Winter is the season when most folks start craving Syrah—its dark, gamey, savory profile is the perfect match for things like braises and rack of lamb. Although great examples exist in the U.S., Australia and South Africa, nowhere does the grape achieve those savory qualities more than in its original home base: France’s northern Rhône Valley.
There, Syrah is almost single-handedly responsible for all of the red wine produced. Think appellations like Hermitage, Crozes-Hermitage, Côte-Rôtie, Cornas and Saint-Joseph. Those wines aren’t about jamminess. Fruit is an important part of the equation, but it plays a supporting role to things like smoky minerality, brisk acidity and flavors that run the gamut from olive to black pepper to tobacco. Just over a generation ago, northern Rhône reds were considered rustic and austere to many palates; yet others appreciated them for their levity and charm. Then, a so-called wave of "modern" wines entered the scene, giving the region what it needed to captivate an international audience: more weight, sleek black fruit, a touch of new oak. Both styles have their champions.
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The biggest names in classic and modern Syrah—Graillot, Jamet, Chave, Clape, Allemand, Guigal—will definitely run up an impressive tab. They also need years of bottle age for their tannins to melt away and their real appeal to show through. The good news is that we’re in the midst of another revolution, and the current wave of producers (I like to think of them as postmodern) has authored a range of styles that share a family resemblance with the classic wines in a retro sort of way: organically farmed grapes, eschewing new oak, stem inclusion, even foot-stomping in some instances. But they also share the same spirit of gulpability loved by those who drink Cru Beaujolais in the spring and fall.