Syrah is the red equivalent of riesling: the wine everyone talks about but nobody drinks, the one sommeliers wish guests would order instead of the more usual suspects. And that’s too bad, because syrah is where it’s at in California right now.
Sure, there are plenty of California syrahs that aim to be nothing more than cheap and easy, in the mode of the Aussie “good drinks” that spurred them on. And there are other syrahs that wish to be in the Cult Cab crowd, thick and black with fruit, and glossed with the vanilla sheen of oak. Both styles have their place, but there’s another that’s emerging as of late: syrah that’s cool and lean, heavy on the herbs and lighter than usual on the fruit, shot through with an acidity that makes them feel frisky. With their power in sinew rather than size, they are excellent table companions, versatile and mouthwatering.
These tough-to-find bottles are made from grapes grown in cooler regions like France’s Rhône Valley, the Holy Grail for syrah lovers worldwide, and corners of California formerly written off as too cold to ripen the grape: the outer edges of the Sonoma Coast, the cool, foggy banks of the Petaluma Gap, or patches of Monterey County. Such extreme wine growing sometimes yields extreme results—dipping your nose in some of these wines is like walking into a peppermill.
Compelling, no? Unlike their bigger, richer compatriots, these wines often take time to show themselves, and have more details to notice as they open. Plus, at alcohol levels closer to 13 percent rather than 15, it’s easier to drink more than one glass.
Cheeses to Pair
Don’t be afraid to pair a bold red with cheese, here. Lighter syrahs are can yield to the creamy flavors of rich bloomy rinds, while frisky, peppery versions find a match in externally-rinded goat’s milk blues. If you’re unsure of what lies inside your bottle, you can’t go wrong with something milky, firm, and smooth: Vella Cheese Mezzo Secco, if you can get it, an Abbaye de Belloc, or any Alpine style.