Syrah, also known as Shiraz in Australia, is one of the most noble grapes of the Rhône Valley, and by far the most widely planted Rhone variety in California. It is a key component in both our Grenache-based Côtes de Tablas and our Mourvedre-based Esprit de Tablas (typically 20-35% of each, depending on vintage), the lead grape in our Patelin de Tablas and Le Complice blends, and makes a wonderfully dark, spicy varietal wine, which we've made most years since 2002.
Syrah is one of the oldest established grape varietals in the Côtes du Rhône region of southern France, and the sixth-most-planted grape worldwide. It is tremendously flexible, and can make elegant and restrained wines as well as wines bursting with fruit and oak, in locations as diverse as France, California, South Africa, and Australia.
Despite various other legends about its origin, DNA research by Carole Meredith at U.C. Davis showed that Syrah is a native French grape, the offspring of two grapes (Dureza & Mondeuse Blanche) from southeastern France. Syrah first appears in the historical record in 1781 outside the Rhone village of Tain-l’Hermitage, where it is still planted today. The origin of Syrah's name is unknown, though it does not appear to have anything to do with the Persian city of Shiraz or the Greek island of Syra. Instead, linguists suggest it comes from the Latin word serus, meaning late-ripening.
Syrah is still most closely associated with the Northern Rhône appellations of Hermitage and Côte-Rotie, where it produces wines of phenomenal elegance and longevity. But it is also an important component (typically second after Grenache) in the wines of the southern Rhone, and actually represents a higher percentage of total national acreage in both Australia and South Africa than it does in France.
Syrah Around the World
France, Syrah acreage has grown nearly fifty-fold in the last half-century, from roughly 4,000 acres, most in the northern Rhône, in 1958 to nearly 170,000 acres all over the south of France today. In the northern Rhone, Syrah is typically made as a varietal wine, at times co-fermented or blended with small amounts of Viognier. In the southern Rhône and Languedoc, Syrah is an important blending varietal, and second only to Grenache in acreage. It provides to Grenache-based blends darker color, structure, tannin and ageability.
Australia, where the grape is known as Shiraz, has the second-most planted acres after France, at some 108,000 acres. It is the most-planted grape there, accounting for roughly one quarter of total acreage. Other countries with more than 10,000 acres planted include Spain, Argentina, South Africa, Italy, and the United States.
The first records of Syrah in the United States show it arriving in California in 1878, but it remained scarce until quite recently, with only 1,200 tons harvested in 1992. But the grape was about to experience rapid growth. In 1995 there were just 1,330 acres of Syrah in California. By 2001 there were 14,700 acres, an eleven-fold increase in six years. Acreage peaked in 2010 at 19,280, and declined to 15,400 acres by 2019 as many of vineyards supplying bulk grapes instead switched to the more fashionable Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir. Syrah is still the most widely planted Rhône grape in California, with more acreage than all the other Rhone varieties combined. Although it is occasionally confused with Petite Sirah, they are separate grapes. Experts believe most of what is called Petite Sirah is a cross of the varietals Peloursin and Durif.
Syrah at Tablas Creek
When we brought our cuttings from France we included four different clones of Syrah. These were quarantined for three years, then propagated here. We planted our first Beaucastel-clone Syrah blocks in 1994. The 14.8 acres we have is our 3rd-most, after Mourvedre and Grenache.
Syrah in the Vineyard and Cellar
Syrah is quite vigorous, and requires both fruit and cane thinning most years. Unlike most other Rhone grapes, its canes extend horizontally rather than up toward the sun, which is why it is the one grape permitted to be trellised instead of head-trained in Châteauneuf-du-Pape. It ripens earlier than any of the other red Rhône varietals, and we typically harvest it throughout the first half of September.
Syrah's small clusters and small berries produce juice with concentrated flavors and significant tannin. During vinification, we ferment Syrah in large open-top tanks, a process that exposes the juice to more oxygen and thereby softens the tannins and compensates for Syrah’s tendency toward reduction.
Flavors and Aromas
Syrah's small clusters and small berries produce juice with dark color, concentrated flavors and significant tannin. During vinification, we ferment Syrah in large open-top tanks, exposing the juice to oxygen and softening the tannins. We have recently begun experimenting with some whole-cluster fermentations, which emphasize Syrah's herbal and spice elements. Wines made from Syrah are intense with a dark purple-black color, with flavors of blackberry and black raspberry, smoke, bacon fat, and black pepper. Syrah reflects minerality well, and the chalky character of the tannins allow majority Syrah wines to age for decades, while also providing backbone to softer, fruitier grapes such as Grenache.
In our Mourvèdre-based Esprit de Tablas, Syrah is either the second or third grape, adding a deep blackish-purple color, minerality, spice, longevity and back-palate tannins. In our Grenache-based Côtes de Tablas, Syrah is our number two component, cutting the apparent sweetness of Grenache and producing wines that are balanced between sweet and savory notes, with more color, mineral, and spice. It is the lead grape, representing roughly half the total, of our Patelin de Tablas. Since 2016, we have celebrated the kinship between whole-cluster-fermented Syrah and Terret Noir with our Le Complice bottling. Finally, beginning in 2002 we have bottled Syrah as a varietal wine in limited quantities about two-thirds of our vintages.
This article originally appeared in one of our newsletters. Each newsletter, we spotlight the history and characteristics of one of our Rhone varietals. You can sign up for our mailing list.
You can go back to the summaries of the different Rhône grape varietals.