California Syrah

2004 was a warm year yeilding ripe, balanced wines from Napa Valley. It's a classic vintage.


Demand for California Syrah is down so value is up. Way up!

For a brief moment Syrah was to be California's "next big thing". Pinot Noir, easier to understand and fruitier, grabbed the spotlight and refused to let go, leaving Syrah waiting in the wings.

While this has frustrated many producers, it's a boon for consumers! Syrah's complex character and adaptability have made them some of the best values around. With their assertive flavors, medium body, and ability to age and improve in the cellar it's about time Syrah gets your attention.

These are wines that easily reveal a wonderful sense of place and are versatile partners at the table. Find out more about Syrah here, or enjoy these wonderful selections from 2 great vintages.

2004 was a warm year yeilding ripe, balanced wines from Napa Valley. It's a classic vintage.

Burgess is a classic producer whose Syrah comes from their Howell Mountain estate. Using both French and American oak they add layers of complexity to their finished wine.

2004 Burgess Napa Valley Syrah
Packed with peppercorn and floral nuances that frame classic blackberry fruits on the nose. This offers something for everyone with vanilla, coffee and earth tones accentuating the ripe, plummy palate. Fun, zesty and delicious!

The Santa Ynez Valley offers a cooler climate revealing a more nuanced style of Syrah.

Zaca Mesa was a pioneering winery in Santa Barbara and continues to lead the way with their cool climate, estate grown wines and focus on Rhone varieties.

2004 Zaca Mesa Santa Ynez Valley Syrah
Slightly herbaceous and wonderfully fresh on the nose, this has the sweet/sour tension on the palate that makes Syrah so appealing. Juicy and bright with lovely earthy, meaty edges to the red berry fruit.

The 2006 growing season was cool and long allowing for ripe yet transparent wines from Santa Barbara.

Qupé pioneed working with Rhone varieties in Santa Barbara and helped to establish the region as a premier source for both white and red wines.

2006 Qupé Bien Nacido Syrah
A distinctively styled Syrah with plenty of peppery notes on the nose as well as hints of grilled meats and crushed autumnal flowers. Elegant and fresh in the mouth with lovely wild red berry fruit, crisp tannis and lingering middle eastern spice notes.

Paso Robles is quickly emerging as a great region for boldly styled wines.

Justin has long been at the forefront of Bordeaux styled wines from Paso Robles, and has lead the way introducing new varieties such as Syrah.

2006 Justin Paso Robles Syrah
A soft, rich wine full of deep, dark blackberry fruit accented by vanilla and wood spice tones. Bold in the mouth with a supple texture and a velvety richness that tapers out on the soft finish.

Syrah originally gained prominence in France's Rhone valley where famous hillsides produce the renowned wines of Hermitage, Cote Rotie and Cornas. Under the rather austere conditions that are prevalent on these slopes, hot, dry winds rake over the vines, which are rooted, in poor, granitic soil, the vines struggle for their very existence. The results can be incredibly elegant, if rich, wines that not only express the fruit of Syrah but also reveal it's deep, meaty and olive scented side as well as the raw elements of the ground from which the grapes come.

In California the growing conditions are rather different, in fact very different. Syrah is grown virtually all over the state and while it's a grape that loves the heat, it's also a grape that can manage very well without it. Some grapes, Cabernet springs to mind, really need to be quite mature to produce wines that are not excessively marred by green flavors and unripe tannins.

Syrah on the other hand tends to ripen perhaps more evenly so that even not perfectly ripe grapes have a balance that keeps the herbal character in check. This tendency combined with the ability to manage vines more precisely than ever has allowed for a fundamental shift in the styles of Syrah on offer from the varied vineyards of California.

In the past, the scene was dominated by big, burly wines full of jammy dark berry fruit and the smoky, peppery nuances Syrah is famous for. The wines lacked much definition yet were rich and mouth filling. By moving to the hillsides of warmer regions such as Napa Valley as well as cooler climes such as the breezy hills of Santa Barbara producers have been able to throttle back the sugar levels of their wines.

