the nose suggesting some
Viognier in the blend, although the wine is 100 percent Syrah
from the famous "Estrella River Clone." There's bright red berry,
too, that comes through on the palate, which is straightforward
in its fruitiness and pleasantly round and juicy. While not
particularly complex compared to others in this flight, the
Meridian is nevertheless well made and quite tasty.
1998 Owens Estate Shiraz, South Eastern Australia ($15)
Moderately forward, plummy, spicy black raspberry aromas are
tinged with black pepper, anise and a hint of green olive. The
wonderful black fruit on the palate is deep and rich, and is
highlighted by a minty or green olive note that is typical of
Goulburn Valley Shiraz. Velvety mouthfeel, medium tannins and
1997 Shooting Star Syrah, Lake County ($12)
The panel and I parted company on this wine which I found
impressive for its distinctive green olive herbaceousness
combined with lots of smoky-bacony oak, berry fruit and a minty
flourish. Luscious and nicely concentrated with ripe
blackberry-cherry fruit. The cool-climate herbaceousness, which
doesn't come across as weediness, is what took the wine down for
most of the panel.
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Steve Pitcher is a freelance wine writer based in San Francisco. He is vice president of the Vintners Club and president of the San Francisco Bay Area Chapter of the German Wine Society.