BERGER: Cool climates can save syrah

A decade ago, syrah was a grape on the rise. Winemakers tweeted its greatness, wine lovers seemed to appreciate it as a saner-priced alternative to pricier red wines, and all was looking up for a grape that essentially didn't exist in California 30 years earlier.

When a cover story in The Wine Spectator in 2003 said syrah had arrived as a great grape, it all but guaranteed that syrah would gain a prominent place with Americans in the vinous firmament.

In the last few years, however, syrah hit the proverbial wall. Sales slowed, and today's younger wine lovers seem less enthralled with the variety than had been predicted.

Sure, there are still exciting syrahs out there, and prices for many wines still seem to be fair. But the category is no longer on the rise. Sales of red wines from the Rh?e Valley in France seem to be regaining some traction in restaurants and at retail shops.

Part of the malaise for California syrah may well be that the slightly over-ripe character of so many red wines, which can lead to hard, gritty tannins, has left some syrah buyers seeking a less aggressive red. Who likes being assaulted by enough tannin to remove rust from the barbecue?

Also, I suspect that the high alcohols we've seen in so many syrahs are simply irksome to most buyers. Indeed, it is these very wines that seem to get the highest scores from wine magazines, but mainstream consumers do not like the heat alcohol generates.

A few years ago, when I began to see a backlash against such wines, I wrote that syrah was fast becoming the merlot of the 21st century, with many wines nearly indistinguishable from one another.

Since that seemed to be the case, I concluded that savvy consumers who once bought $25 syrahs trade down to $15 syrahs and see if they found much difference. A few wrote me and said they preferred the cheaper wines. So I suggested they try $10 syrahs -- and a couple wrote back that those wines were just as good as the far pricier wines!

This isn't universally true. The better shirazes from Australia, for instance, usually offer a distinctiveness that justifies a slightly higher price. And I emphasize "slightly," since a few Aussie shirazes at $40 and $60 are simply ludicrous examples of trying to stage a highway robbery sans firearm.

And the main reason is that such wines often are 15% alcohol or more, which in my view is simply ridiculous.

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