Before there was pinot noir, there was syrah — the trendiest grape circa 1998. Spicy with opulent berry fruit, it represented a big change to many wine drinkers who were stuck in the merlot and cabernet sauvignon mode at the time.
Grown in many parts of the state, from Mendocino to Santa Ynez, syrah is a sturdy grape that can adapt to different terroirs. Similar in climate to the Northern Rhone, the Central Coast has cooler early summer months that lead to a warmer September and October.
This slow ripening at the beginning promotes structure while the accelerated pace in the fall ripens the fruit. As a result, a lot of the syrah from these areas is as spicy as it is fruity. The same is true of Mendocino syrah, to a degree.
On the contrary, Napa and Sonoma syrah tends to have a greater accent on fruit. The same is true of the wines from the Sierra Nevada foothills and areas more inland. There are microclimates in all of these areas that create variation. And, of course, while this may be the rule, there are exceptions.
It’s this diversity that makes me think syrah is one of the most interesting grapes grown in California. You can spend a lot of money and even get your money’s worth on some very high-end examples, but there are many reasonably priced wines that are available as well. Here are a few that every syrah fan should try.
Klinker Brick syrah, Farrah, 2008 (Lodi): In Europe, winemaking is often passed down from one generation to another. Although such long winemaking histories are less common in the U.S., Steve Felten’s family has been firmly entrenched in Lodi’s vineyards for more than a century. Named after his daughter, this syrah is another jewel from one of my favorite zinfandel producers. Smoky with cherry and blueberry fruit, black olives and spice, it’s a steal. Suggested retail: $19
Eberle syrah, Steinbeck Vineyard, 2006 (Paso Robles): One of the modern pioneers in Paso Robles, Eberle was among the first to grow syrah in California. The Steinbeck Vineyard is named after author John Steinbeck, who spent a lot of time in the area. Without being overly massive, it’s a concentrated wine with vibrant acidity and lush berry fruit. Suggested retail: $20
Wind Gap syrah, 2007 (Sonoma Coast): Wind Gap is a new venture from Pax Mahle, formerly of Pax Wine Cellars. He makes a number of wines and other syrahs that are more expensive, but this wine is as fine a syrah as you can find from our fair state. With concentrated huckleberry fruit, bittersweet chocolate and black peppercorns, it’s a classic beauty. Suggested retail: $35
Pamela S. Busch is the wine director and proprietor of CAV Wine Bar & Kitchen in San Francisco.