It’s time to give syrah another shot

Speaking of a St. Louis restaurant years ago, Yogi Berra famously said, “Nobody goes there anymore; it’s too crowded.”

Something like that may have happened to the California red wine called syrah.

It’s an odd story. Produced for centuries in France’s Rhone Valley, with the mighty Hermitage red its flagship, syrah was considered a truly noble grape.

It was seen as an easier-going alternative to the muscular Bordeaux grape cabernet sauvignon. Syrah was inky-purple in color, with intense flavors of blueberries, smoked meat, tobacco, minerals and spice, with smooth, non-punitive tannins.

Exported in 1831 to Australia, where it was called shiraz, it reacted to the warmer weather by making a softer, sweeter wine that retained most of its Rhone cousin’s good qualities.

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So when it arrived in California in the 1970s, it was touted as America’s “next big thing.” For a while it was. Production soared.

But suddenly, in the late 1990s, syrah hit a wall. Because it was so popular, some California growers started planting it in the wrong places, picking it too ripe, vinifying it too sweet, in so many styles that it took on a generic quality.

Then, in 2004, syrah was blindsided by the movie Sideways — the story of a wine road trip by friends Miles, the wine snob, and Jack, the thoughtless guzzler.

In it, Miles declares his contempt for the red wine merlot, which was undergoing its own quality crisis, and his love for the subtle, hard-to-make pinot noir.

Hollywood showed its power over public opinion. Pinot noir sales boomed, merlot sales plummeted, and syrah was caught in the backdraft, its sales dropping as well.

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Times change. Lessons are learned. Merlot has clawed its way back into popularity with American sippers, and syrah finally may be doing the same.

California syrah growers are stressing the importance of planting syrah in the right places. Morgan Winery grows its syrah in the Arroyo Seco and Santa Lucia Highlands appellations cooled by nearby Monterey Bay. The grapes are certified both organic and sustainable.

In Australia, Terlato & Chapoutier winery is making single-vineyard shiraz from that country’s cool Central Victoria region, similar to France’s Rhone Valley.

Today good syrah remains the kinder alternative to cabernet sauvignon. While cabs go better with well-marbled New York strip steaks, syrahs excel with leaner meats like lamb, wild game, roast pork and such.

It’s time to give it another chance.

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