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Syrah is an actor, handsome and striking, capable of a range of different expressions, sympathetic to them all and a true team player. Andrew Jefford, wine writer

Syrah, also known as Shiraz, is a varietal that is increasingly popular among wine amateurs. So, for our latest wine tasting dinner, we chose to blind taste six different Syrah-based wines from Australia, California and France. The tasting revealed different style preferences among the tasters although there was one clear winner and one clear loser.

Characteristics of the grape

For a long time, Syrah was thought to have grown around the city of Shiraz in ancient Persia (modern Iran). In fact, the latest DNA research shows that Syrah is the offspring of two obscure French varietals, Dureza and Mondeuse Blanche, the former from the Rhône Valley, the latter from Savoie.

To ripen fully, Syrah demands a warm climate and thrives in poor soils where it produces deep purple-colored, ageworthy wines that are dense and rich. In warmer climates like Australia, the aromas are generally sweeter and riper tasting, and in cooler climates like the Rhône valley, it presents more peppery and spicy flavors. When blended, Syrah provides a strong backbone to softer, fruitier varietals such as Grenache or Viognier. It is also often associated with Mourvèdre, Cinsault, and even Cabernet Sauvignon.

The wines

We started with the 2002 Two Hands Angel's Share Shiraz. It was the wine that we liked so much during our last Shiraz tasting. Here, the group had more nuanced opinions about it. Showing a dark color, the nose displayed herbal and spicy aromas with a hint of apricot. On the palate, it was found young and tannic with notes of licorice and mint, followed by a persistent finish. The wine was ranked second but not far from the other wines placed in third position.

With the second wine, we moved to Cornas in the Rhône Valley. The 2000 Cornas Nobles Rives is produced by the co-operative Cave de Tain l'Hermitage. The wine was nobody's favorite. The nose was earthy and dusty with some notes of tar and pepper. On the palate, it was acidic with not enough body, which overall made it unbalanced.

The next wine was a Syrah/Zinfandel blend from Limerick Lane, a small, exclusively estate producer from Russian River Valley, specializing in Zinfandel and Syrah made from old vines. The 2003 1023 by Limerick Lane Collins Vineyard Russian River Valley exhibited a jammy nose with notes of mandarin orange and caramel. On the palate, it was round and sweet, almost candy-like, with a medium finish. Personally, I found it too jammy, maybe because of the Zinfandel in the blend. It ended up being placed in fifth position, just a few points shy of the other wines.

The next wine was the clear winner of the evening. Coming from the Santa Cruz Mountains, a grape-growing region south of San Francisco, unique for its cool maritine influence, mountain terrain and distinctive soils, it was a Syrah produced by David Bruce Winery, a Pinot Noir specialist and one of the first winery established in the Santa Cruz Mountains in the early 60's. The 2001 David Bruce Syrah Santa Cruz Mountains had a blackberry nose with additional dried herbs aromas. One taster characterized it as "a nice Syrah smell". On the palate, it was rich with firm tannins followed by a well-balanced and elegant finish. I found it very food friendly and delicious with our dinner dish, a daube provencale.

The following wine was identified by several tasters as coming from Australia. The Jasper Hill Emily's Paddock Shiraz Cabernet Franc was produced by Jasper Hill, an organic grower of premium fruit and maker of highly sought after wines. The winery is located in Heathcote, a small wine region in Central Victoria, known for its rich and intense Shiraz. The wine exhibited an intense fruity nose, some tasters finding it almost too bold, "a punch on the nose". On the palate, it was rich and spicy with a persistent finish. The wine was ranked #3, just a point away from the Two Hands Angel's Share.

Our last wine was also placed in third position but based on a very different style. It was a Syrah from the California Central Coast, a region enjoying increasing success with Rhône varietals. The 2000 Bishop's Peak Syrah Central Coast offered a distinguished nose with bing cherry aromas and jasmine undertones. On the palate, it was smooth and balanced with a medium finish. Some tasters found the wine too weak. Personally I enjoyed drinking it and surprisingly I found this wine and the Two Hands Angel's Share to have closely related aromas.

At the end of the tasting, we also tried the 1999 Alban Syrah Central Coast. It was a huge wine, with a dark purple color, an intense fruity nose and a rich and smooth palate. It is the kind of wine that is harder to pair with food but can easily stand by itself.

See our other tasting reports.