My suitemates and I have been hibernating the past couple weeks obsessively watching the Sochi Winter Olympics, avoiding the snowstorms and consuming a considerable amount of wine in the process. Tonight, as we watch the women’s figure skating short programs, we’re celebrating with Syrah — a firecracker of a wine known for its signature spice.
But, before I start pouring, I’d love to address perhaps the most frequent question I receive about wine. People often ask me how a wine — made from grapes — can develop a cornucopia of seemingly unrelated flavors. Do winemakers add other ingredients to the wine while they’re making it? The full response is a lot more sciencey than my humanities-centric mind can fully grasp, but the basic answer is no. Simply put, each grape varietal has a distinct flavor profile that becomes transformed by the land and climate where it is grown — its “terroir.” The winemaker then makes a number of decisions during the fermentation, ageing, and potentially blending, processes that can both manipulate and contribute to the flavor profiles. California Chardonnay, for instance, that undergoes malolactic fermentation will develop a buttery flavor, or a red wine aged in new oak can adopt a caramel or toffee character. Ironically enough, wine rarely ever tastes like grapes, with Muscat or Moscato being the most notable exception.
Sommeliers will frequent farmers’ markets, sniffing everything imaginable to fine-tune their olfactory organs. With their highly cultivated senses of smell, they can then pinpoint these incredibly specific aromas before a wine even touches their lips. While the differences between dried rose petal and fresh rosebud, or candied Meyer lemon peel and lemon grove may seem absurd or pretentious to the casual wine enthusiast, these nuances can actually be incredibly informative to wine experts when discussing issues such as aging potential, food pairings and overall quality. That being said, wine tasting is a subjective art. Just because you smell something different than what the little blurb in Wine Spectator suggests, that doesn’t make you any less correct.
Certain wine descriptions may come off as surprising — if not downright unappetizing — if you’re not familiar with the lingo. Experts often acknowledge a distinct smell of cat pee in New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, or they may get a whiff of leather in Spain’s celebrated Rioja. But don’t fret — both can be viewed as complimentary in reasonable doses. Nevertheless, no winemaker ever wants to read that their product is reminiscent of “grandma’s closet” or “running shorts.”
But back to Syrah. The most historically elegant specimens come from France’s Northern Rhône Valley, where Syrah is the star grape in such revered appellations as Côte-Rôtie and Hermitage. Syrah is also used as a blending varietal in Southern Rhône wines — for example Châteauneuf-du-Pape and Gigondas. The first wine I’m drinking tonight, a 2010 Syrah by Louis Chèze, comes from the Northern Rhône. The wine offers a bouquet of black cherry and cigar box, carrying flavors of baking spice, coffee and pine forest to the mouth. Refined, yet robust, the Louis Chèze is classic Northern Rhône Syrah.
Outside of France, Syrah grows most famously in Australia, where it goes by the name Shiraz. Why exactly it’s called Shiraz down under remains a wine world mystery. Some oenophiles theorize that the varietal originated from the Persian city of Shiraz, but this legend still doesn’t really answer the Australia question. Syrah gained popularity in the United States in the 1980s after a group of American winemakers called the Rhône Rangers pushed for the planting of Rhône varietals in California.
The second wine I’m sampling — Klinker Brick’s 2011 “Farrah Syrah” — comes from Lodi, Calif., a Central Valley region east of San Francisco Bay (the city is also the subject of a Creedence Clearwater Revival song). At 14.9 percent alcohol, the Klinker Brick sits at about the maximum desired alcohol level for red wine. Notably stronger than the Louis Chèze (13 percent alcohol), the Klinker Brick offers a bolder, more aggressive, but nonetheless delicious New World-style Syrah. The spiciness hits you immediately on the nose and brings with it to the palate notes of ripe plum, bittersweet chocolate and burnt oak. This masculine wine definitely has a kick, and it will surely satiate anyone’s thirst for a big California red.
If, like me, you plan on watching the final events of the Sochi Winter Olympics this weekend, get in the spirit with fiery, internationally beloved Syrah before they extinguish the flame on Sunday. Cheers to the Games!
Both the Louis Chèze “Syrah” 2010 (Rhône Valley, France) $18 and the Klinker Brick “Farrah Syrah” 2011 (Lodi, Calif.) $21 are available for purchase at The Wine Thief (181 Crown St., New Haven).