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Why Underrated Syrah Deserves Your Attention, STAT

Why Underrated Syrah Deserves Your Attention, STAT

Sorry, Cab! Syrah Might Just Be the New Carnivore Classic.

Wines by the fire | Photo Credit: Dutcher Crossing

Syrah is, in many ways, ubiquitous. But is it truly appreciated and understood?

The table grape Kyoho earns top billing in sheer acres under vine (901,934 thousand to be exact), followed by the steakhouse classic Cabernet Sauvignon. While Syrah doesn’t break the top five, it does squeeze into the top 10 of most planted grapes, at number eight, with 469,500 acres under vine.

Which is to say that Syrah is grown across the world, from the Rhône Valley, where it was born and is beloved for its cool, elegant restraint, to Australia, where it’s called Shiraz and offers up ripe, fruit-forward bounty from the warmer climate. 

But Syrah, as a beverage, is rarely anyone’s go-to. Instead, it’s many people’s third or fourth-choice option when they’re in the mood for something different, but not completely new. However, there are signs that Syrah’s fortunes are changing. 

An Emerging Restaurant Classic

Red wine & steak | Adobe Stock

Sommeliers say they’re popping more bottles of Syrah these days, and feel like this wine lover’s grape is finally getting the attention it deserves from more casual imbibers. 

“Syrah is a very underrated grape varietal,” says Alexander Link, general manager and sommelier at Charleston, WV’s Final Cut Steakhouse at Hollywood Casino. “It can offer great value and flavor when you’re looking for a big-bodied red wine.”

Like Cabernet Sauvignon, the ne plus ultra steakhouse standby, Syrah has enough tannin and body to balance out any cut of meat. 

“But unlike Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah is grown in a more diverse range of climates, so you can get non-fruit, spicy flavors, which can really enhance and add complexity to flavors in a dining experience,” Link says. “Syrah is truly a food wine.”

A Flexitarian Grape

Syrah is a chameleon. Big, bold, and meaty here, fruit-forward and elegant there. 

Vintners like Nick Briggs at Geyserville, CA’s Dutcher Crossing Winery, where there are 15 different varieties across 75 acres planted, find that Syrah is one of the most interesting and flexible grapes he works with.

“Our Syrah is full-bodied, while remaining balanced,” Briggs says. “There’s a focus on fruit and textural richness, and it is approachable early in life, while also having the structure and depth to age very well.”

Enjoyable young, but cellar-worthy wine is the holy grail of winemaking. And, because Syrah’s popularity has not yet approached its relative quality, it is also typically one of the best bargains.

“Syrah provides excellent value compared to Cabernet Sauvignon,” Briggs says. “It is not an apple-to-apple comparison, but you can find very high-quality Syrah wines at affordable prices, while the highest quality Cabernet Sauvignons can empty your wallet.”

Hands-Off Field and Cellar Work

Winemaker Nick Briggs | Photo Credit: Dutcher Crossing

Syrah is a survivor, making it an increasingly popular option for growers in an ever-changing and unpredictable climate.

“Syrah is a hearty grape, and seems to need less tending in the vineyard,” says James Sparks, winemaker at Kings Carey in Santa Barbara. “It can also have a wide range of styles depending on how it’s made.”

Bobby Richards, winemaker at Seven Hills Winery in Walla Walla, says that he aims to create Syrahs that are “a balance between fruit, acid, and tannin, while showcasing terroir.” 

He says his approach in the cellar with Syrah is completely different from the tack he takes with other reds like Cabernet Sauvignon. 

“Our Syrah sees about 30 percent new French and Austrian oak, more time on the lees, very little racking, and stem inclusion of up to 100 percent for some ferments,” Richards says. “Whereas our Cabernet Sauvignon sees 50 percent new French oak, no stem inclusion, and multiple rackings during its time in cellar.”

Jeff Lindsay-Thorsen, winemaker at W.T. Vintners in Woodinville, WA, agrees that the Rhône-born variety requires a lot less hand-holding in the cellar than Bordeaux reds. 

“Cabernet Sauvignon loves oak and it wants extra attention in the cellar,” Lindsay-Thorsen says. “Often it needs a little something extra to be complete; a little, or a lot, of new oak, a splash of Cabernet Franc or Merlot to fill in the holes.”

But at the sites they farm in Washington, their Syrah has naturally modest tannins that rarely need taming, vibrant fruit, spice, meat, floral notes, earthy undertones, and natural acidity that keeps it fresh and lively, he says. 

“Syrah welcomes a more minimalist approach in the cellar, often rewarding less intervention with a wine that is both textured and vibrant,” Lindsay-Thorsen explains. 

The Perfect BBQ Pairing?

Friends enjoying wine & BBQ | Adobe Stock

While sommeliers and aficionados see Syrah as the ideal steakhouse alternative, the producers who make it often opt to bust it out during the summer, when they want a red to pair with a grilled … anything. 

“Syrah is perfect for barbecues and outdoor parties as long as you’re drinking it after the temperature has cooled a bit in the evening sunset hours,” says Briggs. “It is highly versatile for pairing with grilled or smoked barbecue dishes.”

Lindsay-Thorsen concurs, adding that a simple $15-$20 bottle will suit grill-outs perfectly. 

“Simple, everyday Syrah is the BBQ champion; it plays off the sweetness of BBQ sauce, the smoke of the grill, the caramelization of long cooked meats,” he says. “It would be tough to find a better wine for BBQ. Just don’t serve it at summer room temp, give it a little chill or serve it cellar temperature.”

Warm night, grilled meats, great company, chilled Syrah. Sounds like the ideal summer pairing to us.