Are Domestic Syrah Styles Too Extreme?
From the mid 90's through the first part of this decade, Australian wine was all the rage, increasing in sales more than any other wine import in almost all categories. It was fueled in large part by value brands such as Yellow Tail, but expanded to include higher price points, mainly due to the huge popularity of Shiraz and Shiraz blends. As their popularity increased, the wines became bigger, thicker, more powerful and intense. Big, extreme wines tend to stand out in tastings, and often receive high ratings from wine critics. Then, a few years ago, Robert Parker gave Mollydooker Carnival of Love 99 points and Enchanted Path 96 points. The wines were so in demand stores had to take waiting lists for the wines, and Australia was on its way to taking over the wine world.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the coronation. Slowly at first, but then increasingly a backlash started against these fruit bombs. Among the complaints were that the wines were too alcoholic and lacked freshness, were one dimensional, out of balance and did not go with food. Certainly all Australian wines are not like this, but with Mollydooker as the poster boy for big, over-extracted wines, Australian wine sales plummeted. So what happens when you are losing your market share and even cutesy names like Laughing Magpie and Blue Eyed Boy don't help? Well, I guess you are left with "look what happens when you shake my wine!"
At the recent Hospice du Rhone tasting in Paso Robles three of us from Binny's were able to taste many California Syrah and Syrah blends. For the sake of argument, lets devide these wines into three styles.
Syrahs that were old world in style, medium bodied, with good balance and complexity. Qupe's lineup of wines seemed a good example of this style.
Syrah that was powerful and new world in style, but not over the top. These wines, while big, still had nuance and style, and would go with a hearty meal. I would include Foxen, Beckmen and Stolpman in this category.
Wines that are extremely powerful, thick and alcoholic, lack freshness and would not go well with food. Many of these wines are very popular right now, they stand out in tastings and tend to get high marks from wine critics. In California, they call them rock stars.
A winery that seems to be a rock star in the making is Booker, and we visited them while we were in California. The wines were definitely fun to try, and we bought a bottle of 2006 Alchemist (85% Syrah/15% Cab) to bring to dinner that night . It is listed at 15.5% alcohol, rather high for wine. At dinner we opened the Alchemist, and also ordered a 2004 Rhone that would retail for about half the price. We all ordered a beef dish, and sat down with the French Rhone (this one was mainly syrah) and the California Syrah. As tasty and fun as the Booker was at the winery, for me it just didn't work with the meal. The wine seemed heavy and monolithic, as opposed to the Rhone, which was nicely balanced and complemented our dinner.
To be fair, not everyone at the dinner had my problem with the Booker, and wine and taste is always subjective. There is plenty of California syrah in every style to go around, and on the whole the overall quality is excellent. Consumers should also know that there is more quality California Syrah under $30.00 than Napa Cab or Sonoma Pinot Noir. This trend should continue as long as winemakers remember wine is made to be drunk, not to win wine tasting contests.