Sommeliers love it; on the other hand, they say they can’t sell it. So how did Syrah—the red variety so prized in France’s Northern Rhône—go off the rails in California? And by that, I mean in the minds of wine consumers, because besides those somms, producers throughout the state have been passionate about Syrah ever since unexplained “Samsonite cuttings” began making their way here from France back in the 1970s. (Thank you, Gary Eberle.)
Conventional wisdom has it that the wine is confusing. It’s something of a chameleon—successful in a range of climates—plump and fruit-forward in warm places, lean and savory in cooler ones, so you never know what you’re going to get (unless you know the producer and the region). But I’m not quite buying that. Other varieties also express vast ranges of character based on the terroir of their source (exhibit one: Pinot Noir) and lose nothing by way of reputation for it. Savvy consumers taste from region to region and find their preferred styles and vintners.
Another theory holds that inherent to Syrah is a character that’s slightly shocking and possibly a little off-putting to American wine drinkers used to bushels of fruit in their local, sunny-climate wines. That unique personality is a wildness, a slate of aromas leaning toward smoked or cured meat—even bacon fat—pepper, black olive, savory herbs, tobacco leaf, leather … Yes, but, but, but … those would be descriptors commonly applied to the great collectors’ bottles from the Northern Rhône! Clearly there’s a taste for the wild among plenty of wine fans in the know.
While I’ll allow that the uncommon character of Syrah might be a dividing line—a bit of a love-it-or-hate-it situation—something else was largely driving the suspicion about the variety. Because Syrah can grow well across a disparate range of climates, it was very widely planted, including in places where it was destined to produce only simple, flabby wines (read, no acidity). The bottles that still exist in that space sport bottom-shelf price tags and aren’t made with the interest of the smart wine consumer in mind. In the meantime, though, much has been learned about vineyard management, farming for more pinpoint balance between ripeness and brightness. And at the same time, vintners have been pushing the envelope, planting Syrah in cooler and cooler places, where they virtually channel the soul of the Rhône.
The upshot is that in the hands of California’s best Syrah growers and makers—and there are more and more of them—the wine is exciting, its wild side landing decidedly on the plus side of the ledger. It’s also an amazing food wine. Think of that smoked meat character as a brilliant bridge to beef and lamb on the grill, pulled pork, smoked Gouda … These 12 bottles make the case better than I can.
Booker 2018 Fracture Syrah Paso Robles
Eric Jensen’s 2018 “Fracture”—arguably Booker’s flagship wine—takes no prisoners. With 22 months in French oak, its tannin structure is rounded and civilized, but make no mistake—this is a powerhouse of a Syrah. A deep, complex nose gives up layers of blueberries and smoke, white pepper, tobacco, leather and earth. Concentrated berry and plum flavors are dense and textured across the palate, with a hint of spicy chocolate. This red is both generous with its fruit and savory in its minerality.
Caliza 2018 Syrah Willow Creek District, Paso Robles
Carl Bowker’s Caliza Syrah is inky, plush and hedonistic. A deep, alluring nose opens with intriguing smoked meat, crushed herb and fragrant tobacco leaf layered with blueberry fruit. Generous, full-bodied and ripe on the palate, it delivers loads of plump berries—back raspberry, mulberry—through an incredibly long, textural finish. Bowker makes a Reserve Syrah as well (2018, $95), with beautiful black fruit, warm spice, notes of bacon fat, tobacco smoke, minerality and blueberry fruit.
Denner Vineyards 2018 Dirt Worshipper Central Coast
This irresistible Syrah from Paso Robles’ Denner gets a lot of aromatic mileage out of 1 percent each of co-fermented Roussanne and Viognier. The nose is downright seductive, with florals wrapping around a dark core of blueberries, smoked meats, black olive, espresso and black pepper. Real hedonism follows in juicy blackberry flavors layered with crushed herbs and anise. This is a very textural wine—supple and long.
Dutton-Goldfield 2016 Dutton Ranch, Cherry Ridge Vineyard Syrah Russian River Valley
Coming from a warmer spot in a colder region (the Russian River Valley), this Dutton-Goldfield Syrah manages a beautiful balance between brightness and ripe concentration. Gentle violet aromas join whiffs of white pepper and hints of grilled meat and dried tobacco leaf under blueberry aromas. Intense but vibrant berry fruit flavors pop in the glass, edged with a little savory bay and a lovely, rounded tannin structure.
