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Wine: Give syrah another chance

Speaking of a St. Louis restaurant years ago, baseball guru Yogi Berra famously said: “Nobody goes there any more; it’s too crowded.”

Something like that may have happened to the California red wine called syrah.

It’s an odd story. Produced for centuries in France’s Rhone Valley, with the mighty Hermitage red its flagship, syrah was considered a truly noble grape.

It was seen as an easier-going alternative to the muscular Bordeaux grape cabernet sauvignon. Syrah was inky purple in color, with intense flavors of blueberries, smoked meat, tobacco, minerals and spice, with smooth, nonpunitive tannins.

Exported in 1831 to Australia, where it was called shiraz, it reacted to the warmer weather by making a softer, sweeter wine that retained most of its Rhone cousin’s good qualities.

So when it arrived in California in the 1970s, it was touted as America’s “next big thing.” For a while it was. Production soared.

But suddenly, in the late 1990s, syrah hit a wall. Because it was so popular, some California growers started planting it in the wrong places, picking it too ripe, vinifying it too sweet, in so many styles that it took on a generic quality.

Then, in 2004, syrah was blindsided by the movie “Sideways” – the story of a wine road trip by friends Miles, the wine snob, and Jack, the thoughtless guzzler.

In it, Miles declares his contempt for the red wine merlot, which was undergoing its own quality crisis, and his love for the subtle, hard-to-make red wine pinot noir.

Hollywood showed its power over public opinion. Pinot noir sales boomed, merlot sales plummeted, and syrah was caught in the backdraft, its sales dropping as well.

Times change. Lessons are learned. Merlot has clawed its way back into popularity with American sippers, and syrah finally may be doing the same.

California syrah growers are stressing the importance of planting syrah in the right places.

Morgan Winery grows its syrah in the Arroyo Seco and Santa Lucia Highlands appellations cooled by nearby Monterey Bay. The grapes are certified both organic and sustainable.

In Australia, Terlato & Chapoutier winery is making single-vineyard shiraz from that country’s cool Central Victoria region, similar to France’s Rhone Valley.

Today good syrah remains the kinder alternative to cabernet sauvignon.

It’s time to give it another chance.

Highly recommended

• 2012 Morgan Syrah “G17,” Monterey (80 percent syrah, 10 percent tempranillo, 10 percent grenache): hint of oak, intense black raspberry and black pepper flavors, firm tannins; $22.

• 2011 Arrowood Syrah, “Saralee’s Vineyard,” Russian River Valley (100 percent syrah): hint of smoky oak, hearty flavors of red meat, blueberries and cloves; $35.

• 2009 Terlato and Chapoutier “L Block” Shiraz, Pyrenees, Australia (100 percent shiraz): minty aroma, intense, complex flavors of black cherries and black pepper, full body, firm tannins; $60.


• 2011 Amapola Creek “Cuvee Alis,” Sonoma Valley (88 percent syrah, 12 percent grenache): intensely fruity, with aromas and flavors of black cherries, black raspberries and spice; $48.

• 2012 Kendall-Jackson Syrah “Vintner’s Reserve,” Calif.: (81 percent syrah, 12 percent petite sirah, 7 percent grenache): floral aromas, flavors of ripe black plums and cloves; $17.

• 2012 Robert Oatley “Signature Series Shiraz,” McLaren Vale, Australia (100 percent shiraz): hint of oak, soft, spicy blueberry fruit, lightly sweet; $20.

Fred Tasker can be reached at