Okanagan Versus the Rest of the World Round Seven: Syrah
Like many of the previous grapes covered in this series, Syrah has French origins. Although sometimes thought to have ties to the Iranian city of Shiraz, DNA testing has proven otherwise; Syrah is the offspring of Dureza and Mondeuse Blanche, two grapes indigenous to southeastern France.
Here’s the thing: Syrah and Shiraz are two sides of the same coin; a single grape variety with two equally used names. The former is the style we associate with the la belle France, the savory, earthy, peppery wine that is somewhere not far off the color of a deep red ink. Shiraz you’ll find to be the ultra big, bold, and ripe reds popularized by the Aussies. Like Pinot Gris/Pinot Grigio, the name you see on the label will give you an indication of what to expect from your bottle of wine.
Okanagan has one stand out region for Syrah, Black Sage/Osoyoos, the only subregion of the Valley that is unequivocally warm enough to ripen the grape to absolute perfection and yield wines of impressive complexity. Syrah bunches especially benefit from long hours of languishing in the sun. The unique microclimate of Black Sage/Osoyoos can offer warm to hot vintages (it is more or less a desert, after all). This means other varieties grown in southern Okanagan Valley, like the Cabernets and Merlot, are riper and fruitier. When it comes to Syrah, the region is ideal. It thrives in Mediterranean to warm climates and these are the regions where it makes the most outstanding wines. We’re incredibly lucky to have one so close by!
Okanagan Syrah represents some of the most exciting wine coming out of Canada to date; it’s pushing the limits of what oenophiles expect from a country like the Great White North and is helping us forge our way as one of the New World regions to watch.
Start out your Syrah exploration with some of BC’s best:
From the 2016 BC Best of Varietal Awards:
Best Syrah: 2013 Bench 1775 Syrah
2014 See Ya Later Ranch ‘Rover’ Syrah-Viognier
2012 Nighthawk Vineyards Syrah
2013 Black Hills Estate Winery Syrah
2013 Red Rooster Reserve Syrah
Best Syrah-based Blend: 2013 Cedarcreek Estate Winery Senator’s Red
2014 Thornhaven Estates Winery XV
2012 Cassini Cellars Quattro
2014 Ruby Blues Winery Black Stiletto
2016 British Columbia Wine Awards
2013 Time Estate Syrah
2014 Deep Roots Winery Syrah
2014 Wayne Gretzky Okanagan Time Signature Shiraz
2014 Blasted Church Syrah
2014 Lake Breeze Vineyards Syrah
2014 The Hatch Black Swift Long Road Syrah
The Old Guard
You’ll find excellent Syrah all through the Rhone Valley and to the south in the Languedoc-Roussillon. In the Southern Rhone and beyond, the grape is often blended with the likes of Grenache, Mourvedre, and a host of other local varieties like Cinsault, Counoise, and others. But it’s the Northern Rhone that is the real star for Syrah. Grown here for hundreds, perhaps even dating back to the first century A.D., Hermitage, Côte-Rôtie, and Cornas are the regions that collectors hold near and dear to their hearts. Some bottles from these regions can fetch fantastically high prices. Along with Burgundy and Bordeaux, wines from these appellations make some of France’s greatest reds. That said, not all Rhone Syrah will leave you with an empty wallet; Crozes-Hermitages can offer excellent value, as can the many Syrah blends further south.
Syrah sometimes represents a major part of the storied Chateauneuf-du-Pape blends, but there are thirteen grapes allowed in the wines and every producer’s recipe will vary from his neighbor’s. Continuing towards the Mediterranean Sea, France’s Languedoc-Roussillon region is home to many delicious Syrahs and Syrah-based blends. The best part? This region can offer great value.
Tasting notes: blackberry, black cherry, raspberry, lavender, black pepper, bacon, game, smoke, herbes de Provence, green olives.
If you didn’t know any better, there’s a good chance you might not realize that Australian Shiraz is the same grape as Syrah – especially if you taste the two back to back. Naturally, there are plenty of similarities, but between the widely different terroirs and a divergence in decisions made by winemakers, well, it’s easy to see why there’s some confusion. Aussie Shiraz is phenomenally rich and concentrated, with higher alcohol levels and riper fruits than its French twin. If Rhone Syrah can be characterized by savory flavors and plenty of minerality, Australian Shiraz is juicy and fruity, but no less complex. The best Shiraz comes from Barossa Valley, Clare Valley, and McLaren Vale. Barossa is not only one of the oldest wine regions in Australia, but also one of the first to cultivate Shiraz. If you like old vine wines, this is a good place to start. Barossa and Clare Valley Shiraz can command a steep price, but there’s value as well. Along with the Rhone-esque GSM blends, winemakers Down Under make sparkling Shiraz. Somewhat of a novelty, it’s actually delicious with a charcuterie plate.
Tasting notes: ripe blackberry, blueberry, plum, chocolate, eucalyptus, mint, black pepper, smoke, baking spices.
Washington State is newer to the wine game than these other regions, and Syrah is one of the grapes that’s helping to establish it as a fine wine producer. The style is definitely more in line with France (hence Syrah versus Shiraz), but thanks to all that sun, there are suggestions of the Aussie style as well. Walla Walla. Red Mountain and Yakima are all AVAs to try.
Tasting notes: black cherry, plum, dried herbs, tobacco, olive, and baking spices.
Syrah, Shiraz, whatever you want to call it, this wine is definitely on the up and up. With great aging capability it’s a wine that’s highly collectible. Syrah is the kind of red you can enjoy with equal ease alongside a fine cut of steak or at a summer barbecue. Delicious examples are found worldwide, beyond the regions outlined above. California, New Zealand, even Italy, Chile, and Spain make tasty versions, but personally, I’m forever drawn back to Okanagan. Syrahs from the Valley are in that sweet spot between the French and Australian styles; they’re ripe but not overly so, maintaining the wonderful savory minerality that people love about the Rhone. Okanagan’s unique terroir means world-class Syrah is just one of many wines we’re able to produce, and one of the things that will set this region a cut above the rest in the years to come.