After visiting France in May of 2013 I experienced some of the finest wines in the world. But the wine that stole my heart was not what I had expected it to be. Just like me, many folks I work with and those I share my wines with have had a fascinating love/hate relationship with Syrah. Some of the finest wines we have ever tasted, and some of the worst, have been Syrah vintages from around the world. Slowly what I have found, after some research, is that every Syrah I have loved have had one thing in common…the same relative climate.
Syrah, is a varietal originating in the Rhone region of France, and is now grown in almost every wine growing region of the world, used by winemakers in blends or on its own. It brings powerful components that are enjoyed with food or on its own. Its flavor components span a wide range depending on the many influences from each region it is grown in, leaving most wine drinkers unable to track what they enjoy about the varietal or how to find a Syrah that will suit their specific palate.
Syrah is known by different names. Many people know the varietal as Shiraz if they enjoy wines from Australia or the central Valley of California. If they enjoy wines designated as Syrah, they typically like the wines from the Rhone region of France, the Northern States like Washington, Oregon or cooler regions of California.
In just a single vineyard, the elevation and sun exposure can change dramatically from one point to another. I have experienced 2 separate Syrah vintages, one grown on the west side of a vineyard, one grown on the east side of a vineyard. The two vintages were made identically from crush to bottling. The taste however was very different. The western part of the vineyard was protected from heat late in the day by a large mountain, allowing the vines a .5 degree cooler average temperature throughout the growing season. If .5 degrees can make a difference, imagine what 5 or even 10 degrees difference can make.
TASTE & STRUCTURE
The hotter the area a grape is grown in, the less structure the wine will have and the more dried/candied fruit flavors it will develop. The wine tends to be more sugary and have more alcohol. The cooler the area where the grapes are grown, the juicier and dark the flavors will be, and the more tannin structure it will develop along with acidity that will help in aging. Where the confusion starts is that both the commercial winemakers and Ultra-premium producers love the varietal for different reasons.
This is a grape that lends itself towards mass production because it can produce massive, yet smooth flavor in warm conditions. In places like Australia and the Central Valley of California, they allow the vines to produce as much bulk as possible, sometimes 20+ tons per acre. They allow the grapes to ripen past what is typical of a premium producer so that sugars are higher than normal. When crushed, a grape’s flavor comes almost entirely from the skins, and these large berries need the extra boost of a raisin like skin, that is coated by what can only be described as a candied syrupy skin. The benefit of Syrah is that it can grow in extremely warm conditions without getting terrible sunburn, which many varietals suffer from. This allows the producers to pick just about everything in the vineyards and make some wine out of it that is somewhat drinkable.
Ultra Premium Production
Production per acre will be very low, between 2.5 and 4 tons per acre. The berries are extremely small. Again, the flavor from a grape comes almost entirely from the skins, so the fresh, fleshy skins from a very small grape will be a much larger portion on the crush. They allow the skins to stay in contact with the juicy for a long period of time, letting the true juicy fruit flavors soak and really start to sing. Barreling is typically 14-22 months in high quality, fine grain oak that does not overpower this beautiful fruit and allows the vineyard to really show the quality and power. Some Syrah producers focus on finding cooler regions with a longer growing season in order to boost this affect even more. In some regions like the Extreme Sonoma Coast, the growing season can be almost a month longer than vineyards just 15 miles inland and the temperature difference is almost 10 degrees cooler. The most important part about this area as well as some other fine growing regions for Syrah is consistent temperature. Consistent temperature allows for even ripening of grapes as well and beautiful purity of flavors and most importantly, some sort of predictability for winemakers. They can pick the grapes at just the right time for optimum flavor and ripening.
The most important thing as a wine drinker is how the wine tastes. Knowing what each area provides in the wines is a huge factor in finding a syrah you will enjoy. We have established that temperature can greatly affect taste…what is the difference between one region and another. The average temperature through the ripening process of grapes includes both temperatures during the heat of the day and coolest period during the night. Typically, the cooler the average temperature, the longer the growing season will be allowing for darker flavor and more structure. The warmer the temperature, the more sugar will be present in the wine and the brighter the flavors will be. Also the higher the temperature goes during the hottest month, the higher the sugar levels will get.
WEATHER AVERAGES IN NOTABLE SYRAH/SHIRAZ REGIONS:
Extreme Sonoma Coast –
62 degrees between April – October harvest
Difference between coolest month and hottest month Avg is 8 degrees
Hottest Month August – High Avg 84 Degrees
Walla Walla Washington –
64 degree between April – October harvest
Difference between coolest month and hottest month Avg is 22.65
Hottest Month July – High Avg 89.6 Degrees
Chateauneuf Du Pape – Rhone –France –
67 degree Average between April and September Harvest
Difference between coolest month and hottest month Avg is 20.1 Degrees
Hottest Month July – High Avg 87.1 Degress
Paso Robles, CA –
69 degree Average between April and August Harvest
Difference between coolest month and hottest month Avg is 14.9 Degrees.
Hottest Month August – High Avg 91.7 Degrees
Barossa Valley Australia –
71 degrees between October – April harvest
Difference between coolest month and hottest month Avg is 11 degrees average
Hottest Month February – High Avg 84.7 Degrees
New South Wales, Australia (Kidman Way) –
72 degrees between October and April
Difference between coolest month and hottest month Avg is 15.5 degrees average
Hottest Month August – High Avg 91 Degrees
Temecula Valley –
72 degree Avg between April and September Harvest
Difference between coolest month and hottest month Avg is 16.5 degrees
Hottest Month August – High Avg 91.4 Degrees
Central Valley (Fresno) –
75 degree Avg between April and September Harvest
Difference between coolest month and hottest month Avg is 22 degrees.
Hottest Month July – High Avg 98 Degrees
AS ALWAYS : If you aren’t currently following THE VINTAGE….ya..just do that.
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