The results are wines that more closely resemble the great wines of the Rhone valley. While there is no way to remove the California-ness of these wines, and very little reason to, producers have been able to add certain elements that one encounters in the classics. Wines that once could only be considered to be fruit bombs now have notes of flowers and herbs balancing out the roasted meat and pepper tones of ripe Syrah. Where once there was softness at the heart of these wines, now ripe tannins and a touch of acid can be found. The results are some of the most open yet complex wines to come from California; wines that stay true to the grape, yet are able to express the terroir of their sites like few others.

It is both interesting and sad that while producers have finally begun to unravel the intricacies of success with Syrah in California, consumers seem to be shunning the grape. Retailers across the country have found Syrah to be a tough sell in general and the rather vague notions the consumers have about California Syrah make it easy to dismiss.

Fruity and accessible Pinot Noir has established itself as the alternative to burly Cabernet, yet few people realize how much Pinot is improved by more than a dollop of Syrah. In fact during the wine glut that has taken hold of the market recently Syrah is one of the few grapes to actually have become more expensive as the winemakers compete for the relatively limited supply, winemakers who want to amp up their Pinot that is.

Will no one come to the rescue of lowly Syrah? I will. It s among the best that California has to offer with a complexity and ageability that rivals that of King Cabernet yet is priced more like Zinfandel, another favorite of mine but that is another story. So why don't you shoot me an email with your favorite California Syrah, or maybe a Syrah story and let's see.

Mentioned in this article


  • Snooth User: Philip James
    Founding Member Hand of Snooth Voice of Snooth
    1 12,575

    new pages, new things to learn!

    Aug 18, 2009 at 1:43 PM

  • Snooth User: John Andrews
    Hand of Snooth Voice of Snooth
    36106 3,448

    second attempt ...

    I would have to agree that there are a lot of great values in California Syrah. It seems the Central Coast gets most of the attention I believe that Sonoma is producing some great quality Syrah wines at decent prices.

    Here are a few I like which I think are steals:

    The Tin Barn Syrah opens up nicely and has great balance and nice bit of spice. And at the price is a steal.

    La Crema is nationally known for their Pinot and Chardonnay but you can get a rich Syrah directly from the winery (or website).

    Then there are a few that are bit more expensive but are very expressive:

    Parmelee-Hill is a place where source a lot of grapes but is used by a number of wineries. Their own wine is pretty good:

    Peay is one winery I very much respect and is one of the few syrahs I will buy that isn't made at the winery I work at (Loxton Cellars):

    Saxon Brown has impressed me in the past but I haven't tried anything recently:

    Of course, I could recommend Loxton Syrahs but that isn't cool ... but I can recommend you drop by to taste them.

    Aug 28, 2009 at 3:23 AM

  • Snooth User: Gregory Dal Piaz
    Hand of Snooth Voice of Snooth
    89065 238,749

    I am a big fan of Saxon Brown and in fact am working on a note tot hem at this very moment!

    Peay as well, really a deft touch with the grape.

    Parmalee Hill is of course one of the premier vineyards for Syrah in California. I look forward to trying their own bottlings.

    I am totally in agreement with you about Sonoma Syrah. In many ways I think it can end up being their Pinot Noir, in that it can be an alternative to Cab based wines.

    I have more Syrah in the tasting room so expect a follow up article soon!

    Thanks for the comment.

    By second attempt did you mean that you tried posting once and it did not stick?

    Aug 28, 2009 at 10:34 AM

  • Snooth User: Philip James
    Founding Member Hand of Snooth Voice of Snooth
    1 12,575

    2nd attempt John - something broke 1st time?

    Aug 28, 2009 at 3:19 PM

  • Snooth User: John Andrews
    Hand of Snooth Voice of Snooth
    36106 3,448

    @Philip, @Greg - yeah, I tried to post this earlier but not sure if it 'took'. I think I didn't hit the 'post' comment the second time after I had written it. Count it as user error.

    Aug 31, 2009 at 1:31 PM

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