Yes, the 2008 Shafer Vineyards Relentless, Wine Spectator’s Wine of the Year, has long sold out. It’s no surprise – it’s one killer bottle of syrah (with just a touch of petit sirah), made by one of California’s great craftsmen who is gainfully employed by one of Napa Valley’s finest estates. But what is all the more remarkable is that it was even nominated at all.
Why so? Since 1988, when its Top 100 list first appeared, Wine Spectator has nominated a cabernet sauvignon or Bordeaux blend or varietal 13 out of 25 times, and a Southern Rhone blend only four times. Systematic bias? Perhaps, but I suspect someone can forcefully defend each of those 17 choices and win the argument. Cabernet blends are as powerful as they come, and the finest age as gracefully as Cary Grant; and besides, who doesn’t love the full-figured, Brigitte Bardot flavors that a great grenache blend can take? I certainly love both, but at least for me, syrah is as fine as cabernet and finer still than grenache. And I love grenache. Especially any from Gigondas and thereabouts, but I believe in ranks and orders, and syrah is higher on my list! Only one other time has syrah enjoyed the pole position in Wine Spectator’s annual ranking, and that was Penfold’s Grange, way back in 1995. Of course, Grange enjoyed a renown long before the Wine Spectator nominated its 1990 vintage for top honors. Grange is often regarded as the Southern hemisphere’s greatest wine and the equal to any First Growth, but because it’s Australian my contrarian side regards Grange as distinct enough from Shafer to mark the Relentless as truly and remarkably singular. It is the first time that an American syrah has earned that most coveted spot on the Top 100.
I hope not the last, for California – and increasingly Washington state – is awash with great syrah. California enjoys a Mediterranean setting, and Washington state enjoys levels of sunshine greater than those of California (if you can believe it) and a cool climate. BOTH settings, oddly enough, are ideal for easygoing syrah. A large measure of syrah’s success is due to a number of pioneering winemakers affectionately known as the Rhone Rangers – Bob Lindquist of Qupe, perhaps the most vocal supporter of California syrah when so little was planted. We do have some Qupe in stock, but today a number of producers in both California and Washington state are crafting syrahs that do the United States proud. Here are just a few of them (and the ones I suggest, in no particular order, are: Charles Smith, Copain, Qupe of course, Betz, K-Vitners, Cayuse, Neyers, and some others we don’t even carry!) all proof positive that syrah thrives in the United States
Now, there is syrah from France and even Australia, but perhaps we’ll visit that in the future….