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According to an old California wine adage, "Great grapes rise to the top." This explains why Zinfandel emerged from a thicket of anonymous vine cuttings, why Merlot slipped out of Cabernet Sauvignon's shadow and why Syrah now seems poised to take its place in the spotlight.

Syrah, the noble red grape of the northern Rhône region of France, is the grape of the moment in California. This isn't altogether surprising, for Syrah is one grape that can out-Merlot Merlot (America's favorite red varietal). It's just as smooth-drinking, but even juicier, fruitier, spicier, more luscious. In fact, as Next Big Things go, Syrah has a lot going for it.

Syrah lovers are convinced that California's early fixation with Bordeaux grape varieties like Cabernet and Merlot was a case of winemakers getting off on the wrong viticultural foot. It's their contention that California's warm wine-growing valleys have always had more in common with the northern Rhône than with cool, maritime Bordeaux.

"Compared with the California Cabernets and Merlots I'm tasting, the Rhône varietals just seem more at home here to me," says wine importer Kermit Lynch, an authority on Rhône wines, who is based in Berkeley, California. "They've got more soul and mystery to them."

This is certainly true of the best California Syrahs, made by established producers like Sean Thackrey, Jade Mountain, Araujo, Edmunds St. John, Qupé and Joseph Phelps. These wines are all capable of pulling off the same kind of vinous balancing act that makes the Syrah-based wines of Hermitage and Côte Rôtie so fervently sought after. Dense, multilayered, with complex, unexpected flavors, they can also be wines of velvety gracefulness, somehow never quite over the top. But can these semi- exotic wines, each with its own cult following, serve as models for large producers who want to create Syrahs that will appeal to mainstream tastes?

That was actually the prediction back in the mid-1980s, when the wine press began whooping up a group called the Rhône Rangers, a never quite fully formed posse of vintners from around California who produced wines from Syrah, Mouvèdre and other Rhône varieties. What makes things different this time around is actually not etymology, but entomology, specifically a dreaded bug called Phylloxera vastatrix.

The phylloxera root louse that devastated so many California vineyards in the 1990s may have given Syrah its biggest break. According to Lynch, "With all the replanting going on, I think a lot of people took the opportunity to say, well, there's too much Merlot and too much Chardonnay on the market, so let's plant some Syrah."

The numbers bear him out. As recently as 1988, there were only 139 acres of Syrah planted in the entire state of California; by 1998 (the last year for which complete figures are available), acreage had jumped to almost 7,200. But even that astonishing increase doesn't tell the whole story: of those 7,200 acres, at least 5,200 were nonbearing, meaning that the vineyards had been planted so recently that they weren't yet producing grapes. While 7,200 is still a fraction of the 41,000-plus acres of Merlot around the state, California is nevertheless looking at what could be a mini tsunami of Syrah juice.

This means that California Syrah, traditionally produced in limited quantities and sold at relatively stiff prices, will become a more accessibly priced wine. In many cases, the cost has already dropped. Kendall-Jackson and Fetzer are producing Syrahs that cost between $15 and $17. And with even more Syrah being planted, California wineries may be able to lure buyers to domestic Syrahs by producing wines that can compete with the $7 to $10 Australian Shirazes (Shiraz is the Australian name for Syrah) coming from Penfolds, Rosemount Estate and Wolf Blass.

Of course, not all California Syrahs are swooningly delicious, because some vineyard sites are just too warm to bring out the grape's best flavors. To produce a great Syrah wine, one that evokes the elements of spice and subtle fruit that Syrah lovers dream about, the grapes must be planted in relatively cool vineyards that allow them to hang and hang and develop over time. On the other hand, it's true that, as in Australia, Syrah planted on sites that most French winemakers would consider too hot for anything but baking brioche will still make good wines, of the jammy, straight-ahead, fruit-to-the-fore kind.

There's just one problem: in many vineyard areas, that's a recipe for disaster. "Syrah has some real difficulties to it," notes Tom Dehlinger, whose Dehlinger Winery produces all-but-unobtainable cult Syrahs in Sonoma's very cool Russian River Valley. "Of the late-ripening grapes, Cabernet is resistant to damage by fall rains, but Syrah is very susceptible." In other words, to bring out the best in Syrah, you've got to play chicken with rainstorms that may ruin your crop. This is a grape that can be a big-time gamble.

Still, says Thackrey, "Syrah is extremely well suited to California. It's like Pinot Noir in that it's just going to take a while to find the right sites. And even then, of course, all you've got is the raw material. As in cooking, you can give the best produce in the world to an incompetent chef, and he'll wreck it."

At least some of the "wreckage" in California Syrah, from Thackrey's point of view, comes from winemakers misapplying what they've learned from other grapes. "There's a tendency to go for finesse and delicacy," he says, which means shortened fermentation times, not too much skin contact (in order to keep the wine from becoming too tannic) and lots of fining (a clarification process). That works for some grapes, but Syrah just doesn't respond to that kind of treatment. Thackrey's wines, by contrast, let Syrah be Syrah. They are deep, chewy, richly extracted and seem to pull every nuance from the grape.

Down in Santa Barbara, original Rhône Ranger Bob Lindquist once based his wine on the most rustic French model. Nowadays, Lindquist says, he employs a more white-glove approach, one that calls for both destemmed grapes and gentler processing. The result is a Syrah that combines concentration with subtleties of spice and perfume.

This most versatile Rhône grape also goes beautifully with food. Sondra Bernstein, proprietor of The Girl & The Fig, a restaurant in Glen Ellen, California, believes so passionately in Syrah's food-friendly nature that she features more than 75 California Rhône varietals on her wine list, including Syrahs from Preston, Steele, Pezzi, King and Andrew Murray. "Our food is really about the earth and bringing the true flavors of the ingredients out," Bernstein says, "and these Syrahs are food-loving wines that I think are made with the same philosophy in mind."

If Syrah does fulfill the promise of becoming California's Next Big Thing, mainstream wineries will owe a debt to the pioneering work of small craftsmen like Thackrey and Lindquist, who have spent years producing some of California's most sensuous and pleasurable wines for relatively limited audiences. The only question in Lindquist's mind is why mainstream wineries have been waiting to make their bid. "Syrah has been a great wine in France for centuries," he says. "Why would anyone doubt that we could do it here?"

Richard Nalley is the wine editor for Departures, and a nationally syndicated wine columnist for Copley News Service.

Published April 2000
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