What’s your story, Syrah?

Syrah is an ancient grape, the iconic variety of France’s Rhône Valley and beloved around the world, whether bearing its own name or the popular Australian version, Shiraz.

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Like just about every wine grape with a history, Syrah comes with assorted birth legends for us to choose from:

• Perhaps the lovable (and enduring) legend takes us back to the Crusades. According to this story, the French warrior Gaspard de Sterimberg, sick of battle, rode home to the hills of the Northern Rhône carrying grapevine cuttings from Shiraz in Persia in his saddlebags. Planted in France, the vines produced luscious black grapes that made a wondrous wine, and de Sterimberg called his mountaintop home “Hermitage,” where he would live in peace and study war no more.

• Don’t tell that one to a Rhône wine maker, though. Back in the early ’00s I had a chance to stand amid Syrah vines atop the Hermitage hill overlooking a great bend in the Rhône. Looking out across the vineyards and the valley from our post next to Sterimberg’s ancient stone chapel, a wine maker told me a different story: Syrah, he said, has grown on the Rhône’s hillsides and valleys since Caesar’s time, when the Romans brought the vines to what was then Gaul.

• And now science, as it so often does, knocks over all the legends and brings us a factual, if not particularly romantic, next page of the story: Recent DNA profiling reveals that Syrah is a long-ago cross between two relatively minor Rhône varieties that are now rarely planted: The black-skinned grape Dureza and the white Mondeuse Blanche.

This lab-born reality eliminates both the de Sterimberg legend and the idea of Roman origin, but there’s a plus for the Rhône: Syrah is neither Persian nor Roman but originated right there in the neighborhood from a crossing of indigenous grapes. Vive France!

Domaine Gassier's sustainable vineyards overlooking the Rhône valley.

Domaine Gassier’s sustainable vineyards overlooking the Rhône valley.

One thing is sure: Syrah has been around for a very long time, long enough that the wine makers of the Rhône have gotten it right. Syrah has become popular in most world regions: As Shiraz, it’s the mainstay grape among Australian reds. It’s popular in California, and just about any wine-growing region with a temperate growing season has given it a try.

As of 2016, Wine-Searcher reports on its Syrah page, just over one-third of all the world’s Syrah was grown in France, followed by Australia with about one-fifth and Spain with 10%.

Syrah is often made as a single-varietal wine. Its style varies, depending largely on climate but also on vineyard and wine making decisions, from lean and green, laced with fragrant black pepper, to bigger, riper styles focused on black plums and blueberries and even prunes.

Ripen the grapes to high sugar and thus higher alcohol levels, perhaps load the result up with oak – as Australians and Californians often do – and you’ll get a blockbuster of a wine. Or blend it – Grenache and Mourvèdre are its usual companions, along with Carignan and others in some regions – and you can make a food-friendly wine that cam reach its most popular expression in the warmer Southern Rhône and Languedoc.

Today’s featured wine, Domaine Gassier 2017 Fleur de Syrah ($14.99) comes from the Costières de Nîmes, overloooking the marshes of Camargue in the far Southern Rhône. But its rich, dark, and complex style and minerality likely would not have made Gaspard de Sterimberg unhappy if he had been able to sip some in his Hermitage home. I highly recommend it. You’ll find my tasting notes below.


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Today’s Tasting Report

Domaine Gassier 2017 Fleur de Syrah Costières de Nîmes ($14.99)

Gassier Fleur de Syrah

So organic and sustainable that even its Smart Green synthetic cork is 100% recyclable, Domaine Gassier’s Fleur de Syrah is 90% Syrah with a splash of Grenache to brighten it. Very dark purple in color all the way to the edge, it offers appetizing aromas of plums and black pepper at first. Given a half-hour to open up in the glass, it develops more complex nuances: A whiff of violets, a faint undercurrent of licorice. On the palate it’s mouth-filling with good fruit-acid balance. Tasty black fruit and pepper notes last and last, with stony minerality peeking through. Hefty 14.5% alcohol calls for your attention, but the wine comes across as balanced and approachable, with tannins present but integrating well. U.S. importer: W. Direct, Lawrence, Kansas, and other regional distributors. (Jan. 25, 2022)

FOOD MATCH: The back label suggests red meats, stews, and spicy dishes, and that’s an easy choice for this sturdy red. The producer’s website offers a broader range of pairings, including mushrooms, which worked for us in an intense pasta dish of bucatini with roasted mushrooms in their own sauce.

WHEN TO DRINK: The winery suggests enjoying the wine now or cellaring it for five to seven years, and that sounds about right to me.

Wine-Searcher.com shows a $16 average U.S. retail; I paid a buck less. Frankly, it’s an excellent wine and wouldn’t be a bad buy for quite a few dollars more.

Here’s the producer’s fact sheet in English on the 2019 vintage; most of the details will be similar to this 2017.

Check prices and find vendors for Gassier Fleur de Syrah on Wine-Searcher.com.

Learn more about Costières de Nîmes at this Wine-Searcher link, where you’ll find dozens of other wines from the region with price and vendor information.

Browse Wine-Searcher’s Syrah info page with its Best Value Syrah Wines.


Wine Focus February 2022:
Syrah & Open that Bottle MONTH!

Bring your Syrah and join us in Wine Focus in our WineLovers Discussion Group in February, as we combine the topics Syrah (since Syrah day is February 16; and Open that Bottle Night, which comes in February, but we like to take the whole month to choose “that bottle” that’s been hanging around your cellar or wine rack for a long time, waiting for just the right occasion, and just go ahead and open it.

More to come! Check in at Wine Focus February 2022, and say hello!


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Good wines we’ve tried under $10.99!

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