Sunday, January 26, 2014

The noble grapes: syrah/shiraz


We may as well begin, more's the pity, with the lovely legend that is apparently not true.

Syrah, the grape, is so named because it came originally from Shiraz, in Persia. The vine was brought back from the Near East by a Crusader in the thirteenth century, one Gaspard de Sterimberg. He became a hermit and lived in a hut on a hillside in the Rhone valley in France, where syrah grows at its best. In fact syrah's most famous (and deeply expensive) wine is called L'Hermitage, after the recluse's home.

Sigh. Wrong, wrong, wrong. Wouldn't it be positively delicious if it turned out all this is true? It's possible, you know. Even though it seems we are forever learning that the grand things of the past really didn't happen, still each new cohort of professional historians has to earn its various Ph.Ds doing something. More often than not it seems they earn them by disproving whatever the previous cohort said, no matter what it was. Each generation gets to be brave, and call it "revisionism."

Of course, each generation can't rightly be revisionist without proof of its new contentions, and the proof is always in the written record. In the case of syrah, the problem with the legend -- the mucky old "mere reality," as Oz Clarke puts it -- is that the words shiraz and Hermitage, in reference to this grape and its wines, do not appear in historical records until long after the Crusades and long after the thirteenth century. (Anyway, what would Crusaders have been doing in Persia? Much too far east, surely. The Levant was about as far as they got.) It seems syrah was simply indigenous to the northern Rhone, that French Huguenots emigrating to South Africa in the seventeenth century took it with them, and then for some reason called it shiraz after planting it upon their arrival there. And the wine made from syrah in the northern Rhone valley was not called "Hermitage" or "Ermitage," in writing on paper, until the sixteenth century. That's what matters -- when do we see the words on paper? We tend to forget the first lesson of the subject of history, learned with luck in first or second grade. Pre-history means history before writing; it's the writing down of things that proves they ever existed. As the great Jacques Barzun says, history is not, for instance, a traveling display of dishes from the Titanic come to a big-city museum. History is "an event and a document." Your grocery store receipt, stamped with all those prices for wine and the place and date, is a primary source.

Anyway, for our purposes time has gone by and though we may never know why these words were chosen to go together, still now syrah, shiraz, and Hermitage link. The grape produces heavy, thick, "burly," fruity, "manly" wines, wines that, at their best, should age ten years or so in the bottle before being drunk. As is true of vinifera anywhere, climate and yield have their effect. The relatively cooler weather of the Rhone valley produces less lushly ripe grapes, and therefore syrahs of more acidity and less, shall we say, fruit-bombiness than are to be had under the blazing suns of South Africa, Australia (thither did South African immigrants bring their "shiraz"), and California. Heavy pruning is especially necessary for syrah, so that the few grapes left on the vines get all those nutrients and all that flavor.

There are a few technical details to file away in the memory. Syrah is the only red grape permitted in famed Hermitage, just as it is the only red grape of those wines called Cote Rotie, another (let us not forget the European style of naming wines for places) very small district of the northern Rhone. Strangely, a trace of white grapes, either marsanne, roussanne, or viognier, are allowed in both. There are also fully white Hermitages. There is no white Cote Rotie.

Further south along the Rhone, syrah is itself a blending grape, used to give power to the (red) grenache, mourvedre, and cinsault making up all those romantically named and even more romantically-spelled wines -- Chateauneuf du Pape, Gigondas, Vacqueyras and, what you are more likely to find in your local liquor store, Cotes-du-Rhone and Cotes-du-Rhone Villages.

In buying an Australian shiraz, the names you are ideally looking for are Penfolds Grange (winery), or Barossa Valley or McLaren Vale (places). For South African shiraz, you are looking for the name Stellenbosch. And no wine book discusses syrah/shiraz without mentioning the "Rhone Rangers" of California, a "loose-knit" group of ambitious young winemakers who got interested in syrah in the 1980s. Names like Joseph Phelps and Bonny Doon both rate a mention in books, and are likely to show up on liquor store shelves.

And how does it all taste? My past notes on Syrahs/shirazes I Have Known range from toast-jelly-hot-plum (Terra, Barossa Valley, Thorne Clarke Wines 2004) to tart-chocolate-raspberry (Barefoot Cellars, California 2005) to strong-leather-smoke (The Gorge, Hunter Valley, David Hook 2004) to vegetal-bare feet-Chinese food (Au, Barossa Valley, Aussie Vineyards 2004). None of these examples had aged for ten years. Obviously none, I am sorry to say, were French. The writers I have read seem to agree that the syrahs they have known put them in mind of leather, meat, smoke, and above all black pepper; but then Jancis Robinson also says burnt pencils, so I would hazard a guess that neither I with my small sampling nor none of us can be too far off in any case. The pepper flavors, especially, seem to be there for a reason, a chemical reason. Last summer, Harold McGee in his Curious Cook column wrote of the discovery of the chemical rotundone in shiraz grapes, rotundone being also present -- being, in fact, the most important aromatic -- in peppercorns. People who can smell rotundone (some of us can't) are able to detect it "at the level of parts per billion," McGee says, making it noticeable indeed. Too much of it gives flavors going beyond pepper and entering the realm of burnt rubber and Band-aids. Not easy to pair with dinner, whether a Rhone feast of garlic or a California vegan platter or, who knows, a bowl of hermit's gruel.

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