Syrah: The Most International Grape?

The Syrah grape has probably achieved more prominence in recent years as Shiraz from Australia than it ever did under its own name in its native Rhône valley. However great the wines of Hermitage and Côte Rôtie, they are overshadowed in the marketplace by the abundance of Aussie versions of the grape, and even by a few California renditions. Well, add two more “foreign” Syrahs to the list of winners: Banfi’s Colvecchio and Fontodi’s Case Via Syrah.

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Long-time followers of this post know that I am usually no friend to French grapes in Italy, but even the most dearly held opinion has to bow to evidence (except in politics, apparently, but that’s a subject for somebody else’s blog). The evidence in this case was provided by two successive at-home dinners that sent me searching through my wine closet for something that would match well with, for the first, a provençal-style eggplant quiche, and, for the second, beef short ribs braised in tomato sauce (red wine reduction, mushrooms, celery) almost in the manner of Roman oxtails.

What I came up with was, first, a 1998 Banfi Colvecchio, a 100% Syrah from Montalcino, and, second, a 1999 Fontodi Case Via, also 100% Syrah. The Colvecchio was grown in vineyards in the hot southeastern corner of the Brunello zone, and the Fontodi grew in the fabled Conca d’Oro in the heart of the Chianti Classico zone. Both bottles had slumbered many long years in my less-than-stellar storage until, at last, the moment for their star turn approached – and quite a turn it turned out to be.

However little it may be known or appreciated in the States, Syrah from the northern Rhône produces some of the world’s greatest red wines – most notably, Hermitage, which George Saintsbury in his famous cellar book called “the most manly of French wines,” and Côte Rôtie, whose name – the roasted slope – tells you a lot about the kind of growing conditions Syrah likes. It remains a surprise to me, for that reason, that California hasn’t done more and better with the variety, especially in these days of global warming.

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Jancis Robinson, in her huge tome Wine Grapes, describes the taste of Rhône valley Syrah this way:

Syrah’s flavours tend to be in the leather, licorice and tar spectrum with marked black pepper or even burnt-rubber aromas in slightly underripe examples but much sweeter black-fruit flavours in Syrah picked fully ripe in warm climates. Wines made from very ripe to overripe (and therefore thoroughly shriveled) berries can have flavours of dark chocolate and prunes, sometimes with porty overtones.

Those are, of course, the flavors of young wines that Robinson describes, and I have often tasted black pepper and traces of chocolate – dark, bittersweet chocolate – in young Italian Syrahs. But those flavors evolve as wines age, and my two examples, an 18-year-old and a stripling of 17, had mellowed mightily during their years in bottle. Mellow, in fact, was the first word that sprang to mind on tasting them – rich and round, not with “porty overtones” but with a surprising lightness and elegance on the palate. They both seemed very complete, in the sense that I couldn’t imagine any quality I would want added to their flavor spectrum: Their black fruit and lingering hint of black pepper couldn’t be anything but Syrah, but it was Syrah that had been to finishing school.

Neither was showing any sign of tiredness. I really don’t know how many years they had left in them, but it seems to me that I most luckily drank them at an ideal moment in their evolution. I only regret that I didn’t have the foresight to put away more of them. Who knew that this French grape would mature so well in the very different soils and microclimates of Italy? I probably shouldn’t be surprised considering who made these two: The Banfi Colvecchio was the handiwork of Ezio Rivella, who I recall took special pride in making truly textbook Syrah, and the Fontodi Syrah was overseen by the perfectionist Giovanni Manetti, who to my knowledge has never released a merely OK wine.

Lovely wines both, and very satisfying with the two different dishes they accompanied. If Italian Cabernet sauvignon could taste this good or age this gracefully, I wouldn’t be such a Grinch about it, and Bordeaux would quickly lose a lot of its complacency.

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