TexSom Syrah Seminar

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TexSom 2014, perhaps the most important annual sommelier conference in the US, featured a varietal focus seminar on Syrah. Syrah, loved for its complexity and age-worthiness, has to rank at the very top of the list of Sommeliers’ favorite varietals. The room was packed.
Firmly placing Ballard Canyon in the Syrah spotlight, moderator Josh Raynolds presented 2012 Stolpman Estate Syrah with 8 other Syrahs from every corner of the world. In his introduction, Josh Raynolds brought home a couple important points. As the attendees in Dallas began to try the wines, Master Sommeliers Bernard Sun, Robert Bohr, and Serafin Alvarado along with Rajat Parr; all of whom sat on the panel; brought up more interesting thoughts on Syrah. Here’s the recap:

A  S H O R T  H I S T O R Y
The prestige of Syrah’s motherland, Northern Rhone, is barely 30 years old. Robert Parker discovered the Northern Rhone with the 1983 vintage. After Robert Parker lobbed praise on Cote Rotie and Ermitage, American and international collectors began buying wine. Josh Raynolds described many customers returning bottles to retailers after trying to drink the tight, inaccessible young Syrahs immediately. The Syrah learning curve was just beginning.
Syrahs ascendance onto the worldwide stage transpired less than a decade prior to Tom Stolpman planting in Ballard Canyon. Prior to international demand, most Northern Rhone vintners could not afford to reinvest in their vineyards and wineries. The surge in efforts for quality began alongside Stolpman Vineyards’ development and pursuit for improvement. This simultaneous timeline seems to even the playing field.

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A  D O T  O N  T H E  M A P.
The first of the nine Syrahs presented hailed from Crozes-Hermitage, the largest of the Northern Rhone Syrah AOCs. The panel agreed that Crozes-Hermitage is the weakest Northern Rhone AOC and recommended searching wines out from the northernmost section of the area. When looking for value, Saint Joseph AOC gives more consistency and producers continue to push the quality envelope.
The next wine came from Hermitage, arguably the most heralded Syrah AOC in France. The panel reiterated that the appellation consists of only 300 acres. More striking, 85% of the vineyards are owned by 5 companies. About 300 acres of Syrah lie in Ballard Canyon but they are divided on about a dozen properties, offering variety and more room to explore different expressions.

S I R E N E v S Y R A H
While I’d hate to see even more confusion on top of the already complicated identity of Syrah v. Shiraz. The name Sirene refers to the older, pure breed of Syrah. Post World War II, nurseries refined Syrah clones in an attempt to create higher yields. Nurseries attached numbers to the strains they developed. While some numbered clones proved to produce extremely high quality, most notably 470, the Sirene clones, such as the Estrella River plantings that go into Originals Syrah and Angeli Syrah, produce tiny yields of sublime fruit. About 60% of Stolpman’s plantings would be considered Sirene, rather than Syrah.

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S H I R A Z  v  S Y R A H
Josh Raynolds highlighted a potentially significant trend underway in South Africa that will hopefully spread to the rest of the world. South African producers label hotter-climate, riper Syrahs as “Shiraz” and use high-shouldered Bordeaux shaped bottles. South Africans in cooler climates, picking earlier and brighter to show more Syrah character, label their wines “Syrah” and opt for the traditional slope shouldered “Burgundy” bottle. This delineation will help consumers select the style they prefer and avoid disappointment.
Mark Davidson of Wine Australia confirmed that, despite the trend for separation in South Africa, the dominant bottle shape Down Under continues to be the Rhone/Burgundy slope shoulder and the vast majority of bottles are labeled Shiraz regardless of style. As the cool climate scene picks up momentum and market share in Australia, we might see a transition to calling wines Syrah rather than Shiraz.

S Y R A H  I N  T H E  U S
After Syrahs from Chile and New Zealand, we tasted Gramercy Cellars Lagniappe Columbia Valley 2009, Copain “Hawke Butte” Yorkville Highlands 2010, and Stolpman Vineyards Estate Ballard Canyon 2012. Both the panelists and the audience were awed by how well the domestics showed, in fact, they stole the show.
A Sommelier asked the panel how they recommend selling Syrah in restaurants. The answer was brilliant: “Pour Syrah as the only full-bodied by-the glass red wine. If customers want Cabernet Sauvignon they can buy a bottle.”
The Seminar concluded with two Australian Shirazes which didn’t compete with the Americans. Not to dismiss Australia, later in the day, Ronnie Sanders, President of Vine Street Importers, poured me a glass of Jamsheed 2012 Shiraz. I ordered a case.