Syrah

Syrah grapes

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 Mourvedre-based Esprit de Beaucastel blends (typically 20-35% of each, depending on vintage) and makes a wonderfully dark, spicy varietal wine, which we've made most years since 2002.

Early History

Syrah is one of the oldest established grape varietals in the Côtes du Rhône region of southern France, and competing stories abound about its origin.

One legend attributes its arrival in France to the Phocaeans of Asia Minor, who brought the grape from Shiraz, Persia when they established Marseilles around 600 BC. Another story claims that Romans brought the varietal from Syracuse, in Sicily, to the Rhône in the 3rd century AD. It seems most likely, however, that Syrah is a native French grape, as DNA testing led by U.C. Davis's Carole Meredith confirmed that it is the offspring of two grapes (Dureza and Mondeuse Blanche) from southeastern France. Whatever its origin, Syrah was well established in the vineyards surrounding the Rhône village of Tain-l’Hermitage by the 13th century.

Syrah Around the World

Syrah is most closely associated with the Northern Rhône appellations of Hermitage and Côte-Rotie, where it produces wines of phenomenal elegance and longevity. 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. In the 1650s, South Africa was the first country outside France to plant Syrah, but it has never been more than a minor variety there. In Australia, however, where it arrived at the end of the 18th Century, it has become the most widely planted grape in that country.

In the northern Rhône, Syrah is typically made as a varietal wine, at times co-fermented or blended with small amounts of Viognier.  In the southern Rhône, Syrah is an important blending varietal, and second only to Grenache in acreage.  It partners lends to Grenache-based blends darker color, structure, tannin and ageability.

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. As California winemakers recognize its potential, the acreage increased nearly one hundredfold in ten years, and 101,500 tons of Syrah were harvested in California in 2002. Syrah is now the most widely planted Rhône varietal in California, with 19,226 acres planted in 2009. Although it is occasionally confused with the California varietal Petite Sirah, they are separate varietals (experts believe most of what is called Petite Sirah is a cross of the varietals Peloursin and Durif).

Syrah at Tablas Creek

When we began Tablas Creek Vineyard in 1990, we were not completely satisfied with the variety of clonal selections of California Syrah vines. So, when we brought our other Rhone varieties from france, we included four different clones of Syrah.  These clones were propagated in the Tablas Creek nursery, and we planted our first Beaucastel-clone Syrah blocks in 1994.

Syrah in the Vineyard and Cellar

Syrah is quite vigorous and thrives when given warm days, poor soils, and sun. Because it is so vigorous, it requires extra canopy management (to expose the fruit to the sun for ripening) and aggressive crop thinning. Unlike most other varietals, its canes extend down toward the ground rather than up toward the sun, and therefore it is the one varietal permitted to be trellised instead of head-pruned in Châteauneuf-du-Pape. It ripens earlier than any of the other red Rhône varietals, and we typically harvest it throughout the month 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. Currently, we have approximately 13 acres of Syrah planted at Tablas Creek, which represents about 25% of our red Rhône production.

Flavors and Aromas

The Syrah grape itself is thick-skinned and dark, almost black. Wines made from Syrah are intense with a dark purple-black color. The wines taste of blackberry and black raspberry fruit, smoke, tar and black pepper, and have a smooth supple texture. Syrah reflects minerality well, and the chalky character of the tannins provides a wonderful backbone to softer, fruitier varietals such as Grenache and Counoise.

In our Mourvèdre-based Esprit de Beaucastel, Syrah provides a deep blackish-purple color, minerality, spice, longevity and back-palate tannins.  In our Grenache-based Côtes de Tablas, Syrah cuts the apparent sweetness of Grenache and produces wines that are more balanced between sweet and savory notes, with more mineral and spice.

Since 2002, we have bottled Syrah most years as a single varietal in limited quantities.  In some vintages this is blended with a small quantity of Grenache, whose higher acidity opens up Syrah and focuses its fruit.

This article originally appeared in a recent quarterly newsletter. 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.

Events

En Gobelet Vertical Tasting and Dry Farming Exploration

Since 2007, we have made our En Gobelet exclusively from dry-farmed, head-trained vineyard blocks. The results have been so compelling that we're planning to plant our entire new parcel -- all 55 acres -- in this style over the coming decade. Join us for this vertical tasting of every vintage of En Gobelet, from the 2007 to the newly-blended 2014. We'll also offer, before the tasting, an optional hike led by Viticulturist Levi Glenn through the rugged Scruffy Hill block from which we source most of the wine, and finish with a picnic lunch on our patio. $60 for wine club members and $75 for guests. Reservations are essential; we expect this to sell out. To reserve, email us at events@tablascreek.com or call us at 805.237.1231 ext 30.  Details & More Events »


Tablas Creek News

MA Shipping Permit Received!

We are thrilled to announce that we've received our shipping permit from the great state of Massachusetts. Residents of the Bay State can now order wine or become VINsider Wine Club members.  More shipping news »

Antonio Galloni 8/14: 30 Wines 90+

In August, Antonio Galloni published the results of his annual visit to Tablas Creek, and we were excited to receive such good reviews from this notoriously tough grader. Notes included the 2012 Esprit de Tablas Blanc (92 points; “impeccably refined”), 2011 Panoplie (94 points; "pure elegance"), 2012 Patelin de Tablas (90 points; “a gorgeous wine and a fabulous value”), and the 2012 Esprit de Tablas (93-95 points; "a fascinating Esprit to follow over the coming years"). Read the complete review » More recent press »


On the Tablas Blog

Checking in on the 2007 Esprit de Beaucastel

May 29, 2015
The 2007 Esprit de Beaucastel is our highest-rated Esprit to date. It got mid-90s ratings from Robert Parker, Stephen Tanzer, and the Rhone Report, and capped off its year by being named the Wine Spectator's #33 wine of 2010. And we sold most of what we had, fast. We typically keep two year's supply of our Esprit red for our tasting room, so we can show two different vintages to people. Because of its ratings, and because it was so showy, we sold our two years' worth in one year. And I understand why: it was luscious and powerful, with big tannins cloaked by generous fruit and an underlying meaty wildness that kept the wine from coming across as either simple or sweet. I'm sure much of it was drunk within a few months of when it was purchased, and enjoyed. Read More »