Has Syrah Lost Its Mojo?

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in: Drinking

A winter syrah vineyard in the Santa Maria Valley.

Practically everyone I know who loves Syrah loves it for its wildness – the scent of wood smoke and violets, the hint of wild herbs and white pepper, the light-bending core of dark fruit, the weirdly thrilling flavors of blood and meat and olive and earth. Whatever the descriptor, there’s a sauvage quality to good Syrah that quickens the pulse of even the most genteel wine drinker.

But as Syrah enters its 35th modern harvest in California (Joseph Phelps produced the first, in 1974), the variety seems to have gotten tame with the years; the wines are sweeter, fatter, more buxom, more monochromatic; much of the wildness that drew us to the category has been baked, ripened or oaked out of them. They’ve become, as one winemaker put it, “amenable, but dull.” Damning words for any wine, of course, but for Syrah, unthinkable. Why, not long ago those words might have been used to describe – gasp! – merlot.

So how, exactly, did California Syrah lose its wild hair?

The variety’s amenability is partly to blame. Syrah has an uncanny ability to produce a decent wine almost anywhere. It thrives on sunbaked hillsides normally reserved for cabernet sauvignon and does just fine in relatively frosty sites the next block over from pinot noir. For red wines, that is practically the gamut of climatic territory, and Syrah pulls it off with the ease of a gifted center fielder.

Predictably, this yields a range of results, leaving the average consumer adrift in a purple sea of uncertainty. Which of the many faces of Syrah will be revealed? Animal or mineral? Spice box or jam pot? Power or nuance? “There’s so much confusion over what you’re actually going to get,” says Justin Smith of Saxum Vineyards in Paso Robles. “Unless you’ve done your research, it’s sort of a minefield out there.”

For assistance, consumers have flocked to Robert Parker Jr. for guidance. In fact, no one has done more to define Syrah’s identity in this country than Parker, through his many guidebooks as well as his publication, The Wine Advocate. For better or worse, American Syrah came of age during the Parker era: His first report on the variety, published in The Wine Advocate in 1988, may have been Syrah’s coming out. His abiding interest, not to mention his high scores, placed Syrah squarely in the spotlight. But his highest scores were frequently bestowed upon a bigger style of wine – and winemakers took notice. “It was pretty simple,” says Qupé’s Bob Lindquist, one of California’s first Syrah practitioners, “Parker was rewarding riper wines, so people started to make it in riper styles.”

Partly for this reason, a great Syrah in this country is rarely associated with where it comes from, the way Napa is linked with great cabernet and the Russian River is with pinot; rather, it’s associated with a style. “One hundred points,” says winemaker Pax Mahle of Wind Gap. “That’s the reference point by which Syrah’s identity is based in the U.S.”

For style points, few Syrahs have ever surpassed the variety’s first “cult” producer, Manfred Krankl, who debuted Syrahs and blends for his label Sine Qua Non in 1994. Impossibly powerful, massive, extracted, rich as chocolate cake, Krankl tore up the rule book with his heady new wines, some of the most voluptuous produced in California to that point, and about as subtle as a truncheon. Parker gave the wines stratospheric scores, and suddenly there was a new paradigm for the variety, a style that people started to emulate. Winemaker John Alban was hardly surprised: “No one wants to imitate the failures,” he says, quite sensibly. But no one cared that Alban Vineyard fruit had been the principal source of many of Krankl’s remarkable reds. Place just didn’t seem that important.

John Alban, Syrah

Winemaker John Alban.

Nevertheless, there’s plenty of evidence that Alban Vineyard is an exceptional place to grow Syrah. It’s located in the warm pocket of the relatively cool Edna Valley, within sight of the ocean, but otherwise protected from it. There, Alban makes three vineyard designates, Reva, Lorraine and Seymour’s, each of them distinct pockets of the property, each seductive in different ways.

Yet discussion of Alban wines often has less to do with place than with the distinct shift in style he’s achieved since he started producing the variety in 1992. These wines have made a striking transformation from brooding, dark, almost inward-looking reds, to wines of uncommon sensuality and voluptuous power. Alban’s Syrahs are as suave as any in California, and he achieves this without sacrificing the sense of place he started with. They may be at full volume, but the music is undistorted and pure.

The change, he says, largely has to do with the way he manages his tannins. Tannins, you may recall, are a byproduct of a grape’s skins, seeds and stems and provide an important structural component in red wines. They can be hard or sinuous, gripping or supple. In cabernet, tannins are massive and powerful; in pinot noir, they have give. In Syrah, they’re thought to be formidable.  But in Alban’s opinion, this has more to do with their mishandling. “It wasn’t that long ago that Syrah was considered the ‘manliest of wines,’ ” says Alban. (In fact, it was the British wine writer George Saintsbury who said that – in 1920.) “But it wasn’t the grape, it was what people were doing with it. What made it so manly was its angry tannins.”

Alban has learned, he says, to “harmonize” the grape’s tannins, altering his vineyard and winery practices to soften those tannins into something less peppery and rustic and more soft and silky.  “We want to find that balance point where the tannins are sweeter, riper, and that those elements coincide physiologically with what else is going on in the grape.”

But that balance point can be a difficult target, especially in California’s warmer climates, where the level of sugar in the grape can rise precipitously while the tannins mellow and the grape’s phenolic maturity – the very flavor compounds that make Syrah so haunting, so wild – dawdles like a distracted child.

Excessive sugars inevitably mean high alcohols, and in a Syrah from warm climes, 15% and even 16% aren’t uncommon. If the flavors and concentration are there, high alcohols are often tolerable, even integral. But if the flavors haven’t developed or have started to degrade, as is the case with overripe fruit, you have a Syrah that’s boring or imbalanced or both, whose only measure of manliness is its combustibility.

One of a series of articles on American Syrah. The first was Syrah’s Identity Crisis. Next: Location, location, location – what place has to do with Syrah’s identity.

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