Is syrah having a moment? I hope so. The full-bodied, peppery red gives me thrills that more popular and venerated cabernet sauvignon can't. Maybe it's because I love black licorice, white pepper and smoked meat, three of the grape's hallmark nuances. Maybe it's because I like roast lamb, which is not a classic syrah flavour but pairs beautifully with the wine. Now, if I could find a syrah that tastes like roast lamb, that would be awesome – and would save me a bundle at the butcher's.
Perhaps I should say "yet another" moment. Around the turn of the millennium, syrah, at least in the bellwether U.S. market, was on a tear. Vintners in California had been planting it with fury, expecting consumers to abandon their cabs and merlots mid-glass to make a bee line for the syrah party. But the party fizzled. Randall Grahm, founder of California-syrah pioneer Bonny Doon Vineyards, said it best in a 2010 New York Times article: "It appears to have crashed and burned in this country."
Some people blamed Sideways, the 2004 film that incited a stampede to pinot noir. But I wonder if it wasn't more a case of unrealistic expectations. Wild, sweaty syrah will always have to struggle for attention next to pretty-boy pinot and handsomely chiseled cabernet sauvignon.
Unless, that is, you count syrah's alter ego, shiraz. It's the same grape, but the synonym popularized by Australia has come to mark a stylistic line in the sand. In the hot, sunny climes of Down Under, the variety can produce wines so fat and jammy that they almost need reinforced-glass stemware. Aussie-style shiraz, much of it irresistibly priced, was destined for mass appeal.
At the other end of the spectrum sit the classic syrahs of France's northern Rhone valley, bottled under such appellation names as Hermitage, Crozes-Hermitage, St. Joseph, Cornas and Côte-Rôtie. These are tight and savoury wines, often with glorious notes of bacon fat and leather as they evolve in the cellar. They can be expensive, with top bottlings fetching anywhere from $40 all the way up to $300 or more for Guigal's sublime single-vineyard Côte-Rôties. But decent, peppery syrah can sometimes be found for $15 to $20 – if not always on its own at least as the sturdy backbone to soft grenache in many southern French blends, including Cotes du Rhone and the reds of the vast Languedoc-Roussillon region.
Canadians – by and large more import-savvy than Americans, who are fiercely loyal to California wine – have been tucking into Australian shiraz with gusto for a long time. But if the variety is now enjoying a moment in the sun here, it's thanks mainly to the expanding selection of cooler-climate examples. Those wines are coming not just from France but from such places as Hawke's Bay in New Zealand, which for my money turns out some of the finest syrahs outside the Rhone.
And they're coming from beautiful British Columbia. The province's progress with the grape was in evidence in London last May at a Canadian-sponsored tasting for British wine critics and wholesale buyers at Canada House on Trafalgar Square. Even Hugh Johnson, the widely published author and senior statesman of wine writing, expressed surprise at the quality of B.C. syrahs poured at a seminar hosted by Toronto-based master sommelier John Szabo.
And last month the B.C. industry staged a blind tasting of 12 syrahs (as well as 12 chardonnays), half from the province and half from around the world. The wines were adjudicated by 16 Canadian experts and one noteworthy foreigner, Steven Spurrier, the British critic famous for organizing the Paris Tasting of 1976, which pitted upstart California wines against expensive French counterparts. The winner? A 2013 Okanagan gem made by C.C. Jentsch, which placed ahead of reputable, comparably priced wines from Australia, the northern Rhone, Santa Barbara and Washington state. It was a proud day for grape grower and owner Chris Jentsch and his winemaker, Amber Pratt. And it was a pretty good moment for B.C. syrah.
C.C. Jentsch Cellars Syrah 2013 (British Columbia)
SCORE: 92 PRICE: $29.90
Chris Jentsch, whose family began growing orchard fruit in the Okanagan in 1929, began converting to grapes 15 years ago. For most of that time, he and wife Betty sold their crop to neighbouring wineries. A couple of years ago, they launched their own brand to almost instant acclaim. This 2013 syrah, grown by Jentsch and made by Vancouver Island native Amber Pratt, deserves praise for its French-style firmness and finesse. Juicy and very spicy, it shows sour plum and ripe blackberry lifted by licorice, smoke and meaty game, supported by gently dusty tannins. Available direct from the winery, www.ccjentschcellars.com. Also available in impressively large 3-litre bottles for $99.80.
Domaine Durand Empreintes Cornas 2012 (France)
SCORE: 92 PRICE: $46.95
Meaty and well-structured, this 100-per-cent syrah from the tiny Cornas appellation in the northern Rhone offers juicy plum-blackberry fruit infused with classic French-syrah notes of game and white pepper. It should pay dividends with eight or 10 years in the cellar. Available in Ontario.
Hester Creek Syrah-Viognier 2013 (British Columbia)
SCORE: 91 PRICE: $24.95
Great syrah producers in France's Cote Rotie appellation like to add a small quantity of white viognier grapes to the fermenting vat to help stabilize syrah's colour and give the red wine a floral lift. Hester Creek embraces the formula in this well-priced 2013, which contains 6-per-cent viognier. Supple yet crisp and complex, it offers notes of leather, black olive, roasted meat, lavender and dark coffee. Just 500 cases produced. Available only direct through the estate's wine club or locally through the wine shop, Hestercreek.com.
Laughing Stock Syrah 2013 (British Columbia)
SCORE: 91 PRICE: $38
Laughing Stock's luscious 2013 syrah, enhanced by a dollop of viognier, achieves richness without veering into the jammy terrain usually associated with wines labelled by the synonym "shiraz." It's richly oaked, with dark-fruit flavour suggesting blackberry coulis, gaining complexity from additional notes of pepper, herbs, charred meat, vanilla and tar. Available direct, www.laughingstock.ca.
Trinity Hill Syrah 2013 (New Zealand)
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $22.95
Medium-bodied and relatively modest in alcohol, at just 12.5 per cent, this fine offering from an excellent winery in Hawke's Bay on New Zealand's North Island is a ringer for good Crozes-Hermitage, with impressive ripeness despite its lean frame. Nuances of black licorice and pepper dance above the fruit, framed by supple tannins. Balanced and elegant. Various prices in Alta.
Black Hills Syrah 2013 (British Columbia)
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $36.90
Intense black fruit flavours combine with unsweetened dark cocoa, beef broth and pepper, set against supple, chewy tannins. http://www.blackhillswinery.com/.
Carmen Gran Reserva Syrah 2012 (Chile)
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $17.95
Sunshine combined with cool nights in Chile's Apalta region conspired to yield a wine that stylistically sits somewhere between Australian shiraz and Rhone-valley syrah. Luscious berry-like fruit is coated in vanilla and dark-roast coffee flavours, lifted by cracked pepper and a touch of mint. Available in Ontario.
The Flavour Principle by Lucy Waverman and Beppi Crosariol took home top prize last year for best general English cookbook at the Taste Canada Food Writing Awards. Published by HarperCollins.