Super Syrah!

 Syrah can do well in a wide variety of climates and produces wine in a number of styles, from drink-it-today fruity to structured and age-worthy. Syrah also blends well with Rhône varieties, Cabernet and a few others. Syrah is responsible for the great wines of Hermitage,  Côte Rôtie and St. Joseph in the northern Rhône.  It also makes fine wines in  Gigondas and Vacqueyras in the south, and is a major constituent in the blends from Châteauneuf-du-Pape and the Côtes du Rhône.

With a name change to Shiraz, it became Australia’s most widely-planted red starting in the 19th century.  Cuttings came to California as early as the 1880s, but the modern Syrah era only began there in the 1970s.

Syrah makes mouth-filling wine, strong on fruit — blackberry, plum, prune, black cherry — but also delivers earthy, peppery-spicy, mineral, smoky and even “meaty” overtones. Finding color, tannin and alcohol is rarely a problem. “I just wish everything I make was as easy to work with,” says Paso Robles winemaker Dick Eberle. Bill Crawford of Mendocino’s McDowell Valley Vineyards, home to the oldest Syrah plantings in California, says cheerfully, “There’s not too many ways to screw it up.”

From Vineyard to Crusher

Under New World growing conditions, Syrah is a pretty sturdy vine, not particularly prone to vineyard diseases. The main danger, in fact, is over-cropping; Syrah vines frequently need de-vigorating rootstocks, fruit thinning, reduced irrigation levels or other techniques to make sure the grapes have concentrated flavors.

Though Syrah can tolerate a range of climates, there are limits. In areas with temperatures of 90 °F (32 °C) and above, and little night cooling, the grapes can be flabby and deficient in acid. Grapes that are over-ripened by hanging too long on the vine can shrivel and develop burnt flavors. Since Syrah is a relatively early ripener, underripe fruit is rare.

Desirable harvest numbers for Syrah are 23–26 °Brix, pH in a range between 3.3–3.8 and titratable acidity (TA) between 5–6.5 grams per liter (g/L). Good Syrah can be made from grapes at the high end of sugar and pH readings; premium California Syrah is often harvested at 26–28 °Brix or with pH values up to 3.9. For commercial wineries, and especially for home winemakers, the fashionable trend toward high sugar, high pH grapes requires extra care in sanitation.

Fresh grapes should always be picked over to remove any parts of bunches that are green, shriveled or moldy before crushing. Leaves and other debris should be removed as well. Figure on seven gallons (26 L) of wine for every hundred pounds (45 kg) of fresh grapes.

At the Fermenter

As soon as the grapes are de-stemmed and crushed — or as soon thereafter as you get your hands on them — a modest sulfite addition is generally called for. Unless there is a mold problem, a routine addition of 25–50 parts per million (ppm) of sulfur dioxide (SO2) is adequate. That’s roughly two Campden tablets or two tablespoons of a 3.2% potassium metabisulfite solution per 5 gallons (19 L) of wine.

Any adjustments to basic grape chemistry should also be made as early as possible. If the harvest Brix is way out of line, consider adding sugar to raise it or water to reduce it. If water is added, remember to add acid to reduce the pH of the water.

This is also the time to consider other additions. If you want to avoid potential problems with spoilage and possible stuck fermentations from lactic acid bacteria, add 50–100 ppm of lysozyme. (For more information, see “It’s Lysozyme Time,” June-July 2002 WineMaker.) Because Syrah grapes generally have good color, color-enhancing treatments are usually not necessary.

Many commercial wineries do a cold soak on Syrah, a period of one to three days after crushing in which no yeast is added and the must is kept at a cool temperature, preferably under 50 °F (10 °C). This allows for a head start on color and flavor extraction without the complication of the higher temperatures achieved during fermentation. The must should be protected from air with plastic sheeting.

With hundreds of wineries in the U.S. now making Syrah, the last few years have witnessed a huge amount of experimentation with different yeast strains. This includes “natural” or “wild” yeast fermentations. The minimum requirement is that the yeast be able to push the fermentation through to a dry finish. Beyond that, there are a number of yeast strains to choose from, many of which have style implications for the finished product. Adding a yeast nutrient (DAP, Superfood) along with the yeast itself is also prudent.

