ROTA’S RAMBLINGS ON WINE: Che Syrah Syrah

The headwaters for the Rhone River rise out of the snowpack in the Swiss Alps flowing west and south passing some of the highest vineyards in the world.  In fact, THE highest vineyard at 3600 feet is the Visperterminen Vineyard lying literally in the shadows of the Matterhorn. (Good trivia material.) 

The river flows through Lake Geneva and enters France in the Beaujolais Region near Lyon where it heads south to the Mediterranean Sea. With the Alps to the east and the Massif Central to the west, it neatly parts Provence from Languedoc and the Rhone Appellation begins at Vienne. 

The Rhone varietal – Syrah – has its origins in a grape growing region in the state of Fars in Persia midway between the Persian Gulf and the ruins of Persepolis about 500 miles from Tehran.  The Farsi capital and principal winegrowing region is Shiraz. This explains why the Aussies refer to this identical grape and its wine with this name. 

How it traveled some 3000 miles to France remains somewhat of a mystery.  One legend holds that a hermit monk brought it back from one of the Crusades and planted it not far from his residential cave along the Rhone River. Hence, the principal appellation of Northern Rhone memoralizes this monk with the name l’Hermitage and its surrounding area Croze Hermitage.

A more plausible theory lies with the Greeks from the sect of Phocaea on the Island of Lesbos who were known for their distant sea journeys, mapping such coast lines as Spain, the Adriatic and France.  They founded the French port city of Marseilles in 600 A.D. and most likely they brought the Shirazi grape with them.  Today, we should all be rather pleased that it emerged from Iran and, importantly, made it all way to the New World (Read California).

Meanwhile, back to the Rhone Valley which has two distinct climates.  The Northern Rhone region extends from Vienne to Montelimar a distance of approximately 70 miles.  Here, the climate is more Continental with adequate rainfall and hot summers that give way to an early fall and cold winters.  Two principal grapes are grown here along with peach trees and nuts – Viognier for white wine and Syrah for red.  As one could imagine,  the twists and turns of the river offer a variety of exposures to sun along with the river’s deposits and erosions of soils; Syrah ranges from powerful to graceful with a myriad of fruits and flavors that emanate from the terroir.  (Aromas and flavors unique to a patch of land. Called Lieux-dit – lee-yuh DEE – in this part of France)

THERE IS A POINT TO ALL OF THIS, I PROMISE.

The Southern portion of the Rhone Valley – from Montelimar south of Avignon to Cotes du Luberon some 55 miles further south – has a more Mediterranean  climate.  The weather is warmer and drier with warmer fall temperatures which guarantee consistent ripeness and lusciousness with each vintage.  Along with the olive trees and Lavender as far as the eye can see, there are some 20 grape varieties grown with appellate legality.  The signature grape in this region is the Grenache (originally from Spain where it is called Garnacha) along with Syrah and Mouvedre.  Some of the other grapes remain completely foreign even to oenophiles such as Picpoul Noir, Cinsault, Connoise and so on.

In this region, Syrah is never alone as it is ALWAYS a blend of at least two grapes and as many as 13.

Two things are common throughout the Rhone Valley.  Ferocious winds called the Mistral which blow with enough force to strip vines of leaves, shoots and even fruit.  This is why ubiquitous rows of cypress trees act as wind blocks and vines are head trained close to the ground to minimize the wind effects.  Stones, called  Gallets from the size of a fist to boulders proliferate vineyards.  The one positive effect of these two elements is the lack of mildew or any problematical rot.

This region is the oldest grape growing region in France  Some 2000 years ago, the Romans cultivated the vine here and sent wines to Rome that were superior to those grown around Cesar’s local environs.  As Rome converted to Christianity, the Faith and clergy expanded to the Roman outposts and expanded their own beacons of the faith.  All of this leads me to the most famous chateau in the Rhone Valley………………

Chateauneuf du Pape:  In 1309, Pope Clement V was installed as Pope of the Roman Catholic Church.  He was born in Bordeaux which meant that he was no stranger to wine and that he was quite content to remain in and pontificate from France rather than go to Rome.  In fact, he had vineyards in Bordeaux which is known today as Chateau Pape Clemente in the region of Graves. This “arrangement” was made because The King of France and the Vatican were engaged in a nasty dispute with severely strained relations.  The Pope had another small vineyard around Avignon and he decided to settle there.

It was his successor, Pope John XXII who decided to get out of the oppressive heat of Avignon and move to the more comfortable countryside.  He knew about a castle ruins nearby and after managing the Vatican treasury and setting it in order, he amassed funds to build his NEW CASTLE; since called Chateaueuf du Pape.  The massive and ornate structure was completed in 1338 and the good Pope died just a year after he moved into this summer residence.  In 1944, the Germans returned the structure to ruins by blowing it up as they retreated from the advancing Allies.

V. Sattui Syrah is like a Northern Rhone version and the V. Sattui Entanglement is very much like a Chateauneuf du Pape, as we will see later. Meanwhile, here is an overview of Syrah.