Gust 2017 Syrah Petaluma Gap, Sonoma County
New from Megan and Hilary Cline, second generation of Sonoma’s much-loved Cline wine family, Gust makes wines from two properties the family has owned for many years in what is now the very cool Petaluma Gap AVA (well, it’s always been chilly, but now it’s an AVA). The 2017 Syrah shows its cool-climate chops in high-toned, earthy aromas that include violets, savory crushed herbs and pepper layered with blackberry. A bright palate, juicy with acidity, unfolds with intense plum, black raspberry and blueberry flavors spiced with anise and more black pepper.
Lucia 2019 Soberanes Vineyard Syrah Santa Lucia Highlands
From the Santa Lucia Highlands’ pioneering Pisoni family—with Jeff Pisoni at the winemaking helm now—this vibrant, earthy Lucia Syrah delivers the bold character of 100 percent whole-cluster fermentation. The nose opens with savory elements: pepper, exotic spice and minerality. Bright boysenberry flavors reflect the high acid benefit of this cool Monterey region, with cured meat and a savory herbal quality taking advantage of cool temps too.
Mira 2016 Hyde Vineyard Syrah Napa Valley
This beauty from Mira cofounder and winemaker Gustavo Gonzalez, formerly head red winemaker at Robert Mondavi Winery, is a welcome anomaly—a fruit-forward Syrah from a cool region (the Napa Valley side of Carneros, where Hyde Vineyard is located). A swirl of aromas includes white pepper, violets and cured meat with blueberries. And on the palate, the generous, plush berry flavors pop, balanced by a hint of a salty, savory side that, if anything, adds to the yum factor of this wine.
Myriad 2017 Las Madres Vineyard Esther Block Syrah Carneros
Seasoned Myriad winemaker Mike Smith produced an elegantly structured Syrah from cool Carneros in a difficult year. Its seductive nose roams over violet, blueberry, smoked meat and bay aromas, with an elusive iron quality underneath. A juicy bushel of fruit follows—berry, dark cherry, plum—edged with tobacco leaf and toasted spice.
Mi Sueño Winery 2016 Syrah Napa Valley
This dark beauty comes from Mi Sueño proprietors Rolando and Lorena Herrera—Rolando an immigrant from Mexico who got his start in the wine industry as a harvest worker at Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, working his way up to cellar master and Lorena the daughter of Reynaldo and Maria Robledo, migrant workers from Mexico in the late 1960s (and now with their own sprawling family vineyard and winemaking business). This Syrah opens with a little briny black olive mixing with blueberry and pepper aromas and scented with hints of salt pork, cocoa and tobacco leaf as well. A burst of briary berry and plum flavors follows, with exotic spice and anise, lingering with mouth-filling textures.
Optik 2019 Bien Nacido Vineyard Block No. 11D1 Syrah Santa Maria Valley, Santa Barbara County
The Miller family’s Bien Nacido Vineyard is well-known—much sought-after—but Optik is a new look at its terroir, a partnership with winemaker Joey Tensely. The first Syrah is earthy and ripe, its dark fruit aromas layered with black olive, leather and “garrigue,” that term the French use for all the wild herbs and underbrush in the countryside on a warm summer day. From a warm (in Santa Maria Valley’s cool terms) block of the extensive vineyard, the wine isn’t shy, weighing in at 15.7 percent alcohol. But its jammy blueberry, plum and dark cherry flavors are edged with savory crushed herbs, creating good balance.
Talley Vineyards 2018 Rincon Vineyard Syrah Arroyo Grande Valley
Vintner Brian Talley might have built Talley Vineyards’ considerable Arroyo Grande Valley legacy on Pinot Noir, but his 2018 Syrah is not to be missed. Opening with a swirl of blueberry, violet and smoked meat aromas, it conjures the Northern Rhône with hints of leather and warm underbrush as well. Bright, juicy berry fruit follows, layered with savory herbs and pepper. There’s perfect balance here between concentration and elegance.
Belden Barns 2018 Cadabra Syrah Sonoma Mountain
This character-rich Syrah from Belden Barns takes full advantage of 100 percent whole-cluster fermentation, hiding nothing with new oak (it’s aged in neutral barrels). Delicate floral aromas float over savory spices, herbs, a little cured meat, dried tobacco and black olive. Juicy, briary boysenberry and black raspberry flavors are sprinkled with exotic spices, all hanging on a chalky tannin structure, lingering on a finish that brooding—in the best way.