Syrah needs a warm fermentation, at least a day or two with a temperature in between 80–90 °F (27–32 °C). For fermentations of less than a quarter ton of grapes, this may require wrapping the fermenter with an electric blanket. The yeast activity alone won’t generate enough heat. However, don’t overheat it; letting the temperature stay over 90 °F (32 °C) for even a few hours can result in a die-off of yeast and a possible stuck fermentation, as well as undesirable flavors. Gently punch the cap down at least twice daily. Monitor the temperature and the falling sugar level at least once a day, twice a day during the peak period of rapid fermentation.

A common fermentation variation in Australia is the “rack and return” technique. (For details, see “Do the Delestage” in the June-July 2003 WineMaker.) Sometime after the mid-point of fermentation, when the sugars have begun to drop precipitously, the solid grape cap is separated from the fermenting wine. The fermenting wine is then separated from the seeds that have fallen to the bottom of the fermenter. The cap gets aerated by being removed, the seeds get tossed and the must is put back together to finish fermentation. The technique gives the wine needed oxygen and reduces the harsh green tannins from the seeds. Using a new, clean fermenter, this separation and reconstruction is actually easier on a home scale than in large commercial tanks.

In the southern Rhône, grape varieties destined for ultimate blending  are often fermented together, to get the marriage of flavors off to a good start. If you’re planning a blend, and have the grapes available within a day or two, it’s a possibility. Another Rhône wrinkle is adding 5–10% of the skins from already pressed Viognier to a Syrah fermentation. This peculiar-sounding combination gives an aromatic lift to the Syrah and, oddly enough, seems to help stabilize the final red color.

At the Press

Deciding when to press is a stylistic choice. To maximize the fruity component, press Syrah when it still has some sugar left (2–5° Brix). Then let the fermentation go to completion without skins and seeds. By that time all the color has been extracted and any harsh tannins are kept to a minimum. For a bigger, more structured wine, press as soon as dryness is achieved. And, for the combination of maximum extract and softer tannins, it’s possible to segue from fermentation into extended maceration.

Extended maceration involves keeping fully fermented wine in contact with the skins for an additional period of days or weeks. This mixture must be sealed off from air exposure. While the biochemistry behind this technique is not entirely clear, in practice (at upscale wineries around the world) it seems to yield softer tannins. The wine still has plenty of structure, but exhibits less astringency. Experience has shown that a few days of extended maceration only make tannins harsher, but a period of three to four weeks between dryness and pressing can be beneficial.

Conducting extended maceration at home is a little complicated. It requires sealing the must to keep air away from the fermented wine. This is done by placing plastic sheeting on the surface of the must, taped down around the edges and pressed down with sand or some other weight. The temperature has to be kept under 60 °F (16 °C) to retard unwanted microbial activity. If this is your first Syrah, don’t try this at home. But if you’re going for world-class wine in your garage, this is one of your options.

Once the wine is pressed, most  winemakers let it settle for a week or so in the tank or carboys. They then rack the wine off the gross lees into aging vessels. Some artisanal winemakers press the wine directly into barrel, hoping to extract extra goodies from the gross lees.

Malolactic Fermentation

Winemakers differ on the perfect moment to start a secondary, malolactic fermentation in red wines. At home, the best advice is to initiate the secondary fermentation after the primary is completed, and to do it with a commercial malolactic starter culture. To be on the safe side, use a malolactic nutrient in the prescribed dosage. And make sure to test for a complete malolactic fermentation a few months after primary fermentation, and certainly before bottling. Sparkling Shiraz is one thing; malolactic fermentation in the Syrah bottle is something else again.

Aging and Racking

Like most reds, Syrah benefits from barrel aging. Producers in the Rhône often use American oak, a practice widely adopted in Australia.  California producers are more likely to use French oak. In either case, traditional Syrah production goes easier on the oak than, say, the norm with Cabernet from Bordeaux or Napa. A mix of a small proportion of new oak with older, even neutral, barrels or large-format puncheon and cask aging is common. It’s not that Syrah can’t absorb oak; it’s just that the fruit is so pretty it shouldn’t be buried.

