When the first edition of Great Wine Made Simple was published in 2000, Syrah wasn’t one of the Big Six. When the second edition came out in 2005, it was. That should give you some idea of how the popularity of this other, other red grape exploded in the last few years.
Syrah is one of the many red grape varieties that spring from the Rhône in France. By itself, it produces a moderate amount of tannin, prominent red fruit notes, and — more often than not — hints of black or white pepper. Much as Cabernet Sauvignon is often used in blends, French Syrah is usually combined with a handful of other varietals to round it out, usually to bring down the tannin levels and to increase the fruit flavors. Although it is used through the region, the further north you go, the higher the percentage of the Syrah in the mix. For my money, the most interesting blend is Côte-Rôtie, which combines Syrah with a white grape, Viognier, resulting in a wonderfully aromatic, floral nose.
The other epicenter of Syrah production is Australia, where they call it Shiraz and the warmer climate tends to produce even fruitier wines, where the red fruit flavors dominate. California Syrahs can be made in either style, depending where they come from. I tend to like the one that express what California can do best: Big, darker fruit than you can get from France, but with more finesse than you see in most Shiraz.
Pinot Noir is my first red wine love. Syrah is my second. Some favorites in our cellar are the Andrew Murray “Roasted Slope” Syrah, Foxen Williamson-Dore Vineyard Syrah, Melville “High Density” Syrah, and E. Guigal “Brune et Blonde de Guigal” Côte-Rôtie.