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Syrah Shows That Change Is Intrinsic to American Wine

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Centuries of wine tradition are ending in a single generation. In just the past few years we've been given premium wine in boxes and cans, $160 Cabernet with screwcaps and imported wine named for small marsupials - and it's all wonderful. Wine is good for us and the earth, and today's trends toward an easier, friendlier wine experience are all positive.

But just a short time ago, almost none of them were on the horizon. In fact, some of the grapes we now take for granted were still struggling for a place in American wine.

Take Syrah. In the early 1970s, there were a few Syrah vines scattered here and there in northern California, but they were usually mixed in anonymously with other varieties. No one made anything with "Syrah" on the label. The University of California at Davis had vines which it had propagated from cuttings taken from a famed French vineyard in the northern Rhône Valley, but the faculty was divided on whether Syrah was worth planting in California. So the vines remained in the university's teaching vineyard.

Petite Sirah, The Not So Little Prince

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fa_little_prince.jpgIt's one of the most heart-warming wine stories of recent times: a tale of love and loyalty, family tradition, and the perilous passage through deserts of neglect to reach the lush garden of commercial success. The hero of this romantic journey? A forgotten prince known as Petite Sirah.

Petite Sirah was born of French parents in the 1800s. His father was Syrah, long renowned for the famed red wines of Hermitage and Côte Rôtie. His mother was the less noble but passing fair Peloursin. Yet somehow they abandoned or lost their offspring. He finally turned up in Livermore Valley east of San Francisco, planted by Irish immigrant James Concannon in 1883. But no one knew who he was.
syrahGlasses.jpgMany years after the movie debuted, they're still giving "Sideways" tours down in Santa Barbara County, and they will be for years to come. That's how it is with movies that cement an image of a place in the popular mind. Santa Barbara's wine country is now Pinot Noir country, and that's that.

Except that it isn't. For some of us, Santa Barbara County's chunk of the massive Central Coast appellation is Syrah country.   It's where Zaca Mesa winery, founded in 1972, still preserves what it calls the oldest Syrah vineyard in the Central Coast and still makes illuminating Syrah. It's where Bob Lindquist went to work in 1975, and then founded Qupé to make some of California's first breakthrough Syrahs in the early 1980s. Those wines made it onto the wine list at Chez Panisse, which wielded more influence in those days than most people can imagine, and Syrah was effectively launched on its current rocket ride to star status.

California Syrah Recommendations

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By Thom Elkjer

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The marriage of Syrah and California has one of the hottest trend lines in wine. Ten years ago, the state had 800 acres of the grape ­ about 2% of the acreage held by Cabernet Sauvignon. Today it's on its way to 16,000 acres and growing faster than any other major grape, red or white. It's easy to see why. Syrah comes from a region in the south of France known for sun and wind ­ which California has in even greater abundance. It's easy to grow and easy to make into wine. And its flavor profile fits California's Mediterranean-style dining trends like a lock and key.

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