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13. GRAPE VARIETIES Number 3: Syrah


  For those of you who are wondering about the order in which I am choosing to write about grape varieties, let me explain that it is according to my personal preference – Pinot Noir makes the greatest wines in the world, followed by Riesling, followed by Syrah.

  In Australia this grape variety is known as Shiraz, where it is widely planted, and for many years was regarded as a mere workhorse variety, being easy to grow, cropping reliably and abundantly. But if it is grown carefully (with restricted yields) in the right sites, such as the famous hill of Hermitage, it produces some of the world's greatest wines, with the ability to age for many decades. Jancis Robinson in her book "Vines Grapes and Wines" describes the flavour of Syrah as follows: "It is dry, dark, dense, tannic and matches Cabernet's cassis with burnt rubber for some, smoke and tar for others."

 Syrah's home is the northern Rhône – the two finest wines being Hermitage, and Côte Rotie, where it can be, and often is, mixed with a small amount of Viognier, a white grape, which allegedly adds a bit of perfume to the wines; Cornas follows, but tends to be a bit more rustic; then St. Joseph, where there are some very fine sites, but the appellation has been extended, so now the wines are more mixed in quality; and Crozes-Hermitage, where the wines from Paul Jaboulet and Alain Graillot are worth looking out for. The variety is also grown in the southern Rhône: Châteauneuf du Pape, Côtes du Rhône and its villages such as Gigondas and Cairanne, but as very much second fiddle to the dominant Grenache. It is a useful counterbalance to Grenache, which produces heavy, rich, soft, alcoholic wines which can lack colour and are prone to oxidation (going brown) – Syrah is very thick-skinned, producing deeply coloured, almost black wines, which keep their colour; it also produces wines with less weight and more acidity, all useful in adding structure to the Grenache in blends.

  Syrah is also grown all over the south of France as a cépage améliorateur, adding class to blends with less distinguished varieties such as Cinsault and Carignan in them. In Australia it produces two great, arguably Australia's greatest, wines: Henschke's Hill of Grace (100% Shiraz) and Penfold's Grange (predominantly Shiraz, but usually with a small proportion of Cabernet Sauvignon); lower down the scale it produces many huge, rich, lush wines, with lots of blackcurrant and vanilla flavours. It is also grown with great success in South Africa, where the style is drier and more akin to the Rhône than Australia; in fact, it is for me South Africa's best grape variety. Plantings in Chile are increasing, with excellent results, and it is grown in California, with a contingent of growers being known as "Rhône Rangers"; in particular, Bob Lindquist at Qupe is producing outstanding Rhône-like Syrahs. It is also grown Herefordshire, and I have tasted the wine, which is pale and light – an interesting curiosity, but at least it shows that it will grow almost anywhere1