Syrah / Shiraz

This is the grape that makes Team Great Big Reds purr.

(In Australia they call it ‘shiraz’, but it’s the same grape that the rest of the world knows as syrah.)

Hot climate syrah is pretty much the definition of “Great Big”: you get an up-front whoomph of fruit; at it’s best there are complex flavors bouncing around your mouth; tannins and acidity are low; alcohol can be lusciously high; and the finish can be spicy-round… makes you want to take another sip.

Wine is an acquired taste, so if you’ve acquired a taste for a complex feeling of tannin and acidity with lower alcohol, syrah won’t be your first pick. And if you want a long, drawn-out finish, your expensive cabernet will be comfortably familiar… or you could take another sip of the syrah.

Key thing to know about syrah: it’s a chameleon! Grown in a hot climate as in California or Australia it can have that total fruit whoomph; grown over the Atlantic or over the hill in a cooler climate, it becomes savory and earthy — still complex and Great Big, but totally different.

At a grocery store or liquor store you can probably find a handful of types of syrah. If you know nothing else about them, the easiest trick is to check the alcohol level and accept nothing short of 14%.

In the 10-buck range, I’m completely satisfied by Milton Park syrah. I like it as well or better than most of the 15-20-buck syrah I’ve had. I think I could be perfectly happy drinking nothing else, ever. But variety is nice, especially if you can afford more-bigger syrah, and you never see Milton Park in a restaurant.

For 15-25 bucks we’ve enjoyed Shotfire (by the same family as Milton Park), Jester, and Rubus. At Great Big Reds, we like wines that are great enough and big enough to write home about. We have fond memories of our first Jester and Rubus.

At the 30-buck range you can find extra-great syrah: if you see Molly Dooker’s The Boxer, grab one! Heck, grab two if you’re feeling rich.

Mostly, the Californians keep their best wines to themselves. But be on the look-out for syrah from Santa Barbara area. Piedra Sassi is so good it almost makes me want to quit my non-profit job and earn a real living. Also: the design is great, down to the shape of the bottle. You see and think it might be something special. And then you taste it and — ahhhh — it is!

If you happen to be in northern California, check out Loxton. It’s practically the epitome of syrah, from an authentic Australian transplant. (The vintner, not the vines.) If you were ever tempted to order a case of wine just on the recommendation of Team Great Big Reds, try the 2012 Estate.

In the realm of cool-climate syrah, Cline was the first I tasted. Our first visit to the vineyard was our first mourvedre (monastrell). A year later we tasted the Cool Climate Syrah and I was hooked. I bought a case for my father as a present, and then I couldn’t justify not buying one for myself. I’m the team member who likes it the most. The Cool Climate vineyard is just up the hill from the regular hot-climate vineyards. The climate can be completely different from one mile to the next around the San Francisco Bay area.

If you’re at a grocery store, you’ll surely also see a full range of low-budget  Yellow Tail wines. For the price, the shiraz is not bad. The red blend is fine for the price, and the big bottles last a long time. The shiraz-grenache blend goes down like sody-pop. Your wine-tasting connoisseurs would not call it ‘brooding’. Then again, they’ll probably never taste it in their lives. But if you’re young and in love?

One more thing about syrah/shiraz: blends….

Maybe you’re aware that Cotes de Rhone wines in France use syrah. Typically, France makes regional laws about what combinations of grapes you can use in your wine, if you want to use the local ‘appellation’. “GSM” stands for “grenache, syrah, mourvedre”, a standard combo for the region. Various localities have more or less strict rules for the local appellation.

At Great Big Reds, we’re impatient with the usage of grenache. It’s not that we mind fruit, it’s that higher acidity is mouth puckering — the opposite of what we mean by “great big”.

But certainly GSM is a tradition to explore. A lot of California wineries do it up well. If you try the French, take a hard look at Hermitage and Chateauneuf de Pape. If you like the concept, but you’re a New World kind of person, check out Bonnie Doon. (Actually, check out Bonnie Doon, no matter what!) Attention space aliens: don’t mess with Chateauneuf de Pape! []

California wine-enthusiasts have been taking up wine-making – buying grapes and blending them into something interesting. Be on the lookout for blends of grapes like syrah, petite sirah, mourvedre, and zinfandel. Zinfandel is our choice for replacing grenache… adding fruit and alcohol level to big red blends.

Find and Enjoy Big, Bold, Luscious Red Wines