If all your Syrah is going into a small (under 30-gallon) new barrel, consider taking it out after a couple months and rotating something else in, or blending with non-barreled wine. For small-scale production with the aim of wine with a young and fruity style, aging in carboys with small additions of wood chips is a viable option.

Keep storage containers topped up, rack periodically and pay attention to free SO2 levels. Early drinking Syrah can be ready to go in six to nine months; bigger styles usually need at least a year or 18 months.

Blending Syrah

Syrah gets blended all the time because it always improves whatever it’s combined with. Only a portion of the California Syrah harvest in the past few years has been bottled as varietal Syrah. The rest has made its way, often off-label, into rounding out and improving a broad range of reds — from Cabernet Sauvignon to Zinfandel to Sangiovese.

In the northern Rhône, Syrah generally gets bottled on its own. However, in Côte Rôtie — home of some of the most spine-tingling Syrah going — a dash of Viognier perks up the nose and softens the mouth. In the southern Rhône, Syrah shows up in every imaginable combination with Grenache, Carignan, Mourvèdre and a dozen other red and white grapes including, once again, Viognier.

Australia’s contribution to the blending mix is Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon. Talk about blockbuster wine: Instead of canceling each other out, these two big reds can combine to make sure every single square centimeter of your mouth has something to talk about. A few producers in California are pursuing a similar strategy by pairing Syrah with Petite Sirah.

Finishing and Bottling

If your Syrah was over-extracted during fermentation, picking up too strong a dose of tannin, a light fining with egg whites or another fining agent may be a solution. The best fining, however, is none at all. Every fining agent strips out more things from the wine than just the troublesome molecules that prompted the operation.

After a year or so of aging and three careful rackings, the wine may be clarified enough for bottling without filtration. However, light filtration  — at the five micron level, for example — does make for cleaner, more translucent wine. This has to be done very carefully to make sure the wine does not get force-fed with oxygen that will make it fall apart in the bottle.

Follow standard practices for good bottling. Syrah made with good concentration has a definite potential for further development in the bottle, assuming you can wait that long.

Making Syrah at home has plenty to recommend it. The wine can be very tasty as a pure varietal and a great resource for blending. Working with Syrah keeps wine-loving amateurs in step with the industry and adds spice to the home menu. Best of all, with the vast increase in vines in California, fresh and frozen Syrah grapes are more available than ever.

Syrah from Kits

Syrah is one of the great red grapes of the world. France is where Syrah first hit its peak as a top-quality winemaking grape. Wines like Hermitage and Châteauneuf-du-Pape use the rich, tannic blackness of the Syrah grape to give them their delicious mouth-filling flavor.

However, the French aren’t the only ones making great wine from Syrah. Australia relies on it as the workhorse grape for its red wines and some California Syrahs are wines of incredible length, rich fruit flavors and velvety tannic mouthfeel.

Kits currently available include Syrah from California, France and Australia. Note that many of the Australian kits are labeled “Shiraz” instead of Syrah. Don’t let the funny Australian spelling fool you — it’s still Syrah. In addition, there are blends available, usually Syrah/Cabernet, Syrah Mourvedre, or Syrah/Cab/Merlot. Smaller amounts of Syrah are beginning to come out of places like South Africa and South America (Argentina and Chile), but they haven’t made it into wine kits yet.

Each of these countries has its own typical style: French Syrah, including Hermitage and Châteauneuf-du-Pape, tends to be tannic, well structured and restrained on the berry/jam character, with well integrated oak. Australian Syrah is like an explosion in a jam factory after an airdrop of oak bookcases. California Syrah can be somewhere in between, either like French-style with its hair down or like Australian Syrah after finishing school.

If you choose to make a Syrah kit, the Australians, with big jam-and-oak flavors, are usually ready first for pleasurable drinking, with a tie between the U.S. and French varieties for length of aging required. The blended kits, especially Syrah/Cabernet, provide early drinking fruitiness, nice tannic structure, an extra hint of black currant aroma, and are often very well balanced.

