Syrah is still finding its way; Wines: Subtleties of the robust grape have escaped most of California's vintners -- but there's still hope.


The syrah grape of the Rhone Valley and the climate of California seem like a perfect match. So why aren't things working out?

On paper, the two seem perfect for each other. The syrah likes dry, sunny places; California can provide them in abundance. Syrah produces robust, flavorful red wines; that's California's strong suit.

But like a couple whose friends have pushed them together, this noble grape and this Golden State are having a bit of an awkward courtship. Their cheerleaders are confident that a chemistry will develop in time -- and every now and then there are sparks -- but so far relations are stilted and formal.

There is no question that interest in syrah has grown in California. About 15 years ago, assembling a dozen syrahs for tasting was near impossible. Now it's possible to visit a good wine store and buy several.

All you need to do to understand why California winemakers are so interested in this little-known varietal is to taste one of the great wines it produces in France or in Australia.

In the Rhone Valley, the syrah is the sole grape used in the production of Hermitage, one of the world's most breathtaking and long-lived red wines. It is also the principal grape used in Cote Rotie, a wine that at its best combines power and grace in a way that puts the finest Burgundies to shame.

In Australia, the syrah (known there as Shiraz) produces a boatload of solid, flavorful, inexpensive red wines. But old vines in top locations produce such treasures as Penfold's Grange -- the consensus choice for the greatest wine of the Southern Hemisphere.

California winegrowers and winemakers are apparently still struggling to understand the nuances of the grape.

In general, the wines I tasted were every bit as big as a syrah fan could expect. And the best of them were well-made, interesting, powerful reds with the potential to age gracefully.

All but a few missed some of the flavor definition the syrah produces in the Rhone. A taster struggled to find any trace of the pure black raspberry flavor that makes Cote Rotie so exciting or the black pepper and venison notes of a great Hermitage. California syrah is still not significantly more successful than petite sirah, a red varietal that outperforms its modest reputation.

What's frustrating to a taster is that the potential is clearly there. Many of the wines are on the verge of greatness but not quite there.

Does California have a future in the syrah business? You bet. It's helpful to recall that as recently as a decade ago California pinot noir was an international joke. Now the state's pinot noirs are worthy rivals to Burgundy itself.

Of the syrahs tasted, the following had considerable merit:

* 1996 Ravenswood Icon, Sonoma County ($27). Ravenswood's proprietary blend of 92 percent syrah and 8 percent grenache was the only one that approached the style of fine Rhone wine. This intense, complex wine is just packed with blackberry and black cherry fruit, and finishes with a fine touch of acidity.

* 1997 Qupe Syrah, Central Coast ($19). This soft, lush, silky wine comes close to achieving some of the texture and flavors of Cote Rotie. There's a hint of ripe black raspberry and earth, good complexity and charm, and a fine, long finish. All that's missing is that almost indefinable racy quality of a fine Cote Rotie.

* 1997 Everett Ridge Sonoma Valley Syrah, Nuns Canyon Vineyard ($30). This is a big, big wine with a ton of blackberry fruit and not a lot of complexity or nuance. But there is also a strong tannic backbone here and the hint of good things to come. There's a lot of potential here for collectors who are willing to let it rest a decade in the cellar.

* 1995 Fess Parker American Tradition Reserve Syrah, Santa Barbara County ($27). One of the most Rhone-like American syrahs, this wine boasts flavors of black raspberry, blueberry and smoked meat. It reminded me of a fine Cornas (the No. 3 red wine of the northern Rhone), only without the fierce tannins of that wine.

* 1996 Seven Peaks Shiraz, Paso Robles ($15). I'd rather this winery didn't confuse the issue by calling the wine Shiraz, but I can see why it does. It's very Australian in style with its big, leathery, blackberry jam flavors. It's a powerful, aggressive wine that reaches out and grabs you.

* 1996 Marietta Cellars Syrah ($16). This is a big, lush, chunky wine with notes of blueberry, chocolate and smoked meat. It's not the most complex red, but it's a satisfying value from an excellent producer.

Pub Date: 10/06/99

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