The Trouble With Syrah
Syrah from the northern Rhone Valley in France can be wonderfully earthy and animalistic, offering a smokehouse full of flavors, especially bacon fat. It's a beguiling wine that makes me hungry, for it cries out for food.
With so many U.S. wineries producing syrah, I decided to see whether an American expression of the grape was emerging. I wanted to know if winemakers here could, in effect, bring home the bacon.
Instead, I got pancakes, or at least pancake topping. Too many American syrahs, from California up the coast through Oregon and Washington, are syrupy monsters, with alcohol levels often exceeding 15 percent but not enough fruit to back that up. Some were downright undrinkable; others fell apart after a few favorable sips. None of these behemoths are welcome at my dinner table.
Syrah, I'm afraid, has fallen victim to the American love of the trophy wine. These are high-scoring wines lauded by wine magazines and available in small numbers primarily through the winery's Web site or mailing list. They are rarely, if ever, sold at retail, and they are never cheap. Wine collectors lucky enough to snare some pull out a bottle to impress a group of friends, who murmur their appreciation over the one glass they are lucky to get. The bottle is empty long before the meal ends (if a meal is even involved), so the wine doesn't need to pair well with food.
There are some domestic syrahs that succeed in that fashion. Pax and DuMol come to mind, and if anyone should offer you a glass of those hard-to-find rarities, don't hesitate to accept. But poor imitations abound, and American syrah cannot be successful as a category until more wineries produce high-quality, drinkable, food-friendly wines that excite the palate rather than dull it. Preferably at a price point we can afford.
"Food friendly" used to be a politely dismissive term to describe wines that show poorly in competitive tastings against big, floozy blockbusters. It's time to elevate "food friendly" to the top rank of praise and reward wines that complement, rather than obliterate, dinner.
I don't write off American syrahs altogether. In fact, I found a few that are not only praiseworthy but also exciting. Sequel, my favorite in recent tastings, qualifies as a trophy wine. From the Long Shadows project, which recruits famed winemakers from around the world to craft limited-production wines in Washington state, Sequel is made by John Duval, former winemaker of Penfolds Grange, the premier shiraz of Australia. (Shiraz is the Australian name for the syrah grape.) Sourced from small parcels in the best and oldest syrah vineyards of Columbia Valley, Sequel is remarkably complex and develops in the glass throughout an evening and even over a few days. At 14.7 percent, the alcohol pushes the envelope, but the fruit supports it, and the wine remains in balance. At $60 a bottle, it is not a wine for the common man.
The Boom Boom! syrah from Charles Smith Wines, also from Columbia Valley, is one I could drink every day without getting bored. It doesn't suggest a smokehouse, but there is delicious blackberry and blueberry fruit and appealing vanilla underneath. At a modest 13.5 percent alcohol and with a $22 price tag, it's an all-around winner. Smith also produces some tasty (though pricier) single-vineyard syrahs under the K Syrah label.
Other successes either hail from cooler growing areas (which helps keep sugar and fruit in balance) or manage to keep the alcohol at about 14 percent or lower, or both. Dutton Goldfield Cherry Ridge Vineyard Syrah from the Russian River Valley in California's Sonoma County is surprisingly nimble, compared with all the treacle from other wines, with a velvety texture that glides blueberry fruit across the palate with impeccable balance and keeps its 13.8 percent alcohol in check. Why can't more syrahs be like that?
American syrah remains a disturbingly risky proposition on the store shelf. Prices routinely in the $30 to $50 range mean that picking the wrong bottle can be an expensive mistake. Winemakers need to stop deadening our palates with excessive alcohol and learn to leave the finesse in the wine. Until they do, here's my advice: Stick with proven winners, and always check the alcohol level on the label before buying.