Syrah: While history holds many mysteries and shadows which give rise to legends, here is a more modern, unromantic version which I purposely omitted from all of the charm above.  A somewhat renowned UC Davis grape geneticist – Carol Merideth –  claims that Syrah was the result of a French hybrid of two uninspiring grapes – Mondeuse Blanche (white) x Durerza (red).  Be my guest.  Go ahead and embrace any one of these historical dimensions as it’s all right with me.  More importantly, let’s embrace what we have in our glass…!!!

No longer the domain of the Wine Cognoscenti, Syrah is becoming increasingly popular because of its food friendly demeanor and its ability to pair with a wide array of popular dishes. Like Zinfandel, Syrah and the vanillan characteristics of new oak are not well suited.  In fact, many producers – especially those in France – prefer to use only seasoned (older) oak to allow the innate personality of Syrah to dictate the character of the wine.  Finally, Californian Syrah lies scrumptiously between Australian and Cote du Rhone versions.   Nice place to be.

Here is a universal flavor profile for Syrah.

Fruit & Vegetable:  Boysenberry  **  Blackberry  **  Black Current (Casis)
Black Raspberry  **  Black Plum  **  Prune  **  Fennel  **  Black Olive
Bell Pepper **  Citrus (Orange)  **  Mulberry  **  Stewed Fruit  **  Fruitcake
Floral:  Violets  **  Tea Leaf  **  Mint  **  Eucalyptus  **  Menthol
Earth:  Graphite  **  Mushroom  ** Charcoal  **  Truffle
Wood (oak):  Cinnamon  **  Clove  **  Chocolate  **  Cocoa  **  Coffee
Toast  **  Vanilla  **  Coconut  **  Smoke or Char
Other:  Peppercorn (White & Black)  **  Sausage (Roasted Meat)  **  Soy
Bacon  **  Leather  **  Animal

The implicit black pepper in syrah invites the incorporation of spices and peppers into marinades, glazes, sauces, side dishes or condiments.  Dishes with a coarse texture work well with Syrah.  Polenta, Black Beans, even a sauce made with whole grain mustard provide a nice scrape against this ample wine.  Try French Cassoulet, Greek Moussaka and even good old American Chili (Rich but not too spicy) as partners.  Bouillabaise or Ciappino and other big stews show off well.  Barbecue Sauce from any region – Texas, The Carolinas, or St Louis as well as meat off the grill are great.

Keep in mind that Syrah is rich in alcohol and it will neutralize any dish with subtle nuances.  Also, as Syrah ages, it becomes like an old Bordeaux and it should be treated and paired as such.     

Marriages: 

  • Grilled Foods like a char-grilled steak or peppercorn-crusted tuna. 
  • Assorted vegetables like eggplant, zucchini or tomatoes. 
  • Thick winter stews or a one dish does it all
  • Pungent and wild flavors like squab or wild boar
  • Herbs – no matter – how they are added or infused match perfectly
  • Barbecue sauce and moderate spice

 

Divorces:

  • Most fish.  Flavors are thrown out of balance by the generosity of Syrah
  • Hot and fiery recipes increase the Scoville Scale because of the alcohol.  Trust me.  You’ll be reaching for a beer.
  • Sour Foods such as dishes with a vinegar base and tart vegetables like escarole or leeks
  • While Syrah pairs well with sharp cheeses like Extra aged Gouda, Dry Jack and Pavie Vecchio; avoid stinky, washed rind cheeses like Epoisses or Camembert, runny soft ripened cheeses and, at all costs, any Blue Cheese.

 

Once again, my favorite reference was at work here and that is Perfect Pairings by Evan Goldstein.  He’s the best and I strongly recommend getting his book which is available in our tasting room.

Here is how V. Sattui Winery Syrah fits onto the global tapestry of Syrah.  We have vineyards up and down the Napa Valley.  Vittorio Vineyard (57%), in the warmer heart of Napa Valley, yields ripeness, chocolate, sweet blueberries, loam and white pepper.  Our cooler, Carsi and Carneros Vineyards add refinement and subtlety.  In my personal evaluation, I saw lovely crimson colors, smelled violets and sweet smoke, bacon, meats on the BBQ along with that inherent black pepper and an elegant, creamy texture on the palate. It definitely represents a Napa Version of the Northern, more elegant dimension of the Rhone Valley.  Viola….!!!

Here is an expression found on a 17th Century Italian painting that said: 

Ricorda questo bene
Un barile di vino da’ quello che ha
Se e’ vino ordinario, e’ che cosa ottenete
Se si ha l’acqua, e’ cio’ che dovete attingere
Se esso viene riempito di Gloria……………..Allora!!!

Remember this well. 
The barrel of wine gives what it has
If it is ordinary wine, that is what it is
If it is water, that is what you will draw
If it is filled with glory…………………. well then.

CHE SARA’ SARA’…………..!!!

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