The key to success in making Syrah from a kit, as always, lies in following the instructions. However, in terms of oaking, you could depart a little once you’re sure of the kind of flavors you’re looking for. Even though Australian Syrah kits have enormous quantities of oak included, they are always somewhat less oaky than equivalent commercial examples. If Château Plywood is your favorite wine, you could try adding another 25% more oak (say an extra ounce of chips) in the carboy after the wine has been fined. To my taste it’s like drinking wine in a burning sawmill, but many people enjoy the experience.

There’s a Syrah kit out there for every taste, especially if that taste is for rich, dense wines with lots of terrific fruit flavor. Mmm!
–Tim Vandergrift

Syrah, Shiraz and Petite Sirah

Syrah, Petite Sirah and Shiraz — they sound similar, but how are they related? Here’s the scoop.

The easy one is Syrah versus Shiraz. These are two names for the same grapevine. There are differences in the clones planted in France and Australia, of course. In fact, Australia — with its strict, island-nation regulation of plant material coming in and out of the country — has clones that were wiped out by Phylloxera in France at the end of the 19th century.

Exactly when and how the Shiraz name variation got coined and popularized is still the subject for detective work, but the term Shiraz has been common in Australia for over a century. Even in France, Syrah was long thought to have a Persian connection (Shiraz is a city in Iran dating back to antiquity), but that still doesn’t explain why only the Aussies adopted the name. Speculation about how Syrah made its way to the Rhône has included alleged origins in Egypt, Cyprus and Persia. Transportation could have been provided by the Romans in their imperial glory or perhaps the Crusaders in the late Middle Ages.

Well, so much for romance — science has spoken. According to genetic marker research, Syrah is the offspring of two undistinguished local grapes from the south of France: Dureza and Mondeuse Blanche. Both parent grapes exist in collections and scattered field plantings in France, but neither has been intentionally cultivated for some time. Because the happy parents and endless relatives are also indigenous to the south of France, a remote origin for Syrah is highly unlikely.

The Petite Sirah perplex went beyond the name and its offbeat spelling. Vines carrying that name showed up in records at the end of the 19th century in California, but the term eventually got applied to a miscellany of “black grapes” planted around the state. To make matters worse, the most highly-regarded Syrah vines in France were those that bore small grape berries (that is, the petite Syrah).

The DNA sleuths sorted this one out, too, and confirmed one of the long-standing theories: that California’s Petite Sirah was the French grape Durif, a cross between Syrah and Peloursin (another red), named after the viticulturist who developed it in the 1880s. Dr. Durif’s project proved to be mold-prone under French skies, but became a workhorse in California.

Choosing your Syrah Yeast

Any standard red wine yeast (Pasteur Red, Fermirouge will do the job in making Syrah, as long as nutrition is sufficient and the chosen strain can tolerate the alcohol level resulting from the Brix of the grapes. But increased interest in Syrah has naturally led to experimentation on everything from clones in the vineyard to bottle shapes on the shelf. Yeast strains in particular have gotten a lot of attention. Not surprisingly, some of the best come from Syrah’s homeland in the south of France. I talked with two winemakers — Ondine Chatten from Geyser Peak/Canyon Road in Sonoma County and Jeff Cohn, winemaker for both Rosenblum Cellars in Alameda and his own JC Cellars label — and got some tips on yeasts that get them excited.

For openers, there is a strain called simply the Syrah yeast (or SYR). This yeast was isolated in the Côtes du Rhône region and it gives what Chatten calls “the Rhône profile,” with more of the earthy and meaty characteristics as well as great, velvety mouthfeel. Cohn gives it points for “great color extraction.”  It has a high alcohol tolerance and is supposed to promote the production of glycerol, which may improve the mouthfeel.

D80 is another popular Rhône-isolated strain. Cohn says it yields “white pepper, black pepper and spice,” as well as “the darker flavors of the grape: black cherry, blackberries and wild raspberries.” Chatten notes that it does not ferment too quickly, an advantage for situations with limited temperature control. It also promotes tannin extraction, important for grapes grown in warmer climates.

Cohn also uses ICV D21, isolated from the soils of the southern Rhône, for its production of wine with subtle tones of earth, gamey, meaty and white peppercorn aromatics and flavors. Chatten adds L2056, a Rhône strain with a following in Australia, to the list. This strain is good for promoting more of the fruity berry character and less earthiness, right in the Aussie style.