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Wine School! (Lesson #7 – Syrah/Shiraz)

Mar. 15, 2010
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Syrah—the juicy grape.

Our final red class focuses on Syrah. (Or Shiraz, if you prefer—same grape.) Of the three reds, syrahs are biggest and fruitiest. Now, I use "biggest" to mean the fullest body—not necessarily the strongest flavor.

I had a misconception about Syrah. I was under the impression that the French cultivated Syrah, and after transport to Australia, gained its more common name, Shiraz. Nope. The French actually changed the name. The grape's name comes from the city of Shiraz in Southern Iran, the possible origin of winemaking over 7,000 years ago. You may see a varietal called "Petit Sirah." While a distant cousin, it's a very different grape than Syrah—one that yields wines that are even bigger and much more tannic.

Syrah creates wines that tend to be fruity (and I mean dark fruit—like blackberries and plums) and peppery. Syrah is considerably less tannic than Cabernet Sauvignon, and so doesn't generally age as well. Some vintages age better than others, but, generally, Syrah really comes into its own after about 3-4 years. 

Our syrah lineup was:

Estancia 2005 Central Coast Syrah – $11-13

C. Guigal 2006 Cotes du Rhone – $11-13

Penfold's 2007 Koonunga Hill Shiraz – $9-11

We cracked the Estancia first and gave it a swirl. Smelled like smoke and alcohol, tasted like spiked grape juice. Much like the cabernet, decanting was necessary. However, once you open a syrah, you're committed. Even if you vacuum-seal a bottle, the big fruit taste fades rapidly, so plan to finish within 2-3 days, tops.

After 20 minutes, we tried again. First up, the Estancia. After decanting, the smoky scent was still there, but much more gently. Instead, a strong dark berry aroma took center stage. The full body of this wine was loaded with big flavors of blueberry. The finish was fruity and was the least dry of the three. The finish is best described as "smoked blueberries."

Moving on to the Guigal. Cotes-du-Rhone is typically a blend of Syrah and Grenache. These are the "generic" wines of the Rhone. I find them to be good "starter" wines if you want to start tasting French wines. The Guigal's nose was light, berries and flowers. Since it's a blend, the Grenache made the wine lighter and less fruity. The finish was somewhat dry, "leathery," and slightly chalky. While the description may not sound appealing, Cotes-du-Rhone really shows its colors when matched with food.

Finally, the Penfold's. This Australian number also had a fruity nose, but with a leather and vanilla scent backing it up. The body was second in line here, with a smoky flavor and a taste like figs or prunes -- not sweet fruits as with many Syrahs. The finish was full of vanilla and pepper.

We tried different recipes on three consecutive nights. With a warm, spicy lentil dish, the big winner (not surprisingly) was the Guigal. We did a slow-cooker roast with vegetables and fruit, seasoned with honey and cinnamon. The Estancia was the best pairing here. Our final meal was mustard-coated lamb with rosemary-garlic potatoes. The Estancia is not recommended. The other two ran neck and neck, but the Penfold's won out by a nose. The peppery flavor of this wine meshed really well with the mustard and the richness of the meat. With chocolate for dessert—go with the Estancia or the Penfold's.

One lesson remains. The final white—Riesling.

Class dismissed.


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